How I Went from Fear to Freedom
“Experience life in all possible ways —
good-bad, bitter-sweet, dark-light,
summer-winter. Experience all the dualities.
Don’t be afraid of experience, because
the more experience you have, the more
mature you become.”
If I could go back in time to meet myself five years ago, he wouldn’t be able to believe what I would tell him. My self from five years ago was hopeless and couldn’t see any way out of the depths of suffering.
So he wouldn’t have been able to believe it when I would tell him that in just a few years time he would be truly happy and truly free from all the anguish that had been with him for the preceding twenty years…and it would be far simpler than he had ever imagined. The trouble was just that my self from five years ago was still looking in the wrong direction.
You see, five years ago I had reached the pinnacle of my personal suffering. And that was no small feat. I started starving myself at age 11. By college I was indulging compulsive rituals such as counting or hand-washing because I was terrified of the potential consequences of not doing them. Within the next few years I began to become paranoid that people were sneaking into my apartment and tampering with my food. And then I became increasingly reactive to fragrances and electromagnetic frequencies so that I felt chronically unsafe in all but the most ultra-natural environments.
So after a brief stint living out of a cargo van, I ended up living in the woods. There I got sick with Lyme disease. And I spent the next few years on the brink of death – but still expending what precious little energy I had on compulsive rituals. I remember walking to the stream from my tiny little cabin in the dead of winter to wash my hands compulsively in the freezing cold water. And I would do that countless times (okay, not true…I did count the times) every day.
Eventually I had become deeply depressed – truly unable to feel joy. In fact, about the only thing I could feel was impotent rage coupled with panic and fear. I prayed for a change – an end to the suffering one way or the other. I honestly didn’t imagine it was possible that the suffering would end while I was still alive, but I remember clearly that in my prayers I would say “if I discover the way, then I will dedicate my life to helping others so that they don’t have to suffer.”
I was ripe for change, however, because all my old strategies had become impossible to maintain. I was just too weak and exhausted, Miraculously, I came to discover some various teachings, practices, and studies that opened my eyes to a whole new way. I had tried so many different things to get well over the years – yoga, meditation, chanting, hypnosis, breathwork, herbs, prayerwork, and more. And none of it gave me true peace and freedom, and so I had grown cynical.
But somehow, at that point in my life, in the depths of the darkness, and despite my cynicism, some rays of light crept in. In a short amount of time some key pieces of information fell into my lap. Suddenly, I had the insights that allowed all my past experience to come to fruition. Out of this I developed some simple techniques for self inquiry that I started applying to myself. And I could hardly believe how rapidly my life changed.
The essence of what I discovered through all of this is that I had been living in terror of my thinking and the sensations in my body. But using these simple techniques, I learned how to see clearly. And now I truly am free of suffering. Thoughts happen without a problem. Sensations happen without a problem. And life is an awesome happening – sometimes wonderful and sometimes terrible, yet always unavoidably alive.
That part of my prayer in which I said that I would dedicate my life to helping others has come true. It’s not an obligation. It’s a joy. It’s my passion. I love sharing the message of hope.
So here is my message to those who suffer as I once did: true freedom is possible, and it is in the last place you ever thought to look for it. Begin to notice that your attention is often fixated on thoughts about what it all means:
- What are the causes?
- What are the solutions?
- What should you do?
- What is the diagnosis?
- What is the name of this?
Just for a moment – right now – notice what is before any thoughts. If you stop trying to solve the problem in this moment, what do you find in the absence of the search for the solution?
See what happens if you completely allow your own experience. Just for a moment, let everything happen, including the feelings that you’re afraid will destroy you.
Here’s another important tip: notice that the experiences that we call anxiety or compulsion (or anything else) are things that you feel. This is an important insight because all too often we mistakenly believe that we have to try and solve the problems of anxiety or compulsion through thought – that we can figure it out and/or exert will power to force a solution.
But when you notice that you feel these experiences, this can give you a very important clue about a better way to address these problems. Instead of trying to solve the problem through thought, see what happens if you withdraw your attention from all the thoughts about it and instead keep your attention with the sensations in the body. And, don’t try to change the sensations. Don’t try to label them. Don’t analyze them. Don’t try to figure them out. (Notice all of that is just more thought about it.) Just stay with the direct experience of the sensations. And see what happens if you don’t do anything about it.
I’ll tell you what I find. I notice that it is SO MUCH MORE PLEASURABLE to stay with the direct experience rather than the meta-analysis of it. Rather than giving attention to the thoughts about it all, I find it very wonderful to directly experience all of life. And the more I do it, the more wonderful life becomes. It is awesome to discover how endlessly expansive true freedom is.
Photo by János-Csongor Kerekes