An Antibody to the Virus of Fear
By Nigel R. Black
Worldwide the pandemic has been devastating, though somewhat less in Australia where I live. However, continual outbreaks send cities and regions here into frenzies of fear and lockdowns. Borders are closed and opened like traffic lights at an intersection. Also, the political and social unrest of the past year has further inflamed our fear. Further still, fear exists around the climate crisis. January 2020 saw unprecedented bushfires and firestorms across vast areas in my country, taking many human lives and the lives of an estimated three billion animals.
It seems impossible to avoid fear in this time. Fear, stress, and unrest even seem to appear as a manifestation of the coronavirus itself. It’s true that fear, stress, and unrest have been exacerbated by the media; but fear, stress, and unrest are exacerbated by me when I am not taking care of my energies and when I am not cultivating awareness of what is manifesting within. And for me, the practice of stopping and looking deeply has been a vaccine for fear and stress. In these times of continuous stressors, a daily dose of nonfear, nonstress, and rest has been crucial. That practice has been nourished through the Sangha and all day every day through my family.
With my wife and two little girls, we have been finding ways to keep our practice. Our togetherness in following Thay’s advice of touching nonfear has been something of an antibody to fear in our house. We sit; we breathe. We walk with a sense of lightness and joy together—daddy, mummy, a five-year-old child on a scooter, and a three-year-old child in a pouch on my back. We look up together and enjoy the clouds, and the sights and sounds of the trees and birds. When the moon arrives, the children love seeing it in the daytime. We sing Plum Village songs as we walk and every night before bed. We enjoy going back to our islands of nonfear, before we sleep.
Touching nonfear requires acknowledging the fear present in us and having a way of being nonfear. It took me a little while to wake up to the great fear arising in me at the outset of the pandemic. Naturally, a primal fear had arisen: fear for myself for sure, but mostly for my family and my children. I cannot protect them from this threat was the feeling in my bones. The fear was overwhelming. But in recognizing the fear, I realised that there was something I could do.
I returned to Thay’s teachings on nonfear, where he points to mindfulness practice itself as the practice of nonfear. Ironically, this primal fear set off a renewed conscious effort to cultivate ways of living mindfully in our little house, and to better recognise and transform fear. Ironically, I saw that without fear—without being aware of the fear—I would not have been able to touch the nonfear available in the present moment and cultivate ways to manifest nonfear with my family.
The little people and big people in our house have been experimenting with simple ways of being mindful to help recognize and transform our fear. Faced with stressors, my wife and I often ran away from our fears using TV or food. But we needed to be in touch with our worry, slow down, and stop. We found that short sitting meditations throughout the day were helpful, even if it was two minutes. By stopping the internal anxious chatter we could redirect our awareness to the present and put more energy into listening and observing each other. If the anxious energy was very strong, we suggested one parent go for a walk, sit, or take a gentle shower. We also enjoy guided meditations from one another or use the Plum Village App—particularly deep relaxation—together, alone, or with the children.
With a psychologist friend, we tried some new ways of bringing mindfulness and calm to the children. We created a calm wall of teddy bear images. Placed on the left side the wall were a sad bear, an angry bear, and a fearful bear. Placed on the right side of the wall were a happy bear, and a bear that our daughter decided “really meant happiness,” “when you close your eyes and sit calmly, like the Buddha.” Between the disrupted bears and the calm bears was a hand-drawn image by our five-year-old daughter that details her interpretation of mindful breathing; we loved how breath awareness represented the transformation between fear and nonfear. We experimented with identifying our “bear” emotions whilst recalling that we could be calm like the “Buddha bear” when practicing our breathing. We also created a “calm room.” Usually we would bring cushions for meditation, but having a permanent space offered an island of refuge within our house any time of the day for us all. Because we all moved around the house, we made two meditation stations: one in the calm room and one in the lounge room.
The daily cultivation of gratitude has been crucial in our house during 2020, and now with 2021. With the great difficulties and suffering in the world so visible, every moment was highlighted as precious. We lost friends. Our girls are quite young, so we do not discuss our deep concerns too much in front of them. However, we try to promote gratitude where we can. Mealtime has been an easy time to practice gratitude with the Five Contemplations.
Since the contemplations can be a bit long every meal for little people, the girls simplify things by putting their palms together and saying, “Thank you for it!” I love it when the eldest daughter catches me and says, “Daddy, you haven’t said thank you for it yet.” And when our youngest puts her hands together in the cutest way—more like a sandwich than a lotus—squints her eyes very tightly, and says, “dunkoo fawett!”
Cultivating gratitude depends upon my presence to what is actually happening in front of me, inside of me. It also depends upon my availability to this very moment, recognizing stress, fear, and discomfort, and knowing what to do or what not to do. This includes being grateful for my baby girls, for my amazing bodhisattva of a wife, for being alive and lucky, for Thay, for the teachings, for the Sangha—and for fear itself as a profound bell of mindfulness. I cannot know what the future holds, but whatever happens I vow not to ignore my fear. This also means not missing the wonder and joy before me. I am not sure I could see fear in this way before 2020.
Fear, if taken care of mindfully and skilfully, can become the seeds of joy, gratitude, and peace. Fear leads to practice, which leads to gratitude, and eventually leads to joy—like being in a garden at sunrise with my wife and girls, eating weetbix (Australian cereal) and fruit, enjoying the sunlight through the trees, overlooking the ocean, and running around the garden with my babies and our doggy. The conscious effort to practice nonfear each day with/for/as a family casts light upon my experience making it vivid and clear, through which gratitude and joy bloom.
Nevertheless, the pandemic continues; the climate crisis continues; confusion and unrest continue, and so does our fear. Yet the Sangha is there; Thay is there; my family is there, and you are there—all bells of nonfear. I am a daddy, a husband, and I value the lives and love of my family who have revealed themselves as true antibodies to fear. Globally, there is fear within and without—yet the gentle smile of family and Sangha reminds us of the possibility of transforming our fear, and we can be bells of peace to one another. On our little street in Port Noarlunga, nonfear manifests through the smile of a neighbour, the warmth of a little doggy resting in the sun, the bright blue sky, the ukulele song of a beautiful loving wife, and the boundless joy of two little girls bouncing on a trampoline.
Nigel R. Black, True Stream of Serenity, is a committee member and co-facilitator at Plum Village South Australia, a co-facilitator at Compassionate Ocean Sangha online and Ocean Zen Sangha with his wife Peta in Port Noarlunga. He is finishing a PhD inspired by Thay’s teachings and the Zen traditions.