Today is the feastday of St Francis of Assisi (1182 – 1226), a town I visited just a month ago, so a story from his life about working with difficult emotions.
We are told that there was a wolf terrorizing the town of Gubbio, attacking and killing several people. The townsfolk locked their doors, afraid to leave their homes. Francis heard about this and went to Gubbio . When he came upon the wolf, it lunged at him, about to bite. Francis stood calmly and greeted the wolf, calling him “Brother Wolf” and told it not to harm him. The wolf stopped and lay down at his feet. Then Francis and the wolf made a deal: the town would provide food for the wolf for the rest of its life, in exchange for the wolf’s ceasing to attack. We are told the wolf placed its right paw into Francis’ hand, and lived in peace with the people of Gubbio for the rest of its life.
These legends speak to the different parts of our lives. We all have many fears that push us to close our doors and withdraw. And we have emotions that arise within us and scare us, like anger, jealousy and the stuff that relationships bring up in our lives. Our normal first response is to be disturbed or frightened by these strong emotions and we move to push them away. However, in themselves, these are not the problem, but it is our mind’s relationship to them that is. So what we learn from Francis is to approach the things that frighten us – the frightening wolves within us – by looking at them directly, as if they are part of the family – “brother wolf”, “brother anger” “brother fear” – and welcome them to the table. This is the practice: to first experience the anxiety as an embodied feeling, with no shoulds or shouldn’ts about it. Our fears do not need to become a moment for showing ourselves further violence.
We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. .
We always have this choice
Pema Chödrön, The Places that Scare You
If we realize that our greatest enemy is fear
and what it does to us, and how much it launches these automatic protective programs,
then we realize that there’s a kind of daily summons to stand up in face of our fears
and risk being who we are and risk potential loss of our comfort zones
and the consensual approval that every child needs,
but which becomes a kind of constrictive burden for the adult
In Ireland, Summer is officially over at the end of August, and, as if to acknowledge this, yesterday began foggy and grey. Typically, however, the rest of the day turned out better than most of the Summer. The fog passed through, the sun came out. Today, we are told to expect heavy rain. Small upsets or bigger storms…the sky can hold whatever passes through it.
It is essential to understand that an emotion is merely something that arises, remains and then goes away. A storm comes, it stays a while, and then it moves away. At the critical moment remember you are much more than your emotions. This is a simple thing that everyone knows, but you may need to be reminded of it: you are more than your emotions.
Thich Nhat Hahn, Healing Pain and Dressing Wounds
When we love and allow ourselves to be loved,
we begin more and more to inhabit the kingdom of the eternal.
Fear changes into courage, emptiness becomes plenitude, and distance becomes intimacy.
John O’Donohue, AnamCara
The practice of silence nourishes vigilance, self-knowledge, letting go, and the compassionate embrace of all whom we would otherwise be quick to condemn. Gradually we realize that whatever it is in us that sees the mind games we play, is itself free of all such mind games and is utterly silent, pure, vast, and free. When we realize that we are the awareness and not the drama unfolding in our awareness, our lives are freer, simpler, more compassionate.
Fear remains frightening but we are not afraid of fear.
Pain still hurts, but we are not hurt by pain.
from Martin Laird’s beautiful book, Into the Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation
photo Per Ola Wiberg