We are honored to exclusively share with you, our dear readers, excerpts from Frank Berliner’s new book, which you can purchase here if so inspired. Frank is a Buddhist and Shambhala teacher and professor at Naropa University, and our original Buddhadharma columnist (going 12 years back!). He is my meditation instructor and life coach, of sorts (I just call him “mentor”…or consiglieri), and his ability to convey simple wisdom about how to be fully human is powerful, dignified and helpful. May it be of benefit! ~ Waylon Lewis
Fear, Cowardice, Bravery, and Fearlessness
The Tibetan word for a male warrior is pawo, and for a female warrior is pamo. They mean “the one who is brave.” This definition reminds us once more that being a warrior in the Shambhala tradition has nothing to do with war or aggression, but is connected instead with courage. One thinks of a similar term for warriors in the Native American culture: “braves.”
Being with Fear
There is a saying from the Shambhala teachings: “Without knowing the nature of fear, it is impossible to discover fearlessness.” This tells us that the warrior’s bravery develops out of his or her willingness to look directly at the experience of fear to learn what that experience really consists of. Without that willingness there is no way to be fearless.
In the Shambhala teachings and on the path to waking up, fear is regarded as a tremendously positive experience. Your very capacity to wake up fully is closely connected with your capacity to experience fear without turning away from its sharp and penetrating energy. Fearlessness does not mean “being without fear,” which is more an expression of insensitivity, even stupidity, than it is an expression of warriorship. Popular culture celebrates the stereotype of the invincible male warrior armed with swords, guns, or bombs, conquering and destroying everything in his path. This is more of an adolescent, macho pretense and is beside the point here.
What fearlessness really means is being fully with fear, going through the fear, going beyond the fear. Therefore fear itself is never the obstacle to fearlessness, but the entry point.
The key to being able to practice and live in this way is gentleness. Chogyam Trungpa taught that gentleness is indispensable to the experience of genuine warriorship and symbolized this quality with an open fan. In wedding ceremonies that he created and conducted for his Shambhala students, the bride would present a fan to the groom, which she would open as she offered it to him. The fully unfolded fan powerfully evokes the sense of openness and spaciousness that is inherent to the mind of meditation. It reminds us of the “peace” we cultivate in shamatha practice, which allows the energy of thoughts and emotions to arise in open space without suppressing or blocking anything.
Because fear is such a key steppingstone on your path to fearlessness, the most formidable obstacle on your path is not fear, but rather your unwillingness to relate to fear and to face it directly. The moment you invest in that unwillingness and begin to build your life around it is the moment you turn away from warriorship.
Turning away like this is not merely an individual endeavor. Entire societies and cultures, with their political and economic systems, can, have, and generally do turn away from warriorship in this way. The most descriptive word for this turning away is cowardice. Cowardice is the antithesis of warriorship. It means—not that you are fearful—but that you have made yourself an expert in refusing to examine your fear when it appears. You do this because confronting the sharp energy of fear is uncomfortable and unpleasant. Out of a refusal to face such discomfort, you create a bubble of denial and self-deception.
In one of the most famous moments in Shakespearean drama, Julius Caesar’s wife Calpurnia tells him of her previous night’s dream in which she saw him dead at the hands of his colleagues in the Roman Senate. She urges him not to go to the Senate that day. In response to her, he says:
“Cowards die many times before their deaths.
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.”
It would be easy to be cynical about this speech, and take the point of view that for Caesar, “discretion” would have been “the better part of valor,” or that his pride and feelings of invulnerability proved to be his undoing. Yet Caesar’s words here do have enduring power. In the context of the teachings of warriorship, his speech could be seen as commentary on the prison of living a life based on hope and fear. When your life is always conditioned by hope and fear, you are unable to fully live. When you shrink from the directness of life, you die many times before your death. You look for comfort above all else. You repeatedly take shelter in safe, predictable routines, hoping they will protect you from the unexpected. But ultimately these habits of avoidance only steal your vitality and creativity. This is a kind of death in life, because life’s energy is no longer fully available to you.
The Cocoon of Cowardice
In the Shambhala tradition, the experience of this psychological prison is called the cocoon. This term requires some explanation, because we tend to think of the cocoon in positive ways, as a place of transformation and an alchemical laboratory in which the caterpillar is transmuted into the butterfly. But in the teachings of warriorship, the cocoon is not an inherently creative situation. Rather it is a stagnant situation.
The cocoon is a kind of casing that has slowly grown and surrounded you. It has been woven—thread by thread—by habits like your addiction to comfort, or to keeping busy, or to entertaining yourself whenever the possibility of an open moment presents itself to you. You think the walls, layers, and filters are protecting you, but in fact they stand between you and the raw exhiliration of being alive. As a result of this casing, you become numb, asleep to what is going on around you.
Over years of observing and practicing with their own cocoons, Shambhala warriors have come up with many metaphors for how it works. Here are some helpful ones:
- The cocoon feels as if your fear has backed up, the way plumbing sometimes gets backed up in an old house. There’s a stale, stuck quality.
- Seeing your cocoon is like walking into a room that’s empty, but where people have been smoking and drinking and have left their mess of overflowing ashtrays and glasses with flat beer pooled in the bottom.
- Feeling your cocoon is like listening to muzak in the elevator. Whomdo they play that for? Hearing it brings feelings of sadness and listlessness at the same time, and a sense that you’re being lulled into a twilight zone where you no longer have to feel anything raw or genuine. It induces a kind of emotional anesthesia.
- Like plastic flowers in a hotel lobby, the cocoon never dies because it was never alive to begin with.
True and False Fear
This is the world of the cocoon. Perhaps the most succinct definition for the cocoon in this sense is that it is “a body of unexamined fear.” Distinguishing between true fear and false fear gives us further insight into how the cocoon is formed and maintained. True fear is the direct experience of something that is threatening your existence, here and now. Perhaps you step out onto the avenue without noticing that a car is coming toward you, very fast. The moment of noticing it is a moment of genuine fear. It wakes you up abruptly and you feel the rush of adrenalin. It demands your attention, and your immediate response. You get out of the way quickly because your very survival is at stake and there is no other option but self-destruction. This is very simple and straightforward. It is a dramatically wakeful experience.
False fear, on the other hand, is your anxiety about what has not yet happened, and in fact may never happen. You have not met the imagined or anticipated threat in real time. It is in speculative, future time. You worry. You chew anxiously on the possibility of negative consequences. This discursive worry robs you of your capacity to be fully present with your life. This is the fear of Caesar’s coward, who dies many times before his death. This is the fear with which you weave the walls of your cocoon, thread by thread.
When you practice shamatha, you are engaging the false fear of the cocoon, and the whole environment of repetitive thoughts and reactive emotions that it produces. You are dealing with its old, stale storylines and its predictable strategies. You are simply being with it, and seeing it clearly, perhaps for the first time.
The false fear can only survive on your willingness to believe its messages. In the practice of shamatha, you withdraw your support for that tired but tenacious project. You provide a container in which it can play itself out until it runs out of gas, so to speak.
You also begin to realize that what you are witnessing as you sit on the cushion is what actually runs your life off the cushion. The false fear and its habitual patterns of thought and emotion, affect your actions in the world and all of your relationships with other people, down to the smallest interaction. Its power comes solely from the fact that you are unaware of this.
In some sense this is a rude awakening. The presence of the cocoon is an overwhelming discovery and a common reaction is for you to be hard on yourself about what you’re seeing, and even want to reject these parts of yourself altogether.
Clarity and Gentleness
To return to the Shambhala wedding symbolism, the bride gives the groom an open fan, and in turn the groom presents a ceremonial sword to the bride. The sword remains in its scabbard, because its power is implied and does not need to be actively demonstrated. The sword here symbolizes the clarity and sharpness of the meditative state. It is the aspect of the witnessing mind that is able to cut through confusion and deception to reveal the truth of what is there.
The clarity and sharpness of this knowing faculty that we all possess, is what exposes the cocoon for what it really is. Each time you let go of your habit of clinging to a habitual train of thought in shamatha practice, you allow the sword to effortlessly perform its function.
It is also this witnessing aspect of shamatha that most requires gentleness toward yourself, because it is only through gentleness that you can truly make peace with such a powerful opponent as the cocoon. The key to practicing this gentleness is to give up the ambition to rid yourself of those parts of yourself that displease you, because this ambition is just based on further aggression toward yourself, and in the long run it only heightens and prolongs your struggle.
Spiritual practice is not a self-improvement project. Rather, it is about developing a friendly—and even a loving—attitude toward your cocoon. You realize how long and how deeply you believed you could not live without it. You let go of it with kindness, one thread at a time.
You allow yourself to take on the characteristics of an open fan: a gentle, spacious attitude that you cultivate as a warrior on your endless journey of making friends with your experience. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:
“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Frank Berliner