My grandfather passed away when I was nine years old, and I remember attending the funeral service and hearing my father get up in front of a large group of friends and family and give a moving eulogy. It really struck me at the time because he was such a good speaker, so confident and skillful in his delivery; meanwhile, I was absolutely terrified of public speaking. I would go stiff and silent, and much of my school years were spent avoiding presentations in front of groups. I went so far as to fail a class to not have to give a prepared speech at the end.
I couldn’t imagine at nine years old ever being able to speak in front of a group without fear. Fast forward to last Saturday, when my cousin, the eldest son of my late uncle, got up in front a gathering and also gave a clear and moving eulogy in memory of his father. So many years later, I know now that his ability to speak in front of the group is not merely a product of skill and experience in public speaking. It’s also a matter of circumstance. He is the eldest son, and like my father almost thirty years ago, it is his task. Prepared or not, scared or not, he got up and spoke when it was time to do so. And if the situation was scary for him it didn’t show — if anything, it made the moment more rich.
As a child, I thought of public speaking as a circumstance to avoid. It was the discipline of those who inclined towards it, like my father. But circumstance after circumstance forced me to face my fear – first, in high school, then in the military being put in positions of leadership, and now in monastic life. When I first sat on the dhamma seat to give a simple ten minute talk, it was almost an entire minute before I could get a single word out of my mouth. The next time it was only half a minute. Through continually facing my fear, I’ve found the ability to just let the words flow.
This is the situation many of us face. We don’t have the luxury of just sticking to the things we are comfortable with and the situations that don’t produce fear. If we did have that power there would be no need to face fears or put up with that discomfort. But because circumstances are out of our control, sooner or later we must find something within ourselves: Courage.
We have a word in Pāli for being Fearless: Abhaya. This is a wonderful state. But Courage is something that only comes forth when we are actually afraid. It is the domain of us normal human beings who still have work to do on the path of spiritual development. To grow we will have to face those situations that frighten us — not because courage in and of itself is a necessary trait, but because fear stands in the way of the greatest freedoms we can achieve.
We all Fear different things. Some fear public speaking, while others fear flying in planes, or spiders, or being alone. Our fears cut down to our core, and if we look closely at them they will reveal what we most want to hold on to. While learning to not grasp those things so tightly will definitely bring us peace, often it’s the fear itself that is the greatest burden. Courage helps us bear that burden and learn to understand our fears. Through understanding, we can push past them, and when we no longer fear the loss of the things we cling to, letting go of them will take no effort at all.
We need Courage to practice the five precepts, and give up the violent solutions to our problems that sometimes seem the safest route. We need courage to let go of our views and consider the perspective of another. And we need courage to not rush to the next sensual pleasure or comfort and wait for contentment to arise. It takes real guts to practice the dhamma not knowing for sure if we will ever get anything out of it.
Last Saturday, on the New Moon, a few resolute friends gathered for the biweekly Uposatha Observance. Sadhu! The theme of the talk by Tahn Pamutto was a continuation of the exploration the weekend before on the subject of Fear and how we work with it in practice. You can find a recording of that talk here: