Life is always uncertain but at the moment that uncertainty seems more apparent than usual. At times like this naturally we take refuge in our practices, but while they can support us through testing times they often don’t give us clear situation specific instructions to follow. We are never really told what to do. Instead we are given sets of guidelines to work within, and recommendations of what wise decisions might look like, but the answer is always up to us to decide in each instance and with the resources that we have. This creates tremendous space for growth and teaches us to take full responsibility for our actions, but it also can leave us perplexed when we cannot decide what the best course of action is. What can we do to break through this decision making inertia when it overcomes us?
Should I be brave or should I be careful? Should I face my fears and put myself in the danger zone, or should I think about the impact that illness would have on the people around me and take every measure to protect myself? If you follow a Buddhist practice the chances are that you have spent plenty of time reflecting on old age, sickness, and death; but this doesn’t mean the natural outcome of these practices is that you should do nothing to stop yourself from getting sick just because that’s the unavoidable nature of the human condition. You know you shouldn’t be selfish, but you also know that you shouldn’t be taken in by the scare stories your mind is telling you. What should you do?
In Buddhist practice everything is about developing a range of qualities and skills that both support and temper each other, and through continued practice we start to learn how each quality balances out the others. If you have practiced to the point where you genuinely have no fear of sickness then that’s amazing, but you need to combine your fearlessness with the core Buddhist qualities of virtue, wisdom, and concentration to make a truly skilful choice. Is it wise to get sick if other people rely on you? If you might cause other people to become infected? Even a quality like fearlessness needs some checks and balances.
But if you are afraid, terrified even, of the thought of getting sick then don’t assume that the practice you need to do is to become fearless. It is only our egos that feel a sense of shame about having fear, our bodies absolutely rely on our ability to feel fear for their survival. The fight or flight mechanism in the human body is a marvel of design and function, it can assess danger instantaneously and have both our minds and bodies primed to act within fractions of a second. Learning to understand fear and work with it is a more productive practice than trying to eliminate it. Trying to tell yourself that the fear is just a story your mind is telling you, or that there is no self to be afraid is factually correct within Buddhist understanding of the world, but if it does nothing to help you work with the fear then it is not an effective practice for you. Buddhist practice is fundamentally pragmatic – if it isn’t working then don’t do it.
When you start to follow the five precepts, the first precept – to avoid killing living beings – will in time reveal to you the mind’s tendency to want to savagely eliminate anything that it doesn’t want. It starts with mosquitoes, and ants, and if you are a gardener perhaps slugs too. Now living under the precepts you realise that you can’t just kill them anymore. You need to take different actions, usually involving much more time consuming measures, to deal with your unwelcome visitors instead. Seeing that your normal habit is to kill anything inconvenient or unwelcome, you soon realise that this is how your mind works with everything else. Your mind wants to kill fear because it is unwelcome, uncomfortable, shameful, or whatever particular feelings it brings up for you; but your body needs fear to keep you safe, so the wise and gentle thing to do is to find a middle way.
We are fortunate though that in this rare instance the Buddha did give us a specific teaching for dealing with fear. In the Karaniya Metta Sutta it is said that a group of monks were living in the forest but were afraid of the things that lived there. Going to the Buddha for advice, he told them to develop metta – loving kindness- for all beings. He didn’t tell them to leave the forest, or to build defences, or to try to scare away the forest beings; he didn’t tell them to ignore it, to analyse it, to man up, or to just stop being scared; he told them to cultivate an open heart of love and acceptance towards all beings, and to themselves. There aren’t that many instances in the teachings where we are given a direct solution to a problem, but this is one of them – the practice for fear is metta.
The mechanisms of how to use metta to deal with fear can be elusive to begin with. At first you might try to have love for the person or the situation you are afraid of, but you need to stay mindful that this can just be another subtle way of trying to eliminate the problem. If you are trying to force love into the place where the fear is then you are still just trying to unseat an unwelcome guest. When you practice metta you develop your ability to accept people and things just the way they are, which includes accepting yourself just the way you are and all of your foibles. So sometime the metta needs to be aimed at yourself, and loving your mind and body even when they have fearful responses. This is a practice that can take many years to produce fruit though; if we are in the middle of a crisis now is metta still the practice for fear?
I would venture to say that it is; yes metta practice develops fully over time but it can yield benefis at the moment of practice too. One of the factors that we take into account when we are deciding the right course of action is ourselves; our own human body, our health, age, experience, knowledge and tendencies. Our mind might have very noble ideas about what should be done but if we do not have the health, strength, or personality that can carry it out then we are not making a rational decision. So when we make any decision we always have to do it with the understanding that we are in a human body, this human body, and human bodies function in particular ways.
I mentioned the fight or flight mechanism earlier and this is one of the functions that happen in human bodies, its proper name is the sympathtic nervous system. When we register a threat our bodies activate a set of responses designed to best help us to survive the situation. Our heart rate increases so we have more blood to our muscles to run or fight, our non essential functions are temporarily stopped like digestion, and our minds are restricted to only being able to focus on the most basic and pertinent information. This is great if you are being chased by the infamous sabre tooth tiger of lore, but really quite limited if you are trying to make a wise and compassionate decision based on balancing multiple factors.
Fortunately there is another system that is the opposite to this and it is called the parasympathetic nervous system. This is what kicks in when we feel safe and relaxed. This is what is activated when we meditate, do yoga, have a massage, stroke a cat, or look at a beautiful sunrise. This isn’t just a nice state to be in, but it is also a useful state to be in. When we accept the limitations of being in a human body we understand that we need to work with it and not against it. Being in a parasympathetic state allows the mind to operate fully and consider all the nuances of a complex situation. Being calm allows us to see our thoughts more clearly, and we can recognise which ones are being driven by fear or hatred and which are driven by wisdom and kindness. It creates the conditions for us to make better decisions, so utilising it is a wise action.
Metta practice is more powerful than just meditation for activating the parasympathetic nervous system because it has a direct physical effect on us. We take the natural physical reaction that we have when we see or think of someone or something we love, that warmth or uplift in the heart or stomach area, and we nurture it so that it lasts the duration of our meditation. When we are in the grip of fearful thoughts it isn’t avoidant to use a metta practice as long as we are doing it to give us clarity of mind, to ease the body out of the sympathetic state and into a more relaxed one where we can sit more easily with the fears we have.
Metta practice also reminds us of one of the important factors that we need to consider when we want to make a decision that is in line with our practice – love. Love for ourselves and love for all beings too. Reflecting on the people we hold closest to our hearts shows us that we have the ability to accept some people exactly the way they are, both their gifts and flaws, and that this kind of love has the potential to not be dependent on everything being exactly the way we would like it to be. Metta practice is like a workout for the heart, we develop our love for some, then extend it to a few more, and then a few more, until eventually it includes both everyone and everything.
When we are scared our mind can forget about love, focussing only on modes of attack and defence. Our minds and hearts become tight and brittle. Metta practice reminds us that we also still have a capacity to love, and a capacity to make decisions that come from love. This opens our hearts and minds to many more possibilities and options. When we are gripped by fear we can only see what is right in front of our nose, but opening our heart opens our eyes too.
It can be easy to think that we need to give all our focus to worldly circumstances when we are in a crisis, but we need to always remember that all of our actions and abilities to deal with the crisis rely on the functioning of our body and mind. The body and mind are our tools, we need give them maintenance to make sure they work well for us when we need them. Using metta practice doesn’t mean that the fear goes away, but instead we accept those feelings of fear as being a part of our experience and this allows our mind and body to work better. Because we accept them, then we know that we need to take actions to stop them from becoming the dominant voice on our internal decision making committee. So we take time to meditate and develop calm. We use mindfulness to observe when the sympathetic nervous system is being activated and either try to calm it, or to allow it to run its course. These are wise, loving, and practical actions; both to ourselves and to everyone else around us. The individual choices we each need to make will be different, but if we cultivate a calm and loving mind then we give ourselves the best chance to make kind and rational decisions whatever the circumstances are.