Marcela Clavijo (Ven. Ngawang Samten Drolma) began dharma study with Khenpo Pema Wandak in 1995. Five years later, she encountered her root guru, the 41st Sakya Trizin, and in 2003, she received novice ordination in Nepal. She lives in New York City.
Fear can be a paralyzing experience. It robs us of peace of mind and our sense of self-control, and it blocks our ability to achieve the positive things we set out to do. It is a disturbing, negative emotion, especially when caused by confusion about what can actually harm us and what it means to be safe. But fear is something we can aspire to understand and eliminate from our lives.
Tibetan Buddhism offers many methods for recognizing, overcoming, and ending disturbing emotions, including fear. Some are grounded in awareness of the body. Green Tara, who represents the aspect of a buddha that protects us from fear, also represents the energy winds of the body and breath. Tara’s influence is the capacity to act, to move through life, and accomplish our aims. Indeed, her name means “she who ferries across.”
Understanding the subtleties of energy winds and how they influence us helps us, in turn, to understand our experience. Energy winds affect our body, emotions, and the types of thoughts that circulate in our minds, and they give momentum to all sorts of habits of acting, speaking, and thinking. To get a sense of this dynamic is to understand how we can positively shape our experience.
For centuries, meditation masters have used techniques to direct and regulate those energies. And while some of these techniques may seem esoteric, they are based on a very straightforward premise: if you can feel your body, you are feeling energy.
The goal of the practices offered here is to create positive, constructive energy feelings in the body. They can be practiced by anyone experiencing fear, panic, anxiety, agitation, or worry. And they can be very helpful in calming us down during moments of crisis. They relax physical tension, soothe the nerves, and calm the mind when we are extremely frightened or worried, or when we begin to panic. Tara represents the air or wind element and as such she is associated with moving through obstacles; so when we apply these breathing practices, we begin to feel revitalized, our mental energy becomes clearer, and we’re able to overcome anxiety.
Depending on the circumstances, you may use one or all five steps in the following order:
1. Sitting or lying down in a comfortable position, with eyes closed, gently breathe in and out, counting your breaths, with one inhalation and exhalation counted as one breath. Focus on the bodily sensations of breathing—the breath entering the body, the abdomen expanding and then gently drawing in as the breath leaves the body.
This is key: most of us pull the abdomen in as we inhale and relax it as we exhale. But breathing that way compresses the body, creating tremendous physical pressure and emotional and mental confusion. Making this simple correction, so that we expand the abdomen on inhalation and allow it to gently collapse on exhalation, can work wonders on our emotional state. After you feel a little more settled, gradually return to activity, or continue to the next step.
2. With eyes half-open, loosely focused, and looking toward the ground, continue to count the breaths— this time with one exhalation, the pause at its end, and one inhalation counting as one breath. After a few cycles, focus on the sensation of sitting; feel the surface you are resting on, and the body touching that surface. When you begin to feel more stable and grounded, return to activity, or continue to the next step.
3. As you become aware of the circumstances—the story line—giving rise to your fear, notice that you may be feeling more tranquil. This is a good time to reaffirm your motivation or goal. Bring to mind your heart’s deepest desire. For example, if this were the last day of your life, how would you like others to remember you, and why? Become aware of these aspirations, while simultaneously maintaining awareness of the breath and the calming of your mind. Once you have become more tranquil and attuned to your aspirations, return to activity, or continue on to the next step.
4. Now look at your mind. This is actually very easy to do when you know how. Without forming words in your mind, see whether your mind is calm or agitated. Is it focused or scattered? Is it lethargic or wakeful? Notice that your mind comes into focus, like an object seen through the lens of a camera. Look directly into your mind like this for a brief moment, and then release the focus and relax. As clarity and a sense of ease develop, return to activity, or continue to the last step.
5. Finally, no longer counting breaths, sense your body breathing itself. Notice the flow of air and the gentle rise and fall of the body with each breath. Feel the breath as alive, as flowing energy and sensation throughout your entire body, and sense how all the energies of the body are moving smoothly and harmoniously.
These breath practices recharge our subtle body and release stuck energy and the smooth, dynamic flow that arises from within. This freedom from the grip of fear and stress is the lived experience of Tara. Our minds are complex and profound, and so are our problems. On a deep level— more subtle even than the body and breath—fear is often accompanied by confusion about some aspect of reality: we cling to the notion of an internal, independent “me” that should be able to control things, and an external, independent “other thing” that we should be able to control.
From the Buddhist perspective, both of these views lack inherent existence, as do our emotions. In fact, the basis of the techniques offered here is the truth of dependent arising and the absence of true existence. This is why our practice can temporarily subdue and permanently eradicate all negative emotions.
Life presents us with a constant stream of circumstances that threaten to cause anxiety, fear, even panic, so we cannot afford to wait: these techniques can be applied on the spot. As we practice, Green Tara makes her way into our hearts, protecting us as we befriend ourselves and learn to send positive energy through our bodies, as we move along with a calm mind, free from fear.
The Metta Sutta | Loving Kindness Chant
– The Buddha
(The Buddha gives this sutta, as an antidote, to a group of monks who are in fear.)
This is what should be accomplished by the one who is wise, who seeks the good and has obtained peace. Let one be strenuous, upright and sincere, without pride, easily contented and joyous. Let one not be submerged by the things of the world. Let one not take upon oneself the burden of riches.
Let one’s senses be controlled. Let one be wise but not puffed up, and let one not desire great possessions, even for one’s family. Let one do nothing that is mean or that the wise would reprove.
May all beings be happy. May they be joyous and live in safety. All living beings, whether weak or strong, in high or middle or low realms of existence, small or great, visible or invisible, near or far, born or to be born, may all beings be happy. Let no one deceive another, nor despise any being in any state; let none by anger or hatred wish harm to another.
Even as a mother, at the risk of her own life, watches over and protects her only child, so with a boundless mind should one cherish all living things, suffusing love over the entire world — above, below, and all around without limit.
So let one cultivate an infinite good will toward the whole world. Standing or walking, sitting or lying down, during all one’s waking hours, let one practice the way with gratitude. Not holding to fixed views, abandoning vague discussions, endowed with insight, freed from sense appetites, one who achieves the way will be freed from the duality of birth and death, and no longer create suffering for oneself or others.