A reader, Gwen, commented about the terror that arises when a person gives up old certainties. Here’s how I felt that fear in a new way.
A few months ago I received an email from a friend I’ve known for decades. I’ll fuzz the details here to blur her identity. Recently, after raising a family, she finished her PhD and now sends out periodic emails to her professional network.
I would like to look forward to those emails, but I can’t. Her heart is not present. The tone of the emails is very intellectual and—more troubling—quite cold. Each one bothers me.
In this recent one my friend was recalling a conversation she’d had with her young daughter many years ago. They were hiking together with their dog and remarking on how happy the dog looked. My friend suggested that perhaps it was the humans who were happy and were projecting it onto their dog. She introduced her daughter—with some pride—to the idea that humans have this pesky habit of attributing to others what in fact lies inside themselves.
Yes, humans do project onto others. But I found my ire rising. What about that other pesky habit of using our magnificent minds to obscure the direct knowing of our hearts? A simple awareness, for instance of how an animal is feeling, can get suffocated under layer after layer of thinking and judging and doubt. We talk ourselves out of the most obvious perceptions.
I grew more and more irritated. In that conversation a young girl had been steered away from trusting her own perception—that her dog was feeling happy. She’d also been diverted from enjoying a nourishing moment of identifying with her dog’s joy. By intervening, my friend had sent a troubling message—that growing into a wise adult means interrupting an experience of empathy and questioning the instincts of the heart.
Figuring it out
Feeling irked is not helpful. It too obscures the heart. I needed to address it to keep my own perception clear. I took the matter into meditation, which for me means into a Journey with my Helper, Bear.
Now sometimes Bear brings me to a clear heart by nudging me gently until I reach my own aha! moment. But other times Bear can be blunt.
Our Journey that day unfolded like a conversation. Bear suggested that I explain what was bothering me, and I told the story, keeping my inner eye trained on Bear, watching his reactions. When I got to the part about projection, he shook his head sadly and reiterated that being ruled by the intellect results in a coldness of heart.
But then he faced me directly. “And why,” he asked, “is it bothering you so much?” He answered the question himself. “It shows you just how firmly the door to that way of being is closed to you,” he said, “and you are terrified of the alternative.”
Not so sure
Terrified? I wasn’t so sure. At the moment I was feeling no terror at all. Bear went on:
The alternative to the mental way of being is so open-ended. It requires giving up control of what happens.
In my stomach the cheese I’d just snacked on suddenly lurched. My heart started thumping. My breath quickened. Bear continued:
It requires surrendering, body and mind, to something greater, something more mysterious, something much less knowable, and therefore—to the mind—much more threatening. The mind is so terrified of giving up control that it will send a person into a panic at the thought of not operating by its guidance.
A feeling of weakness overtook me, and my hands began to quiver. I felt nauseated. Was it indigestion? When I turned my attention to that question the symptoms quieted. When I turned my attention back to Bear, my heart resumed pounding, my hands shook, and my stomach churned.
The Helpers sometimes do this—give a person a brief, intense experience of a feeling, pleasant or unpleasant, to make an indelible impression. I got the message: I am so terrified of giving up control by the mind that in the unseen depths I am actually prone to panic about it.
On not walking by the intellect
Bear had even more to say.
Who in nature has the assurance of the intellect that your friend exhibits? No animal who walked by their intellect would be alive for long.
It was amusing, the thought of other animals trying to navigate by thinking, as humans do. Bear added,
No other animals would be so foolish as to be proud of operating by the intellect. Not only would it not occur to them, but if it did, they would at once recognize that it is foolishness. If one is going to be proud, be proud of the being you are, not of your mind’s ability to take charge. Be proud—as an animal—of living close to the heart of things, close to the body, close to the source, in touch with your instincts and responding instantly to the quivers of motion in the nature-field around you. Be proud of being responsive. Be proud of having your ears perked. Be proud of your fur. Be proud of taking advantage of every new development in things-as-they-unfold. But for heaven’s sake, don’t be proud of an instrument, such as the intellect, that gets in the way of all these instincts.
My stomach was settling into calm. The terror of a moment before had subsided.
Bear suggested that I stay aware of this panic riding just below the surface. Only by remaining aware of it would I be able to choose each step in life rather simply reacting, either against the panic or against the mind-driven way of living.
In the gentlest possible voice Bear concluded,
Just keep experimenting with how life feels as you dethrone the mind’s way of being and turn toward something larger. Keep watching. Keep exploring.