painting by Holly Suzanne
“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth” – Pema Chodron
I modeled for the painting above. It is propped beside the bed as I write. A large painting, and heavy, maybe 4.5 feet long and 3.5 feet tall, loaded with layers of paint. She called it “Praying Man,” but I wasn’t praying – the way it turned out I felt like a longshoreman, a hauler, tensed with the energy of pulling things out from the deeps. I see why she called it that.
We’re reorganizing the house, and in that process I notice what’s gone, and discover things forgotten. Today it was When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron, “heart advice for difficult times.” I’ve depended on this one before. It’s written with the situation in mind in which a human feels there is nowhere to escape. Suffering floods in weights that compress one toward no option. Chodron says that “No one ever tells us to stop running away from fear…the advice we usually get is to sweeten it up, smooth it over, take a pill, or distract ourselves…but by all means make it go away.” “We don’t need that kind of encouragement, because dissociating from fear is what we do naturally.” “Cheating ourselves of the present moment” according to Chodron.
Instead, she suggests, “we could step into uncharted territory and relax with the groundlessness of our situation…by inviting in what we usually avoid…adopting a fearlessly compassionate attitude toward our own pain and that of others.” I am taking this on as the work of the “praying man.” The longshoreman and hauler, reeling hand over hand over heart over hurt into the tumult of the pain of being. “…getting to know fear, becoming familiar with fear, looking it right in the eye – not as a way to solve problems, but as a complete undoing of old ways of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and thinking…having the courage to die, the courage to die continually.” The traditions align. “He who saves his life will lose it.” The terror that drives the boundaries, isolates the organism. Protectiveness cuts the supply chain. Security stanches generative flow.
What happens when we stay? Nailed to the present misery. Chodron suggests that when we move into rather than away from our life-threatening pain a kind of catharsis can occur – an acceptance that we are “precious beyond measure – wise AND foolish, rich AND poor, good AND bad…and totally unfathomable.”
another painting by Holly Suzanne, emptied of me
“The trick is to keep exploring and not bail out, even when we find out that something is not what we thought. That’s what we’re going to discover again and again and again. Nothing is what we thought. I can say that with great confidence. Emptiness is not what we thought. Neither is mindfulness or fear. Compassion – not what we thought. Love. Buddha nature. Courage. These are code words for things we don’t know in our minds, but any of us could experience them. These are words that point to what life really is when we let things fall apart and let ourselves be nailed to the present moment.”
Preying Man then, hunched over and hauling it out, rhythmically breathing into the present, a turbulent pain fueled by fear…searching into what I usually avoid. Hopefully not so much as a way to solve problems, but an undoing of native ways of seeing and hearing, smelling and tasting and thinking…along with the courage to die.
-all quotations Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart