Fear for me is being asked by my wife to take care of our two-year old son, Malcolm, by myself. I feel terrified by the prospects of inadequately responding to his unease or crying. I have a heightened awareness of being judged as a terrible parent. It has often been the case that, when I’m with him, I feel helpless to change anything, no matter what I try to do.
There is a story of the Buddha walking down the road where there was a vicious criminal and being told by the townspeople not to go down that way. Angulimala, the murderer, was looking for his next victim. When he saw the Buddha and approached him, Angulimala demanded that he stop. But the Buddha just kept on walking. Angulimala ran after him again yelling, “STOP!”
Buddha responded coolly, “Angulimala, I have stopped long ago. It is you who have not stopped.” The Buddha was pointing out Angulimala’s inability to stop the destruction of life. Angulimala miraculously recognized the error of his ways, bowed to the Buddha, threw away his sword, and asked to take refuge in the Three Treasures.
As I reflect on this story, I’m reminded of a line from the Yoga Sutras, “To one firmly established in non-harming (Ahimsa), all hostilities cease.” It’s not just the Buddha’s words that stopped Angulimala, but his presence.
I’m not the Buddha, and I don’t know if I could have the same presence of mind to stop a murderer. However, the genius of the Dharma is its universal application. We can apply it right now in whatever the circumstances we are in.
Every morning I practice meditation. I face the wall and follow my breath. Recently, my wife went out for a run and asked me to be attentive to Malcolm’s needs, which, of course, I obliged. When he awoke I was still sitting in meditation. In that moment, I had to make a decision about what to do. Should I go to him or have him come to me? On this day, I decided I would let him come to me. Being still, I was actually facing my fear. My thoughts went from, “I should run to him and try to make him feel all right,” to, “he’s okay as he is, there is no need to comfort him right now.”
Malcolm went looking for his mother, as is usually the case. When he could not find her, I noticed the anxiety in myself and stayed with it, watching it, breathing with it, focusing more closely on my breath. Malcolm then found me and asked me where his mother was. I told him that she was on a run and that she’d be back soon. Rather than trying to comfort him – as I could sense he felt agitated about this situation – I decided to just follow my breath closely and calm my own mind.
He came closer, and the closer he got the more he chilled out until he was simply leaning up against me. I was enjoying his presence and he mine, and we just stayed there for several minutes breathing together. Instead of reacting with actions that could have caused negative actions from Malcolm, my calm response elicited a calm and peace in him.
This saying from the Yoga Sutras, “To one firmly established in Ahimsa all hostilities cease,” has been increasingly on my mind since that experience. I’m by no means always feeling non-reactive, but I am inspired by how Malcolm responded to me, and by the practicality of this teaching. The practice of Ahimsa is not limited to the Buddha but can be realized by any of us in our daily lives and responses, such as dealing with a crying child, with an irrational family member, or just simply with our own mind. Can we see the universality and timelessness of this particular teaching?
The world tells us to hide from our fears, as symbolized by the people in the town warning the Buddha not to go in the direction of Angulimala. However, our practice is about facing our fears. Our fears lead us to deeper practice and understanding. Being afraid is not a sign of failure or weakness, but a natural and important ingredient for spiritual transformation. When our fears meet practice, there is potential for growth, as symbolized by the Buddha moving toward Angulimala.