Fear and how it can negate our ability to live in the present moment, was the theme of my quote for classes last week. The reading came from a book on Fear by Thich Nhat Hanh:
‘When we are not fully present, we are not really living. We’re not really there, either for our loved ones or for ourselves. If we’re not there, then where are we? We are running, running, running, even during our sleep. We run because we’re trying to escape from our fear.
We cannot enjoy life if we spend our time and energy worrying about what happened yesterday and what will happen tomorrow. If we’re afraid all the time, we miss out on the wonderful fact that we’re alive and can be happy right now. In everyday life, we tend to believe that happiness is only possible in the future. We’re always looking for the ‘right’ conditions that we don’t yet have to make us happy. We ignore what is happening right in front of us. We look for something that will make us feel more solid, more safe, more secure. But we’re afraid all the time of what the future will bring – afraid we’ll lose our jobs, our possessions, the people around us whom we love. So we wait and hope for that magical moment – always sometime in the future – when everything will be as we want it to be. We forget that life is available only in the present moment. The Buddha said, ‘It is possible to live happily in the present moment. It is the only moment we have.
Much lively debate ensued in classes through the week. I think we all agreed that being present and mindful in our lives can only be a good thing. However we touched on how fear is necessary for our survival. In our evolution, those members of a tribe more highly attuned to danger, were necessary to the survival of the group. The so called ‘worriers’ of our world serve a useful function in society – they are more likely to consider the consequences of ideas, plans and actions. What’s more, as individuals we cannot operate safely in the world without sometimes feeling fear. Antonio Damasio describes a patient in his book ‘THE FEELING OF WHAT HAPPENS – body, emotion and the making of consciousness‘ – whose amygdalae (where fear is processed in the brain) had been damaged through calcification. The result was fearlessness, an inability to know whom or what to trust, and indiscriminate hugging! So I think we must try to make friends with fear and deal with the challenges that come up, rather than be its victim.
We moved on to what happens to the mind in dementia. A student whose job is in dementia care, told us how her patients often live entirely in the past but that the carers need to be in the moment with the patient. She said that carers must let go of the need to be ‘right’ – if a patient with dementia says ‘it’s Thursday’ when in fact it is Saturday, the carer must agree that it is indeed Thursday. In this way those with dementia are soothed and reasssured.
The issue of chronic pain arose. We talked about how those with chronic pain are forced into being in an unpleasant present – they have little choice. However mindfulness practices such as breath awareness can sometimes ease pain. It can also be useful for those in pain to look at the fear around the pain – worrying questions such as ‘what if I don’t get ever get better?’ ‘what if there’s no solution?‘ can magnify pain’s hold. It can help chronic pain sufferers to simply witness the worrying questions as they come up and suspend judgment as to when or whether they can be answered.
In one class we talked about how babies and small children are naturally in the moment and that we can perhaps learn from that. But defenceless infants rely on carers or parents to make plans, to use foresight, to work and worry for them, as part and parcel of the care-taking job. We can re-cultivate a childlike wonder at the world around us but as adults we have to earn a living, feed ourselves and our families. This requires thinking about the future and learning from past experience. As adults with responsibilities for ourselves and others, we cannot live in a continually idyllic state, but perhaps we can navigate life’s challenges with more ease and equanimity if we pause, breathe, meditate, look intently at something beautiful, and in so doing allow more peace in among the angst.