Two nights ago, I attended a dialogue between my favorite spritual teacher Pema Chodron
and Jack Kornfield
of Spirit Rock Meditation Center. The topic was "Wisdom and Compassion," and guided by questions from moderator Michael Krasny
of KQED's Forum, Pema and Jack shared valuable insights on following a Buddhist path.
One of the most powerful moments occurred during the audience questions at the end, when a young woman came forward. One week ago, she lost the love of her life to suicide. The poignant question she asked was not how to help herself recover from this tragic loss, but rather: "I couldn't help him when he was alive. How can I help him now that he is gone?"
Pema's response was direct and deeply meaningful: "Do good things in the world and dedicate the merit to him."Dedicating the merit
is a Buddhist practice that gives higher meaning to any act, especially those of compassion and kindness. If you give a dollar to a homeless person and dedicate the merit to a suffering loved one or to the benefit of all beings, you are contributing to the wellbeing of everyone involved. The person who receives your dollar is happy, you feel good about doing something beneficial, and those to whom you have dedicated the merit receive your prayers.
The practice takes prayer into action. Something of tangible value is occurring in the world at the same time as you declare your good intent.
One of the essential qualities
I've identified for heroes is that they don't merely have positive intentions, they act on them. Performing good deeds and then dedicating their merit seems a fruitful way to take action on the spiritual plane and the material one at the same time.
I live across the street from the neighborhood recycling center, and in some ways it's like living on the banks of the Ganges River
. Not that it is a particularly holy place, but it is where everyone in my neighborhood deposits their unwanted items. It's a community ritual when you move out of the neighborhood to make your last stop the recycling center, casting on its waters everything you couldn't pack, sell, or give away. A trip to the center often includes serendipitous finds of some amazing items. For example, a frosted glass vase of the exact color and shape I needed for a table display at my book launch party, or an advance reading copy of Dan Millman's The Journeys of Socrates
the month before it was published.
This week's find was a quote from the Catholic philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas
, printed in Gothic type on the eggshell blue letterhead of a painting company, and placed behind glass in a wooden frame. Here's the quote: "Between the two extremes of timidity and boldness, it is more necessary to overcome the first than the second, for it is more difficult to repress timidity than to moderate boldness, because the dangers that result from the latter are sufficient to temper its excess, whereas the thought of serious evils which result from timidity ends in making us more timid still."
It seems to me that Aquinas has given us the practical explanation why "the only thing to fear is fear itself," to invoke Franklin D. Roosevelt. Once you enter into the cycle of listening to your fear, it can be difficult to break out. Your fears suggest dire consequences that may ensue when you take a risk, make a change, or try something new. If you listen to that dialogue, it can make you more fearful than ever to choose a new direction. And if you don't choose a new direction, you may find yourself by default stuck in the fear. Or as Roosevelt called it, the "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
We would-be heroes are often given the advice to "face our fears," but what does this really mean? If as Aquinas and Roosevelt suggest, paying attention to your fear can make you more fearful, what then? To me, the answer has always been not to ignore my fear, but rather to refuse to believe in its message. As when hearing a point of view I do not agree with, I try to listen politely, hear what it has to say, and then express my opposing opinion. Often I will try to reassure my fear, as if it were a frightened child. "Yes, I know you're scared," I might say, "but think of how much fun you'll miss out on if you don't try this."
A metaphor for working with fear that has helped me is to think of what I am about to do as a roller coaster ride. It's scary and fun at the same time. And part of the fun is that you are
scared. What fun would a roller coaster be if it didn't frighten you with steep dips and rapid turns? So at the scariest moment of trying something new, perhaps the best approach is to put a grin on your face, hold on tight, and call out, "Wheeeeeee!"
Labels: life purpose