But it is holding so tightly to fear that makes us a fraud, makes it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to grow beyond, to shed the skin of the habit-thinking that keeps us petrified to become new, full, and more capable of flexible lovingness, of both ourselves and others. Fear also separates us from others, from the possibility of their deep acceptance, and the healing influence that that may have on helping us accept ourselves more deeply for who we really are.
Perhaps it was serendipity, or perhaps it was the cosmos's way of giving me a lesson I needed, because I was very struck and moved by what she said that night. And not long after I had the chance to put it into practice.
She told us that Fear is a physical, biological reaction --- a fight or flight, animalistic response to anything we perceive as a "threat" to our existence, our health, or our survival. But she also reminded us that in the modern world, there are actually very few things which REALLY threaten our bodies, or our LIVES. Most of the fear we feel in our lives is actually a reaction to threats to our EGOS. And none of these threats are real. None of them are life-threatening. So the vast majority of the time, the fear is an inappropriate response. For example, no one has ever really "died of humiliation". But that is how fear feels. We get anxious, think we will "die", and then have to fight or flee whatever it is that is challenging us. The problem comes when we flee from facing a challenge to our egos that we need to face, and overcome, in order to grow. And actually, almost all challenges to our egos fall into this category, needing to be faced and overcome.
On the path of growth there are bridges, and they need to be crossed to get to the next "level". If, in feeling fear, we turn back and refuse to cross the bridge, we can never get to the next level. We will always be stuck at the same level because we cannot abide the fearful and anxious feelings that come in facing the challenge.
The key is in realizing that fear is only a feeling, that crossing the bridge is NOT in fact life-threatening, or even dangerous, in fact is enriching, deepening and fulfilling. But it's not easy because it requires just allowing the fear to be there, to feel scary and rampant, but to just "do it anyway", shut your eyes, hold the fear in your gut, and walk over the bridge anyway. Most people are unable or unwilling to do this. So they stay "stuck".
At that time I was also taking a silkscreening class. But I hadn't yet taken any drawing, composition or design classes. My own compositional and color skills therefore were very weak. The first project was a stencil project, layering the transparent colors with tight registration to achieve a "piece". Technically I was good, but my composition and colors were pure crap and I knew it. I could see all the wonderful other things that others in the class were making, landscapes, geometric studies, and none of that same wonderfulness was coming out of me. I sort of hid my work from the others and just practiced the technique. But when the teacher announced that we would have a "critique", and that everyone would hang their pieces on the wall for everyone else to see and comment on, I nearly came unglued. I just COULDN'T hang my piece on the wall for others to ridicule and demean! They would all be able to SEE that I wasn't good, that I had no creativity at all! I tried to make a better piece. It was crappier than the first. In desperation, the night of class before the critique I went to the Administration office and picked up a drop card, fully intending to just drop the class, give up, and stop pretending that I might be able to "pass" for a creative person. I was really upset.
As I sat with my fear, the drop card in my hand, during the break before the critique, I remembered the DharmaTalk, and the lesson about bridges, and facing fear. A voice in my soul said that yes, I would probably be humiliated if I went through with the critique, that others may in fact laugh and belittle my piece, but that I WOULD NOT DIE OF HUMILIATION. And that perhaps this was a good bit of exercise, to just feel the fear and NOT RUN AWAY, crossing the bridge, and seeing what the other side might actually hold. I decided to give it a try.
But I was terrified. I was quaking inside, and flushed, and sweating. I felt horrible. My piece really was the worst on the wall. But in the end, it wasn't as bad as all that. When the teacher came to my piece and invited comments, no one said anything (too polite!). The instructor noted that in fact the composition and color scheme were not the strongest, could be better (diplomatic!), but pointed out that technically the piece was excellent and the registration of the layers was nearly perfect with no overlaps and no gaps, so that there were strengths in the piece that had value. The adrenalin fear had overtaken my body however, and I heard what he said -- was grateful that it hadn't been as terrible as I'd imagined it might be! -- but I still took the piece down as quickly as I could afterwards and escaped to lick my wounds quietly at home.
But I didn't drop the class. And the next project was photo-silkscreening which I had really wanted to learn, and which I ended up doing a beautiful piece for. And it brought home the lesson. That I had crossed a bridge. That I would never have learned photo-silkscreening if I had let my fear of being humiliated determine whether or not I would finish the class.
We guard our egos so tightly, and most of the time it means we stay tethered very close to them, not growing or free.
That lesson was pivotal for me, but I have had so many others since then which have challenged me to pull back the veils.
Art school was filled with critiques on a DAILY basis. And these critiques would be on DRAWING, which is a pretty personal thing. But at least 4 or 5 times in each class we would hang up the piece we had just done in front of everyone. We couldn't hang up only the "good" ones, we had to hang them all up. Over and over, draw and pin up, draw and pin up, and face the comments. And at first the comments were all polite, but the teacher pushed us to be honest, to be honest with others, to be honest with what we "saw", and to be honest with ourselves, without being cruel. So again and again I had to let my ego go. And ultimately, the truth is the same for all artists -- sometimes we make great stuff, and sometimes we make shitty stuff. And if we are too afraid to make shitty stuff, we "crimp" ourselves down, and there's no hope of reaching the wonderous things deeper in.
An aside: I remember really enjoying the exhibit on the 3rd floor of the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. There were displayed Van Gogh's crappy paintings -- really. Awkward forms, dull colors, no depth, no richness, immature. We have this weird idea that geniuses only produce pearls. What hogwash I know now. The creative process is much less about "talent" and much more about conquering the fears which inhibit us. And I know I would die happy if I could help spread this message to those still imprisoned by fear.
And the lessons have continued. Learning to stand up in front of a class and teach was a dreadful thing. All eyes were on ME directly, not just on my art. And if I had been only a lecturer, I could have created a mask behind which to act. But these were small, interactive classes, usually only 10-18 students. I had to devise communicative activities, role plays, games, etc., give directions, answer questions, provide inspiration, keep discipline, promote learner independence and cooperation, and guide everyone in the same direction. I could not hide. I was the leader, I was in control, but I was also intimately VISIBLE.
It was so hard at first. I stuttered, didn't speak clearly and loudly, had lots of nervous gestures and tics. It was uncomfortable to be so intensely watched and SEEN. I was willing to face the fear, but another aspect came into this: interpersonal dynamics. My first term I was given an advanced class who were preparing to take a British proficiency exam which was both expensive for them as well as potentially lucrative in their careers. So they were motivated and demanding. And I was a complete greenhorn. Mostly it went okay except I had this one student who was my absolute bane. He expected me to be a walking grammar book, and when I said I wasn't quite sure, that I would have to look it up, or took a pretty good guess as to why something was, he became irate and disgusted with me. It was awful. I was trying my hardest, but he was just so demanding. I don't know if anyone would have satisfied him really. I almost quit. I was afraid he was right, that I was totally incompetent. But again I faced that fear, considered that it might be true, but decided to stick it out anyway, to cross the bridge to continuing to develop as a teacher. And as a result I came to experience a whole variety of students, ones who loved me, ones who hated me -- and I lived through them all! As well as becoming a better teacher.
And even recently there have been two more lessons.
There has been the fear of expressing a need I have for affection, facing the possibility of rejection, but "doing it anyway", knowing that I can survive rejection, but also that I gain nothing by not trying. And also music, auditioning to sing in front of others, knowing that others may laugh, but that it is something my heart enjoys.
So courage grows, as I continue to learn to not let fear guide my life.
In the end, the experiences of facing fear have been much more useful than the ones where I felt confident and safe. ANYBODY can act when they feel strong, but how many people, when they feel afraid or weak, can act anyway? By exercising this ability, I not only grow and become more centered, but I become able to adapt better and easier to varied circumstances, or the "curve balls" that life may throw me at any time.
So, I'm still afraid of many things, but I feel like I have a foundation in strong lessons. My mantra must be, for as difficult as it sometimes still is, "I am not afraid to be afraid."
The message is:
Don't run from fear. It's an illusion. Guarding your ego will not help you grow, will only keep you "stuck". Learn to recognize that horrible fear-feeling in your gut, and just let it be there, not letting yourself become anxious about making it go away. It's usually a sign that a "bridge" is near. Be willing to act through it, "doing it anyway", and you will cross those bridges that you need to cross. There is ALWAYS something richer and sweeter on the other side.
Courage to you!