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Shedding What Keeps Us from Knowing Ourselves

I love to throw things out.  I feel a sense of simplicity and ease, like my world is more manageable, when I go through the closet and get rid of things.  I feel safer, like I could run away faster, without all that stuff weighing me down.  Others of us, like my husband, don’t.  They feel more secure knowing they have everything they need—and more—around them.

Neither preference—shedding or hoarding—is better, from a psychological wellness point of view.  They are both, to some degree, motivated by fear. I feel more fear when I have things, my husband, when he doesn’t.  Both perspectives are motivated by an underlying sense, often not conscious, that we’re not fundamentally O.K. as we are in this moment, this life. And so we have to craft our lives to look like it should in our idea of what is a safe, good life.

So whether you are shedding stuff and feel good or shedding and feeling uncomfortable the ultimate question to ask oneself is: what makes me fundamentally O.K. in the world?  How could I know for certain that I’m worthy?  Is it dependent on whether I have things or not?

We are all fearful beings, which is not something to hide or to be ashamed of, but something to acknowledge and understand about ourselves. And our fear manifests in different ways: being busy, “working on ourselves,” seeking constant entertainment.  wanting to be liked, over eating, under eating, are all ways we can avoid experiencing our fear.  We can use this shed project to uncover that fear and see it clearly, or we can use it to cover up our fear, ironically, and pad ourselves further.

One of our best self-protection strategies when we start to feel fear is to pad ourselves with ideology.   And instead of noticing the fear we instead fixate on the ideology.  Or put more simply: we fixate on our thoughts.

We could, in getting rid of things, think: “Oh now I’m on the side of right; I am decreasing my carbon footprint.  I am getting rid of all these things.  Now I will live a simple life, not need so many material objects.  Now I can relax.  Now I am O.K.”

Or we could think: “I don’t like this shedding.  What if I need that thing at some point and I’ve thrown it out?  I have no clue what to get rid of and what to keep.  What does this say about me?  Am I doomed to a life of materialism in order to feel OK about myself?  Why can’t I just get rid of things and not care?”

When we go about getting rid of things—objects, weight, magazine subscriptions—instead of going to what do I think as I do this, we could focus on how do I feel in my bodyas I do this. And further still, can I be with what I feel in my body and not try to change it?

Why take this perspective? This approach –of noticing our direct experience in the moment—can lead us to know ourselves and that we are fundamentally OK.  (For those of you who need to know how it ends: underneath the fear is our tenderness and kindness.)

On this path we stop trying to armour ourselves and distract ourselves from some nagging uncertainty and instead notice what is going on internally. Can I feel the discomfort as I throw out my sexiest pair of shoes?  Or that shirt that says “me”?  If I feel excitement as I shed, where is that excitement in my body?  Pick a place if you don’t know.  And then don’t try to change it.

Or if it’s dread or confusion or numbness or “nothing” where is it?  My chest, head, throat, thighs?  Does it feel light or heavy, big or small, moving or still?  Try to stay away from value judgments about your direct experience.  But rest your attention there.  If you find yourself going off into thoughts about the sensation.  Bring it back to what you notice in your body.  After a minute or two,  go back to what you were doing.

My encouragement to all of us is to shed that which is a barrier to knowing our fundamental sanity.  And the biggest barrier is running away from, or padding over, our experience of fear.

As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Tibetan Buddhist teacher, said:

“….acknowledging fear is not cause for depression or discouragement.  Because we possess such fear we are also entitled to experience fearlessness.  True fearlessness is not the reduction of fear, but going beyond fear…If we look into our fear, we look beneath its veneer, the first thing we find is sadness, underneath the anxiousness…When we slow down, when we relax with our fear, we find sadness, which is calm and gentle.” Chogyam Trungpa, Shambhala: Sacred Path of the Warrior, p.36.

When we can meet our fear and be with ourselves as fearful and accept ourselves, then we are no longer acting out the fear, running from it, trying to cover it with stuff or ideology.

It’s like being comfortable being naked.  We will never be comfortable with our nakedness if we think the naked body is sinful.  Likewise, we will never know ourselves if we fear that we are fundamentally unwholesome.  We interpret fear to communicate: there is something wrong (with me.)

Of course, we have to start with some ideology and the one I’d like for you to consider is what FD Roosevelt said in his first Inaugural address: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  That if we were to look to be naked, we would not find something fundamentally objectionable about ourselves, in fact that it could be just the opposite.  Our basic humanity, as we are in the present moment, is enough to solve the world’s problems.

We wrongly interpret fear to mean that there’s a problem: me.  We’re not safe and the biggest threat is me!  Or maybe it’s you, or the government, or capitalism, or a spouse or partner.  And then we’re off into action.  We habitually and unconsciously leap to protect ourselves, change ourselves or our world.  We continuously put the cart before the horse.  First we need to feel the fear, examine it, know it, go through it.  And on the other side, discover fearlessness.

We don’t need to hide who we are.  We can shed our self-doubt and the path is to know our selves, our immediate felt experience in this moment….and then go back to throwing out those shoes, or whatever we were doing.

The challenge here is to trust that when we get rid of our “stuff”—that which keeps us distracted in our lives—we will find our fear and in sitting with that, our hearts.

Natalie Baker is a student of Tibetan Buddhism since 1991 and has been teaching Buddhism since 1996. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology, she attended Naropa University for a graduate degree in Transpersonal Counseling Psychology, with an emphasis in Buddhist psychology. Natalie works as psychotherapist in private practice in Manhattan and Bedford Hills. She lives in Pound Ridge with her husband, John and daughter Olivia. She will be on retreat in Nepal from October 1-18.

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