Breaking Through Fear

I’m in love with the cold
And the forgetful winter sky. 
Silence abounds, only warriors
Remain here. Reaching into the snow,
An enso appears. In a flash of nowhere
Energy, I stomp on it and laugh at my
Cluelessness. Walking, the crunching
Plays rhythms of a time when wood
Was heat and dinner an arrow.
Eyes across the tundra field,
I sing without next or last tones.
And scream. The field took it all,
Why wouldn’t it? That’s where
It came from.

I’m more acquainted with tortured states of mind than I am with most people. Whole years have been claimed by anxiety and depression.

But they were nothing like hell week from January 5th to the 12th of 2019. That’s when my mind and body both decided to break down at the same time.

I collapsed in the desk chair, heart racing and unable to catch my breath. My pupils contracted, so everything grew surreal. My skin itched. I felt hives beginning to form on my neck.

I reached for my inhaler, I hadn’t needed it in months. I was able to breathe again, but the hives and quiet panic remained. I took two Benadryls, which treated both my allergies and anxiety. I would find myself living off them for the next few days.

The next morning, I woke in the dark. I felt on edge. Downstairs, in the pale bathroom light, I looked at my feet. They looked weird to me, swollen. I couldn’t remember if they always looked like that or not. How often do we examine our feet?

I got fixated on them, and my shortness of breath returned. All day long, I couldn’t ignore them. I kept checking them to see if they were cold or numb. Each arbitrary sensation was a symptom, of what I didn’t know. Maybe a blood clot? Maybe diabetes? I took some Benadryl.

The next day, it was my lungs. My throat was dry, I couldn’t stop coughing. I knew it right then, with 100% certainty, that I had lung cancer. For me, anxiety usually manifests as paranoia, obsessions, and hypochondria.

Over the next few days, I probably went through two dozen different illnesses, from psoriasis to brain tumors. I knew it was the anxiety, but it wouldn’t stop, and nothing in my meditation or mindfulness arsenal helped. Only the outdoors helped. The cold and snow and crisp winter sky. The second I stepped outside, it was like walking into another world, another me.

Throughout all of this, an abscess slowly formed on my chest. I’ve had them on and off for 17 years. My chest is a battlefield of old scars from dozens of surgeries, most minor, two major. No one knows why I get them. This was the first one I’d had in that spot for a decade.

All of this together, and all of the losses of last year, it was too much. I felt hunted and haunted, and there was no one to comfort me. Nowhere to turn. No escape.

Five days in, it was before dawn and I sat in the dark kitchen being pummeled by thoughts and fears. Tired. In the bathroom again, I looked in the mirror. “Who is this?” I thought. “What sort of a piece of shit am I staring at? Only fit for worms, destined to rot. Everything destined to rot.”

Anger. It rose with the sun, piercing my shadows the same way the new day chased out the night. I stepped outside without a coat, shirt unbuttoned. My scars there in the light. I crunched through the snow, walking into the frozen wind with clenched jaw and fists. I started to feel… alive.

In my backyard, I gazed across the open snow swept field. I breathed deep the winter perfume and thought, “No.” To each haphazard thought and feeling, I offered a quiet, “No,” as a reply. “This is all too much.” “No.” “I feel so terrible.” “No.” “I just want to be loved.” “No.” “I want this to end.” “No.” “I…” “No.” “…” “No.”

Then, wherever attention wanted to land, I gave it, “No.” I denied myself the trees, the sky, the wind, the snow. The only thing I allowed was feeling, my overall state of mind. But I didn’t focus on that, it was just in the background. Surrounded by no, the frantic mind fell into it.

My anger was unchained, it had transformed into zeal, into passion. I called up all the fear, all the heartache I’d been harboring for months, all the pain, loneliness, and confusion and held it up to no. Then, in that cold, quiet morning, I screamed. Screamed across the field, a primal roar full of everything.

It seemed to go on forever. Then, it fell silent. I raised my arms, felt the feeling rise up, and screamed again. There was nothing else.

Panting, exasperated, I took a calming breath. The land was quiet again, and so was my mind. I looked up at the sky, smiled, and said, “No.” Then I laughed. Laughed out of relief, and laughed at how I had no idea what I was doing or what was happening. Just laughed.

The fear was gone. It felt like I’d just crawled up out of my own grave during a downpour, plopped on the mud, and celebrated with the storm.

Over the next two days, I worked with no and treated the remnant strands of madness. On Saturday, I went to urgent care and had a the abscess removed.

Now it’s Tuesday, and I’m carried by that cold winter morning and that hot determination. I’m moved by that inner storm. I had to reconfigure my practice. Guess I’m just not a rest and relaxation kinda guy. My rest is in motion, my ease is in vibrancy.

I can’t help you anymore than anyone was able to help me. A few social media friends gave me some tenderness, showed me love and support. But that’s like a lighthouse in the distance. You can see it, but you still have to move toward it.

We all have to crawl out of our own pits, cross our own oceans. The only thing we can do for each other is give each other permission to be broken. Then, allowing that, we can point to possibility. That it’s possible to do it, to rise up and dig ourselves out.

Everyone has different tools, skills, and capacities, but all of them can be used for the same purpose: unbinding. Perseverance is key. It’s practically everything. This practice, with all of its methods and wisdom, serves that aim.

You don’t have to go chasing enlightenment. Dig your feet into the soil, stare down impermanence until it cowers in the corner. Set emptiness on fire and throw imperturbable awareness—that Zen bedtime story—to the wolves. Whatever you pick up in practice, you eventually have to set down, even Buddhahood.

Toss the mind into the same compost heap as the body and look at what’s left. Just this heart. This beautiful Buddha heart. The timeless drum beat of common feelings. Transcendent intuition. Bodhicitta. From beginning to end, it’s only ever been about the will to shine.

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