Living Beyond Fear, Anxiety, Anger, and Addiction
by Dean Sluyter
Copyright © 2018 by Dean Sluyter
All Rights Reserved
A TarcherPerigee Book
I was scared of the ball.
They called it a softball, but it seemed plenty hard to me: I had felt it sting my fingers, smack my chest. As it shot toward me, my whole body flinched—that is, when it came toward me at all, as I stood exiled in far right field, where the team hoped I would do the least damage.
I was the skinny, uncoordinated kid: the spaz, in the fifth-grade playground lingo of the day. The only game I was good at was dodgeball—not hurling the ball at others, but jumping out of its way. That made perfect sense to me.
Every recess started with the mortifying ritual of choosing teams. The two captains—big Chuck and quick, wiry Ricky—picked boys from best to worst till they finally came to the slow, heavy kid and me, the dreaded dregs. After much disgusted stalling, one captain would sigh dramatically and say, “OK . . . we’ll take Fats if you take Spaz.”
In the classroom, I had no fear. I cheerfully took over discussions, settling back in my seat and enjoying a chummy tête-à-tête with the teacher, only dimly aware of the restless fidgeting going on all around me. Eventually I noticed Chuck, in the back corner near the door, self-exiled to his own right field, head down, trying for once to be small. Hmmmmm . . . a history question shooting toward him threatened as much danger and humiliation as a softball did for me. Different people, different situations, same feeling. Interesting.
The Cold War was on. In social studies we watched black-and-white propaganda films about communism, with grim narrators and the crablike hammer-and-sickle squatting over the map of Europe, sprouting evil tentacles of world domination. From time to time, in the middle of a math or geography lesson, the teacher would suddenly shout, “Drop!” We’d fall to our knees and duck and cover under our desks, waiting for a commie A-bomb to come hurtling toward Woodlake Avenue Elementary School, wondering just how effectively our wooden desktops would shield us from the thermonuclear fireball. Hmmmmm . . .
Now we’re grownups. Terrorists have replaced Communists, and we’ve graduated from the playground to other grounds for fear: the office, the boardroom, the bedroom, the barroom. And the newsroom. The last presidential election was fueled by fear, and it’s been a white-knuckle ride ever since, with spiking anxiety levels reported by psychologists nationwide. The political is personal.
But no matter who’s elected today or impeached tomorrow, our deepest fears persist:
Fear of pain.
Fear of confusion.
Fear of change.
Fear that things will never change, that this is all there is.
Fear of responsibility.
Fear of aging and illness.
Fear of loss, bereavement, abandonment.
Fear that the good times are over, that joy has fled.
Fear of boredom, loneliness, intimacy, violation.
Fear of failure, rejection, humiliation.
Fear of others’ opinions, of our own feelings, of being fooled, of blowing it onstage, of being exposed as a bewildered child among the confident adults.
Fear for the planet. We look to the world our children will inherit and wonder if it will be The Jetsons or Mad Max.
Fear of missing out. For years I was haunted by my high school English teacher’s story of his father, who traveled the world, saw the sights, had more adventures than the next ten men, but died screaming—screaming—because he felt that, whatever life was all about, he had missed it.
Our fears may be rooted in big traumas haunting the past or big challenges looming in the future, but they cast their shadow over the smallest moments of everyday life right now. We’re afraid of wearing the wrong outfit to the party, of sounding stupid if we speak up in the meeting, of getting lost if we take the scenic route. Choices must be made, and we long for the time when we chose out of joy (Should I play on the slide or the jungle gym?) rather than fear (Will it be worse if tell my partner how I feel or keep it to myself?).
When we’re not sure what to be afraid of, which threat to dodge next and what direction it will come from, our fear mutates into free-floating anxiety. To soothe our anxiety we might fall into addiction, taking refuge in a drug or drink, or in compulsive eating or gambling or gaming or hoarding or sex, or in cutting or starving ourselves, or in magical belief systems or bogus political messiahs—anything that offers to gimme shelter when I feel like I’m gonna fade away. But that sets off new fears: that we’ll run out of the drugs or Oreos, or the girlfriend or boyfriend will run out on us, or the belief system will break down when we need it most. Then we lash out in anger at whoever or whatever allegedly threatens our alleged security.
These and the other afflictive emotions—grief, loneliness, guilt, jealousy, confusion, shame, disappointment, resentment, greed, self-righteousness, exasperation, despair—are all deeply connected. Whether they’re boiling over into crisis or simmering toxically on a back burner, they’re all brewed from fear. They all make us feel unfree and alone. Whether I’m playing my eleventh game of Candy Crush and trying to forget I have a term paper to write, or I’m off in a corner with my spoon and my quart of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, I feel like I’m all alone and no one must know, even when everyone knows.
Of course, this isn’t the whole picture. If you’re lucky and you’re paying attention, life offers any number of joys and wonders. Many of us manage to sidestep the most destructive habits and scenarios, and to lead reasonably sane, progressive lives. But even in your happiest moments (playing with your healthy, laughing kids), even in your most sublime moments (lost, lost in the music), even in your most thrilling moments (merging in ecstasy with the lover you were born for)—even then, hovering in some dim corner that we try our best to ignore, is the final, definitive fear: your eventual annihilation and that of everything and everyone you love. All this must end. Nevermore, game over, buh-bye, here’s your hat, no refunds, no apologies, no exceptions. Death is in the house and demands to be fed. He’ll eat you and your little dog too.
And Yet . . .
And yet perhaps you’ve known people for whom this is all somehow different—who seem to have some deep wisdom, some internal gyroscope that keeps them balanced, some inner silence that inoculates them against the standard craziness and panic. Maybe it was a parent or grandparent, an uncle or aunt, a wise teacher or professor, the nice lady at the corner store, the plumber. Maybe your most inspiring exemplars were movie characters: Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi, Aslan, Gandalf, Glinda the Good Witch. But you’re at least vaguely aware that there are supposed to have been real people who have embodied that silent wisdom fully— enlightened people, awakened ones, sages.
Even if we don’t know exactly what sages might look like, we’re pretty sure they’re not racked with anxiety. They’re not caught up in anger. And they’re not overwhelmed with fear, even fear of death, whether it’s Jesus on the cross, Al-Hallaj on the gallows, Socrates drinking the hemlock, or the Buddha calmly calling for his students’ final questions while dying of excruciating septic shock. No matter what they undergo, their every breath is breathed from a place of bottomless silence. Just close your eyes for a moment, think of any one of them, and you can practically taste it.
That might seem to put them on some lofty spiritual peak, inaccessible to us ordinary schmoes. But they’ve all declared that as they are, we can and will be, and that the unshakable silence, whether they call it nirvana or moksha or fanaa or the kingdom of heaven, is within us. Not might be within us someday, but is within us now. If we reflect back on our lives—the joys, the challenges, the lonely moments out in our own personal right field—we might even sense that, somewhere in the background, that silence has been with us, within us, all along. Our project together will simply be to bring it from the background to the foreground.
Fortunately, that’s the most natural thing in the world. All our lives we’ve been looking for the right thing but in the wrong places, looking outside for what’s inside. It’s just a matter of settling back into yourself, into the infinite OK-ness that is your own deepest nature. All those words like fear, loneliness, craving, anger, anxiety, anguish, grief are finally just different names for deprivation of that OK-ness.
Certainly our fears can seem devastating. We can’t just sprinkle a little spiritual pixie dust and shrug them off. But in the light of the deeper truth to which we’ll now be opening, our fear is just . . . fear. Unbelievable as it may sound, things are fine; the awakened ones agree. The sages are here, the grownups, come to shine their brilliant light under the bed and show us there’s no monster.
This experience of silence and OK-ness is not something distant or exotic. It’s completely intimate to you. In fact, you’ve probably had glimpses of it.
Some people call it the zone and encounter it at moments of peak athletic performance, but it can just as well sneak up on you while you’re weeding the garden or washing the dishes, running your sales meeting or playing your ukulele. It comes unbidden. Suddenly you no longer feel stuck in your body. You’re watching everything—witnessing it—from some unspecified, unconfined space, while your actions roll on with a wonderful, effortless grace, as if no one is doing them, yet they’re done impeccably. Somehow time falls away. Colors might seem brighter, sounds sharper, the air sweeter, as if a veil has fallen from your senses. Everything is deliciously weightless, frictionless, silent, even amid commotion and noise. And although we’re not apathetic or numb but vividly awake, there’s a deep sense, which has no explanation and needs none, that everything is just fine. At these moments you probably don’t stop to ponder your problems (why would you do that?), but if you did, none of them, up to and including death, would appear problematic. It’s as if they, like you, are made of pure, open space.
And then, as quietly as it came, the glimpse ends, usually to be forgotten, or dismissed as some passing oddity. But it’s not an oddity—that’s the promise of the sages. They say it’s natural and real to live and breathe from that silence full-time. Then, among other fortunate side effects, our fear, anger, anxiety, and addictions start to thin out and eventually evaporate. We realize that this friction-free, problem-free lightness isn’t just some pleasant dream or fleeting high. Against all odds, the heaviness turns out to be the dream, the monster turns out to be the dream. As the great twentieth-century Indian sage Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj said:
Learn to look without imagination, to listen without distortion: that is all. You will experience peace and freedom from fear.
Accessing that space of freedom is easier than people think. You don’t have to change your job or your wardrobe, your philosophy or your diet: those matters are all far more superficial than what we’re addressing. No one owns the zone, so it’s not inherently Eastern or Western, Buddhist or Christian, or even “spiritual,” whatever that means. There’s nothing to believe, including anything you read here. My favorite saying of the Buddha is Ehi-passiko—“Come and see.” Not come and believe, or come and hope, or speculate, or argue. It’s pure scientific method. Try something, see what you experience, and if it seems beneficial you’ll probably want to do more of it, till you don’t have to do it anymore.
The sages who have come and seen didn’t live only in ancient times. I’ve had the good fortune to hang out with more than one. Some have been lamas or rishis in robes, some have been ordinary-looking folks in casual wear. I’ve spent most of my life following their guidance, confirming it in my own experience, and, with their encouragement, sharing it with others.
What they’ve taught me, and what I’ll be sharing here, consists of practice and view. Practice is method, technique, stuff you do, and our core practice, the one that has revolutionized my life, is natural meditation. Just like on the product labels in the supermarket, natural means without artificial ingredients. If we tried to do the things that most people associate with meditation—sit in a strained, uncomfortable posture, or try to push out thoughts, or force our attention to stay concentrated on some object, or concoct some kind of happy-face mood when we really feel like slugging someone—that would be artificial.
If you try to meditate, it’s, well, trying. But as we’ve already seen, the zone of great freedom sneaks up on us, “like a thief in the night,” as Saint Paul says. So the most natural and effective kind of meditation is not so much doing as being. It’s not going afield in pursuit of some far-out experience but staying right where we are, with the doors and windows of our consciousness wide open, so the thief can make himself at home. As you’ll see, it’s just a matter of sitting quietly, not pushing stuff out but allowing the silence to pull you in. It’s good to sit every day, but because this way of non-effort is so effective, you don’t have to devote long hours to it.
Before we dive into this core practice, here in Part I we’ll warm things up with a few preliminary practices and strategies. Some don’t require any sitting at all. You can put them to use right away, applying them in situations where anger, fear, worry, or addictive cravings may arise. They’ll help to gently reorient the way you experience life, so that you’re less caught up, more grounded and relaxed, in a more friendly relationship with yourself and your world.
In Part II you’ll learn to sit in natural meditation. Because it’s so simple there’s not a lot to learn, but to preserve that simplicity we’ll explore the method thoroughly and eliminate the possible ways of making it complicated. We’ll walk through a few sessions together and then cover the details of integrating meditation into ordinary life, establishing a regular practice that will keep you, over the weeks and months, opening into the silence with growing clarity and depth.
In Part III we’ll introduce several supporting practices—side dishes to go with the main course—and you’ll get a sense of which ones you connect with most strongly. Some are eyes-closed meditative techniques with specialized functions, such as breaking out of the sense of isolation that fear can produce, or flushing out the old emotional debris of shame or guilt. Some practices use ordinary activities such as breathing or walking, repurposed to undercut our afflictive emotions. Some can be inconspicuously applied right at the moment when you’re trying to muster the courage to board the plane or ask that nice girl or guy for a date, or when you’re angry at the rush hour traffic, or when the buzz of anxiety is keeping you from falling asleep. None are difficult, and some are actually a lot of fun. The idea is to make life easier, not harder.
In addition to practice, the other component of awakening, which we’ll explore in Part IV, is view. View is not mere opinion or idea. As the word implies, it’s seeing—seeing clearly, so that we perceive the reality that’s right in front of us but was previously obscured by our confused ideas. Suppose one day you notice your neighbor peering at your house with a pair of high-powered binoculars. Is he a spy? A Peeping Tom? Soon all his actions—walking his dog, watering his lawn—become suspect, and your sunny street becomes a dark alley of conspiratorial doom. But then he drops by with binoculars in hand and tells you there’s a rare golden-cheeked warbler nesting in your tree: Would you like to take a look? In one moment, your old confusion drops away, and with it your fear and anxiety. Without changing anything, everything is fine. It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood.
I’ve shared practice and view with scientists and musicians, filmmakers and lawyers, software engineers and martial artists, addicts and therapists, grad students, prisoners, doctors, and a couple of comedians. I’ve taught CEOs in the Guatemalan rain forest and car salesmen in New Jersey. I’ve seen that the stuff works. Different people, different situations, same report: the clouds part, the sky clears, the fear and anger and the rest of it start to drain away. Anyone can do it. You may feel sure that you’re the one exception, and that’s fine. You don’t have to believe in it, just try it. Come and see.
There’s a track on the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street that I love: a throbbing, pulsing gospel blues jam in which Mick Jagger sings, preacher- style, about yearning for an experience of Jesus that goes beyond mere belief. It’s titled “I Just Want to See His Face.”
Does this mean that you’ll become a fully awakened, utterly fearless sage overnight? Probably not, but that’s OK too. A certain amount of fear, after all, is part of a perfectly healthy alarm system. Nature gives us just enough fear of snakes to make sure we avoid the venomous ones—but if, like one friend of mine, you can’t walk into a pet shop because you’re afraid the snakes will smash their glass tanks, jump through the air, and attack you, then your alarm system has been cranked up to eleven and needs to be recalibrated. We can do that; we have the technology. And then whatever traces of fear remain become part of the bigger OK-ness. I once heard the Dalai Lama confess that he’s afraid of worms. He gets a good laugh out of it.
The Bhagavad Gita, India’s classic text of meditation and action, says, “Even a little of this practice delivers from great fear.” If, after a little practice, you fear less—even one percent less than before—then you’re already coming out of the darkness and into the light. You’ve made it through the worst.
And more light awaits you. You just have to turn toward it. As the poet Hafez wrote:
Ever since happiness heard your name
It has been running through the streets
Trying to find you.