from Chapter Five
The Initiation of the Lover:
Burning Through Techniques for Overcoming Fear
The only way to find the path is to set fire to your own life.
Fear is a thought-form, a manifestation of our personal or collective unconscious. But it is the body that remembers who we are. What we require, then, to overcome fear, is a signal from the body to the mind. This is an action, a gesture, a body-to-mind communication that things are about to change.
The gestures of the Shugendo Ninja were extreme--hanging from cliffs, walking through fire, sitting beneath freezing waterfalls--but a gesture for freedom does not need to be so vast and magnificent. It could be something seemingly very ordinary. Donna, one of my workshop participants, was concerned about the environment, the loss of beauty, and the kind of world we were leaving behind for our children. For her, a gesture of freedom would be to do something about this concern. Instead of dwelling on her concern and allowing her shadow self to define the world as a depressing and dangerous place and then teaching this to her children, she made a commitment to action--that on any journey she took, she would carry flower seeds and scatter them from the window of her car or train. This creative solution in the face of her concerns enabled her to take back power from her fears by doing something worthwhile for herself and others. It also sent a message of power and personal responsibility to her children, in a language they could appreciate.
Karma for the Ninja equates with the term giri, which means a sense of honor, duty, or decency. Karma--or giri--is about taking back our personal responsibility. It means that every action we take has a consequence for ourselves and for others in this lifetime. The more conscious we make our decisions and actions, the less possibility there is of “negative karma” or, more simply, the less chance of having to sort out the consequences of our unskillful or unconscious behavior, or to rely on others to do so.
Whenever we take a conscious action, we grab back our freedom and enhance our power because we also make a refusal to be bound by limitations and fears. We train the muscles of our heart to act differently by accepting responsibility for our actions. Then we can come to understand that it is not fear, after all, that we have been afraid of, but the dawning awareness of our own authority and power.
Training for the Ninja began early in life, often as soon as the child could walk. Gentle exercises, masked as games, would be introduced to help the “little weeds” strengthen their physical and mental endurance. There were games consisting of running and swimming, or leaping over fast-growing reeds so that the child would begin by jumping a height of a few inches but by the end of the summer would be diving over reeds some feet high. Because things like this were done incrementally and presented as a game, the children would think nothing of it and would enjoy the experience; but all the time they would be learning about themselves, strengthening their bodies, facing challenges and fears and, through observing their own actions and those of others, would also come to understand the workings of the mind.
Sometimes, however, a child would reach a blockage point where his fears might get the better of him and he would feel unable to continue. Yaqui shaman don Juan Matus tells us that in his tradition, at such moments the mentor must be “ruthless, cunning, patient, and sweet,” helping the disciple to stalk his fears like a hunter after prey. This was a strategy also known to the Ninja, and they would be equally cunning in helping their young get beyond the reach of fear.
Their technique is still taught today. Students are told to locate someone within the dojo or clan who seems, from her behavior, not to share their particular fear, and to model themselves on that person. (The second student will have her own, perhaps quite different, anxieties, of course, and will also have found someone to model herself on. In this way, all students become mentors to each other.) The next time they go into a situation that would normally cause them anxiety, each student is told to act as if they are their mentor. Over time, students find that they become desensitized to fear through repeated exposure to it and because they have the strength of a role model to draw on. By acting as if they are unafraid, they become unafraid.
EXERCISE 5: Your Fear Mentor
My proposal to you is this: find someone who does not share the same anxieties as you. (This can be but need not be someone you know personally; it could equally well be a movie, TV, sports, or music star, or a character from a novel or comic strip.) The next time you approach a situation of fear, act in the way that person would behave. This does not mean dressing like them, making the same gestures, or using lines from their movies. It is about assuming their thoughts and freedoms.
Willingly and deliberately find situations that would normally cause you anxiety and then enter them with the full intention to experience that anxiety, but armed with the different viewpoint and abilities of your mentor. It is as if you have his or her psychological and spiritual strengths for that time. As you expose yourself to these same circumstances again and again, gradually begin to withdraw from your mentor’s image, until it is just you that enters into and experiences that situation. Learn from each experience and reward yourself for each success.