If the elephant of my mind is firmly bound on all sides by the rope of mindfulness, all fears will cease to exist and all virtues will come into my mind. – Shanthideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva
I have so many fears.
Fears about what will happen. To me. To my loved ones. To the world.
But also – strange as it seems – fears about the past. About things that happened which I regret, which I fear I can’t change, which I am still angry about.
Every day, every thought, every action – there is a fear, even a swarm of fears, hiding behind it.
The fear breeds restlessness. Anxiety. Exhaustion.
Within the ocean of fear, there are small islands of forgetting the fears. I call those islands “happiness”. But at any moment the islands can get flooded by the ocean and the forgetfulness can be eroded so that I am back facing the fears.
All this is unconscious of course most of the time. Or at least subconscious. Or in the background of consciousness. Ordinary consciousness is defined more by the forgetting of the fear and then the remembrance of it – the oscillation between the two. And hoping the forgetfulness wins out so I am not devoured by the fears. But the fears peak out in every interaction where there is the potential for the elephant of the mind to run amuck and stampede over my peace.
Normally I just accept all this as the reality. That the world is a fearful place. Filled with things, events, people, possibilities and eventualities which are frightening. Unnerving. Which rob me of my composure.
All these fearful things are like wild animals roaming in my world. If I can avoid them and survive the day without getting scratched or bitten or mawled by them, that is a good day. But if I do get attacked by them and they take a bite out of me, and I am caught in the grips of the fear, that is a bad day.
Shanthideva – as he states in the quote at the top of this post – suggests my ordinary way of thinking is a delusion.
He says the fears are not really out in the world. Rather, they are products of my mind. They are created by my perception of things.
That means I am not the passive experiencer of fear. Someone who is bombarded by fears from outside myself. Rather, I am the cultivater of the fears. They exist only in my mind, and only as long as I don’t realize that.
The mind creates the fear and the projects it onto things in the world. Then the things seem intrinsically fearful, as if it is the nature of the things in the world, independent of me. As if in fearing those things I am simply responding, reacting and am confronted by the nature of things as they really are. The possibility of losing the job or losing the marriage or my life being meaningless or my goals not being fulfilled or my house needing repairs – all those appear as just things to fear, and when I fear them I am just tracking the truth. That’s how it feels.
In this ordinary way of thinking, there can be no life without fear. The world is full of fearful things. So only a delusional person can live without fear. The normal person accepts there are fearful things and tries to avoid them. Even if it means constantly worrying about it.
Shanthideva flips this around. He says there can be a life without fears. Not because one has mastered all the fearful things in the world. But because he sees that his fears are actually caused by his mind. That they are projections of his mind to begin with.
So if he can be self aware of his mind when it does the projecting, then the illusion of the world being fearful can’t get a grip.
The normal person, in response to fear, tries to control the world. They assume their mind is helping them by making them afraid so that they can see what is really happening and can then act quickly to avoid it. The normal person (like me normally), even as he is fed up with the fear, deep down is grateful for it. He thinks his perception of the fear is helping him navigate the world better. To avoid the lions and the tigers waiting for him the world.
Shanthideva’s point is that the implicit gratitude for the fear is the root of not being mindful. It is to accept the mirage and the fantasy that the mind is playing over us. So that we fail to see that it is the mind itself which is creating the fear in the first place.
So the job goes. So the illness comes. So the house needs repairs. Yes. These are just events. Like it’s raining or snowing. Or a rock rolling down a hill. They are neither fearful nor wonderful in themselves. They just are.
The fear comes from what my mind adds to the events. Only the mind adds the fear so quickly – in a fraction of a fraction of a second – and so smoothly that, like an audience member seeing the magician pull a rabbit out of the hat, the ordinary person falls for the mind’s trick that the fear is actually in the events.
To be mindful is to keep the focus on the tricks of the mind rather than on the world where we are caught by the mind‘s projections. To focus on the mind is to catch the mind in its act of doings it’s tricks, and so to not fall for the tricks.
Watch the mind as it tries to project the fears onto the world. Then the projection fails. The things in the world then just are, and not colored by the projection.
All along I am the one creating the fear. Unaware of this, I am also the one consumed by the fear. When I pay attention and am mindful of how the mind goes through the mechanics of creating the fear, I see fear for what it is: just my own projections onto the world. Knowing I am creating the fear, I am no longer consumed by it.