QUESTIONS ON THE “PATH” #3: In your decades of practice, what is the most commonly expressed challenge/blockage/attachment/issue you’ve come across? What is the answer you provide?

Answer #3

Fear is the biggest challenge or blockage that I’ve come across in decades of my own practice and in working with others. I particularly remember this fear response from young mothers, ‘how will I be able to have a career and take care of my children if I get enlightened?’ It’s often a question that takes them away from the spiritual path for a while. However, it’s an underlying response in everyone I’ve worked with.

Recently a client who was a competitive, semi-pro athlete remarked about being afraid to come sit and meditate for seven 40-minute periods in an 8-hour retreat day. The student did it but, imagine that we think of athletes as being incredibly courageous to push their bodies to the limit. However, when it comes to something new and different such as meditation, tremendous fear comes up even for athletes. The fearful questions are ‘will I be able to do it?’ and ‘what if I fail?’ So, a fear of failure is an issue, even in spiritual practice.

Another major fear for all those I’ve worked with, whether therapy clients or awakening students, is a fear of their own emotions. One client taught me what she called ‘fear of the fear.’ She was afraid of her own fear response, which could rapidly morph into panic attacks.

Many men I work with are afraid to admit to, and even more, to express any feelings other than anger or happiness. The whole range of feelings under the categories “sad” or “scared” are totally off-limits to these men when we start working together. They are courageous in business, in sports, in physical adventure challenges (like skydiving or rock climbing), and even in the armed services but, afraid to feel some of their emotions. Since emotion is an important aspect of human life, avoiding it is a major impediment to spiritual progress.

Recently, in my own spiritual practice, though I long for the end of ego and the separate self, there is a fear arising, ‘how will I stay safe if I have no self?’ Of course, the simple answer arose immediately afterwards, “the human body has an autonomic nervous system to keep itself safe, whether a ‘self’ is actually in charge or not.” However, I sometimes experience a huge fear response to this goal.

I also notice fear anytime my inner experience changes significantly. Paradoxically, this even included fear that I had suddenly become calmer, more relaxed, less anxious, less mind-chatter-based and overall happier. My fear was: “Is this new condition safe, will ‘I’ be okay, am I still the same ‘me’ without all of this old discomfort?” Yes, I was actually afraid (for a while) of my newfound level of comfort, calm and peacefulness. Bonkers right?

In terms of attachment, the greatest sense of attachment is to a fixed ego-identity or ‘self.’ What happens if a person stops defending the ‘me?’ What happens if there is no more direction coming from the mind and its chatter but, the direction is coming from a deeper place. Can there be a letting go of a sense of ‘me?’

Of course, when I’ve inquired more deeply, actions nearly always arise before the thought arises. So the fear that action will stop if the ‘self’ is no longer intact is nonsensical. For instance, I’ll find myself moving towards the window before I know what I’m going to do there or before my mind even has time to say ‘I’m moving towards the window?’ I’ve also talked frequently about how it’s possible to do certain things like driving, or gardening, without having a ‘self’ arise in the stream of ‘mind-chatter’ that makes ‘me’ up. Without that chatter, that ego, that self, what is moving?

All of this experience notwithstanding, there is still attachment and some fear (though diminishing) towards letting go of a ‘self’ or ‘ego-identity.’ My answer to this question? I pray a lot about it, I do spiritual practice like meditation, mindfulness (staying present in the moment without paying attention to thought) and challenging the false thoughts that constantly arise in my mind. However, I’ve reached the point in the journey where I’m having to rely on grace and the expertise of those farther along the path for movement towards the goal. My own practice is no longer moving me much further.

As a simple answer to the major obstacles: fear and attachment to a ‘me’ (the attachment has a lot of fear in it too) I’d say this: it’s just fear and attachment to the known. If you turn and look deeply at your fear, you will see what it is that you’re afraid of. You can then determine if there is a risk to your survival or if it just feels that way. Know that you have been overcoming fear as an obstacle for your entire life. You’ve done it so many times you’ve stopped noticing that you do it.

With fear, the answer is this: take your fear, your quaking heart, your shaking shoes, and walk them through the door into the new challenge or the unknown. Don’t expect fear to disappear until after the challenge has been met. Accept your discomfort until it ends.

Somehow, even in the midst of fear, the impulse arises to keep moving forward on the path to more union with the Divine. That impulse is the Divine Itself, moving us back towards Itself. Courage (I believe it comes from the French, rage de coeur, or rage/passion/love of heart) is not the absence of fear, it’s the impulse to move towards the goal even while we’re still afraid. Further….and then further again…. Thanks for this very profound question.