Fear As A Stepping Stone

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A cancer diagnosis might feel like the worst thing that could happen to us. But if you want to know the nature of fear, it gives us a great opportunity to work with fear.

The step by step instructions for working with fear were given to me over many years, beginning with my first experience of a bardo, the emotional crevasse I fell into after my brother, Graham, died. I was desperate to understand how someone I knew so well could suddenly be gone. My mind was swirling. Where did he go? What was the meaning of life? Who am I ? Walking through the city on a rainy morning I saw a wet poster stapled to a telephone pole. Three familiar names caught my attention: Allen Ginsberg, Ram Dass, Chogyam Trungpa. These were authors of books I’d been reading during those dark months. Looking more closely I saw they would be teaching at an event the following summer in Boulder, Colorado.

I arrived in Boulder in early June and stayed until September, attending daily talks and weekly meditation retreats. Of the three, Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan meditation master with honorific title of Rinpoche, was clearly the central teacher. His voice was soft, his humour gently spontaneous, but his words cut through my depression like a scalpel. He spoke directly to the sense of panic I was feeling at the time. “Don’t try to push it away, get to know it. Learn to ride it’s energy.” This shocking message was my introduction to a life-long training in working with fear as ‘the path of a spiritual warrior’.  He showed this lost child the way to reunite with the loving mother of my own heart.

This image of a warrior was defined as bravery beyond aggression, the confidence that draws from roots of our nature, beyond fear. “Look into any emotion and it will lead back to your heart. Imagine reaching into your ribcage to find your heart. All you will find is tenderness, tender space. ”

This is the path for our bardo journey. Opening to fear can awaken our true heart. Turning away from fear shuts it down. His message was as simple and challenging as that.

Meeting Fear

Being inspired by a wisdom teacher is said to be like someone pointing to a particular star in the night sky. “Look, over there”. You can’t focus on the finger that’s pointing, you have to turn your head and look for yourself.  At the same time, you might miss the star altogether if someone doesn’t point it out to you. Learning to relate directly to fear was a teaching like that. Rinpoche was pointing to a very different constellation of ideas than what I was used to. But then he said: “don’t put your trust in my words. Take these teachings and test them out for yourself.”

He taught us where to look. It invited us to pay attention, like a parent patiently trying to settle a young child.

Sit still. Feel your dignity.

Strong back, soft heart.


Do nothing.


Little did I realize it at the time, but this practice of creating space to just be still, to let go of distractions was the life-preserver I needed, not only for the bardo I was in at the time, but for all the others that would follow.

click for my cancer journal