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Fear as a stepping stone to fearless love with Susan Gillis Chapman


During the past couple of years our lives have been disrupted in ways we never thought possible. Having seamlessly transitioned from a global pandemic to major European land war with global implications you might be feeling some background anxiety about the future.  The spectre of fear always shows up in times of great transition when things are most fluid and uncertain. However, rather than freezing it is possible to relate directly with fear and see its illusory quality. This liberates us from the internal bondages that normally constrict our capacity for love.

In this episode of Awake In Relationship I speak with return guest Susan Gillis Chapman about discovering the path of fearlessness in the moments when we are most vulnerable and afraid.  We also discuss the 3 kinds of fear that show up when the familiar reference of life suddenly fall apart and how mindfulness can help us access the inner resources of self compassion, confidence and bravery.

Show Notes


If you enjoyed this episode with Susan on working with fear you might also enjoy episode 033 Rude Awakening: 5 keys to mindful life transition


Episode Transcripts

intro  0:09
You’re listening to Awake in Relationship, a podcast about intimacy, community and culture in a time of great change with Silas Rose.
Silas Rose  0:41
Hello dear listeners, my name is Silas Rose, and you’re tuned into Awake in Relationship. In the past couple of years our lives have been disrupted in ways that we really never thought possible. While it seems the worst of the pandemic is behind us we have seamlessly transitioned onto a major land war in Europe, so if you’re feeling a bit trepidatious or uncertain about the future right now, you’re not alone. I’ve had quite a few conversations with people lately who are experiencing a background anxiety. Fear feels very personal. We carry in in our bodies, it effects our neurobiology, and shapes our behaviour, and in particular our worldview. We all have unique strategies, which we developed pretty early in life for dealing with fear, we might seek out some kind of distraction or dissociate through drugs, alcohol, or overwork. Or maybe we just freeze like a deer in the headlights. It feel like we’re living in a time when the unconscious patterns that have been created, to avoid fear are coming to the surface, both individually and collectively. In this regard fear is the gatekeeper to the sustainable, compassionate, sane, society we need to create. Fear often shows up in transition times when things are most fluid and uncertain.  Fear also has an illusory quality,  Hence the acronym used in self help circles, False Evidence Appearing Real. Of course, some threats are very real. And the fear is there to wake us up. But, how can you tell the difference between illusory fear and awake fear? In this episode, I speak speak with returning guest, Susan Gillis Chapman, author of the Five Keys, of Mindful Communication about turning towards fear and using the moments when we’re most afraid as stepping stones to fearless love. We also talk about the three kinds of fear that show up in times transition, when the reference points in life seem to be falling apart, and how to use mindfulness to cultivate the inner resources and bravery, confidence and self compassion.  I should also mention that if you are struggling with a lot of anxiety and fear right now, the big takeaway from this episode is don’t feel like you have to go it alone. Fear’s biggest stick is isolation. So Im encouraging you to please share your experience with an empathetic person, that can be a therapist, or good friend. There’s something really powerful about sharing our vulnerability and our experience. It is the way we create connection.
Susan, welcome back to the show.
Susan Gillis Chapman  3:43
Thanks, Silas, I’m very happy to be back with you.
Silas Rose  3:47
Yeah, it’s been a while. For those that perhaps haven’t tuned into our previous conversations, it might be helpful to just to introduce yourself and maybe talk a little bit about what you’ve been working on in the past few months?
Susan Gillis Chapman  4:04
Well, introducing myself is actually probably part of our dialogue, because I think this is really very much a work in progress. Just in terms of our conversations. You know, I, when I published the book, five keys to mindful communication, which was about 10 years ago, I had just emerged from nine years living at a Buddhist monastery. And so that was like the beginning of a, you know, transformative process for me. And I think some of our previous conversations have been sort of stepping stones along the way. So generally speaking, I’m here living in the Burnaby area outside of Vancouver. I’m happily married 34 years and my son lives in China and he’s happily married and teaching there. And for almost 50 years, maybe 48 years, I’ve been practicing Buddhist mindfulness meditation and loving kindness, and other Buddhist practices with quite a few teachers. And that’s very much influencing the conversation we’ll have today, I think, because I’ve been working on this new book project.
Silas Rose  5:39
It’s kind of a really unique offering, because I don’t know how you categorize on the audience you’re aiming to reach, I’m assuming it’s kind of people that are interested in spirituality or personal development. And in that regard, many books on the market are really kind of focused on results. Whereas you are really focusing on on the journey and the transition. Why was it important to focus on transitions right now.
Susan Gillis Chapman  6:10
Well, again, you know, I, when I began practicing Buddhism and meditation, in 1974, I was in a Bardo, at that time, my brother had just died in a car accident. I hitchhiked from Vancouver to Colorado, looking for guidance, and I am a teacher that I found Trungpa Rinpoche who introduced the idea of the spiritual warrior as a practice of turning toward fear and relating to groundlessness.  One of his more famous students is Pema Chodron who picked up that same theme. And if you look, or if any of the readers in the audience is listening, if you are familiar with her titles, you know, the wisdom of no escape or when things fall apart, etc. So it’s very much how I’ve been trained for the last 48 years is about remaking a relationship with things falling apart, rather than trying to sew them back together.
Silas Rose  7:22
So bardo are often associated with the time of death. Whereas I think, you know, small bardo are always happening in life. But I think what’s consistent is it really kind of begins with some kind of shock and kind of rocks our world, a tremendous space opens up and uncertainty.  Are there certain telltale signs for you know, anyone listening that might kind of indicate, hey, actually, I’m in a bardo right now.
Susan Gillis Chapman  7:52
Yeah, so one of my goals with this book is to allow the term Bardo to become part of our vernacular, when we look at certain kinds of transformative changes, or potentially transformative changes that occur in our life. And I think, again, going back to Pema Chodron’s book titles, a lot of times, people will say things like, suddenly everything is upside down, or I felt like a trapdoor opened up and I just fell through it. As you said, the definition of a Bardo, at least my working definition is it’s not what was expected. It’s an unexpected event. And it doesn’t have to be hugely traumatic. I mean, we could talk about the larger examples of you know, your home burning down or losing your job or the death of a loved one. All of those are Bardot’s in my opinion. But we can also just, I think, the invitation is to look back at our lives, and see that these gaps in what we call normal, are actually the times when we grew and changed and transformed the most. And everything has to do with how we relate to that shock, that fear.
Silas Rose  9:22
You get quite granular when talking about that fear.
Susan Gillis Chapman  9:25
You know, in traditional teachings on the Bardo, there are essentially three stages that we go through between death and rebirth. And I know that not everyone believes that this process occurs after death. But nonetheless, the traditional teaching things identify these three stages. And so in reflecting on that, I realized that these three stages somewhat correspond to my experience of three kinds of fear. The first fear which is that shock of wakefulness. That’s the shock, I’m just going to use my example, you know, you have cancer shock. And you have to relate to that that fear is telling me the truth. It’s telling me that there’s something I need to do, I can’t ignore it, right. So that fear is like a wake up call into a new reality, like, I didn’t think this was happening now, it is happening. So it’s a, it’s an alarm clock that wakes me up. So that’s really important that we have a way of relating to that, and I’ll get back to that in a minute. The second kind of fear is, in Buddhist psychology, it’s, it’s called ignorance. But a more accurate way of saying it is denial, it’s turning away from what is true. And trying to fill that gap of wakefulness with some alternative story that diverts our attention away from the truth. And, and the thing is that our were very, very intelligent in filling that gap with persuasive, believable alternative stories. I call that in my first book, I call that toxic certainty. And, and what that particular red zone I call it this read, this realm of frozen fear does is really close any kind of gaps of uncertainty, which makes it still seemed very appealing. But in fact, what we’re doing is we’re closing the space in which we can listen to ourselves, or deeply listen with critical thinking to others. So make it get back to that also. But so that’s frozen fear. And the third kind of fear, which is associated with the kind of stages the Bardo, that’s just before we’re born again, into a new body. This has to do with what I call the core fear. It’s the basic fear that we’ve been hiding, that there’s something wrong with me. And in terms of the way Trumper Rinpoche taught, he emphasized that we all human beings are basically good, or basically innocent. Yes, we suffer, and we suffer, do all kinds of mistaken patterns. But our fundamental nature is, is good. However, if we don’t examine the nature of our kind of earliest traumas, which really is the trauma of, you know, being born into or experiencing other people’s frozen fear, then it’s easy for us to take the blame onto ourselves and say, there’s something wrong with me. And if we don’t examine that, then that core fear continues to trigger us to shut down. It’s almost a feeling of shame. You know, like, there’s something I should be ashamed of, I’m not exactly sure what that I know, it’s there, you know. And so this third kind of fear has a different quality than the other two in the sense that it’s really central to our sense of, I would say, a false identity.
Silas Rose  13:42
Sense of self.
Susan Gillis Chapman  13:43
Yeah, it’s a sense of self. We’ve created a sense of self worth, even we could say, defence mechanisms around that, without having turned around to see what’s really there. So, yeah, so this is kind of, you could say, this is the journey of the spiritual warrior, or the journey of someone who’s willing to let a Bardo be transformative is to relate to all three of those because all of us have to some degree or another, all three of those stages that we go through,
Silas Rose  14:19
if I understand you correctly, core fear is a kind of an existential of anxiety.
Susan Gillis Chapman  14:25
Yeah, I mean, I think that this again, is like in Western psychology, we might call it an existential crisis. And in Buddhist psychology, we might say, it’s the, the fear of the truth that we don’t exist. This is like a non existential crisis. But, you know, the fact that we don’t exist doesn’t mean that there’s nothing happening. It just means that the self that we keep identifying with is actually not accurate. This is why a Bardo can be so incredibly helpful because it shakes up what we think of as normal. And from a conventional point of view, you know, that’s distressing, like I want things to be normal again, I want to be who I always was, and I thought I would continue to be. But actually a Bardo is bringing us home to what is true, which is, everything is constantly changing. You know, the thing about a Bardo. And I’ll say this, again, from my cancer journey is that it produces a sudden abrupt glimpse of the kind of change that’s normally gradual. So you know, like, the body I have today, is really different than the one I had two years ago. And the cancer treatment made it feel like that was a huge, you know, this body transplant, like this huge thing that happened in this series of traumatic kinds of events. But in fact, I’ve also I’m two years older, you know, and we age and we changed. So it’s really an invitation to take another look at the natural fluidity of our experience. And an even one step further, we could say that disruption itself is really good news. Because it’s only in disruption, that we see the gaps, that we see beauty, that we receive love, that we receive wisdom, those are what I call that, the ways of nourishing our roots. It’s, it’s only by interrupting the flow of normal, that those things can happen. You know, it’s like, if you’re going for a walk, and you keep talking, you don’t notice the wildflowers in the meadow, you know, you have to have an interruption in order to experience things as they are. So. So these are this is kind of the positive. I’m not saying that the Bardo is comfortable or easy. But it’s bringing us closer to what’s true than our so called normal conventional sense of going from one solid thing to another.
Silas Rose  17:21
It’s interesting talking about fear is something that is transformative, and ultimately brings us back into alignment with something deeper, which, you know, we might call Basic Goodness, or maybe it’s love.
Well, coming back to the topic of love, I feel that so what I’m whatting,  I’m doing in the book is actually personifying the word love. Love is central and most important. And I may have said earlier, I can’t remember that. The book really is a dialogue between love and fear, or our relationship between love and fear. And in the Bardo teachings, we’re told that there’s a tremendous opportunity in the Bardo, for the loving mother to be reconnected with the lost child. And that’s a beautiful, beautiful image that I’m trying to build upon by saying that there’s hundreds 1000s of different ways that love manifests. When we’re in a time of disruption. It’s the kindness of strangers, you know, it’s, there’s, it’s, it’s someone who points out the wild flowers. It’s, you know, there’s, there’s, but but we do need, it’s really essential that we find as many ways as possible, to bring love into our experience, in order to prevent fear from freezing. And so, again, in the Buddhist teachings, there’s lots of images of the female Buddha. One image is the, the female Buddha named Tara, who is a representation of liberation from fear, that’s her specialty. So where fear shows up, she arrives and liberates us from fear and there’s all kinds of symbolism in her imagery that represents how she does that, but it’s primarily with loving kindness, compassion, wisdom. When it comes to the Red Zone, which is the hardest, you know, most of us live there a lot of the time. environments in which frozen fear and denial sort of dominate. The female Buddha that shows up in the traditional Buddhist teachings is called prajna paramita. And her specialty is, is recognizing confusion. And that’s really extraordinary. Like how do we recognize our own confusion? We do have a capacity in our mind, we have an ability to do that. And when we meditate, there’s something in our mind that wakes us up from the train of thoughts, and brings us back to our breath, or brings us back to the present moment. That’s symbolized this prajna paramita. So how do we skillfully interrupt the confusion of toxic certainty and create space? For deeply listening? And asking ourselves the question, Is this really true? Do I really believe that and, and that’s really important. And one of the things that relates to that, as far as mindful communication goes, is one of the methods for cultivating prajna is dialogue. You know, you don’t, it helps a lot to read and study, Wisdom Teachings, but it’s also really, really helpful to be in dialogue with someone else, or in a contemplative dialogue with yourself. So that you actually do say, Okay, this is what I believe, and then then discover that that’s not true. So, anyway, that’s, that’s one example of how we liberate from, you know, this frozen fear is by cultivating a questioning and inquiry. But again, it’s got to be loving and compassionate, or else, it just triggers our defensive reaction. And, you know, in this third part, there is this kind of image again, of the loving mother, who reconnects with a lost child and brings that last child home. And that home is the basic goodness, basic innocence. And, and the way that we do that is again, we go back into, like, where did I get the idea that there’s something wrong with me. So, you know, I explored that a lot. And in my book, The Five Keys, and I’ve worked on it in other ways, but it’s basically, you know, if one of the messages I’m delivering here comes from a really wonderful teacher of mine, Virginia Hilliker, who said that all children are born compassionate, and will absorb the suffering of the parents. But they don’t have always the insight or wisdom to understand that it’s not their fault, you know, like, they would absorb the blame in order to make the parents not be angry, or they would absorb the unworthiness in order to make a parent feel worthy, you know, but, but there’s this carried misunderstanding that, that says, This is my identity. So the practice of working with that third kind of fear, in terms of this loving mother is to have a very affectionate investigation into that, like, you know, where did that come from. And a lot of that is what we do in therapy. You know, that’s, that’s what really good psychotherapy is all about is bringing us back. And in this case, again, it’s like imagining that one form or another of loving presence, goes with us through the Bardo. And means each of these different kinds of fear is some form of compassionate inquiry.
It really feels like the tip of the iceberg is, is that frozen fear. That’s what  most of us are kind of working with, and recognize, and so much of that is obviously originating in trauma, and we live in tramatic times. So I think that that fear is up for a lot of people right now. How can we give ourselves the love, and care, how can we learn to relate with fear in a very direct way, in a gentle way?
Susan Gillis Chapman  24:13
Well, my understanding so far, my experience so far is we cannot be isolated. That, you know, the image I have is what I call a front visualization. In other words, especially in a Bardo, when we’ve had some kind of really shocking, painful experience. We do need to have even one caring person being there for us, we need a circle of care, and we have to be very careful who we hang out with. So I do think there has to be some way of connecting and it can be a stranger. In my case, it was my doctor, you know, just somebody who says Here’s the truth, I’m here with you. I see, you know, I feel what you’re going through. And so I think it’s finding some way of building that circle of kindness for ourselves. And it’s really hard to do. I mean, we have to do that ahead of time. Before something difficult happens. But I think, as you’ve talked about many times, and you actually are dedicated to this, we have to find alternatives to disembodied opinion based exchanges of information. That is really, you know, red zone communication. On social media, you know, there’s probably lots of good things that happen. Social media, but at the same time, even an encounter with a stranger in the park, who pauses and pets, your dog can have more nourishing value than the empty calories, have a, you know, an exchange online with somebody who’s just shares your opinion about something you heard him say. So I do think that the loving kindness, and this is not by the way, this is not what’s presented traditionally in Buddhism. But I believe it’s true that, that we actually need our sense of self compassion to be ignited by external people. Just one, one loving friend is all we need, as opposed to 20 friends who can’t listen to us.
Silas Rose  26:46
Perhaps the genesis of that is really developing a sense of vulnerability and willing to kind of share our inner experience.
Susan Gillis Chapman  26:56
Yeah, I mean, how many very profound conversations that happened on airplanes with the person sitting next to you that you don’t even know their name, you know. So if there’s just something very human about the need to be held, with affection, or with encouragement, or with presence, and I know that the reason people pay therapists is it’s hard to find, can’t just say, you know, look, and Craig flows for someone who has presence and but on the other hand, we can say that the space that we need is the space for listening, somebody who can listen to us someone that we can trust. So we listen to them. And then in that way, we start listening to ourselves. So yeah, there are lots of techniques we can use to develop self compassion, but I really don’t want to encourage the listener or myself to continue to just go it alone.
Silas Rose  28:08
I assume many people listening to this podcast are on some kind of spiritual journey, or certainly focusing on growing themselves as individuals and in their work. Fear is a constant companion on any genuine path of transformation. Even the historical Buddha had the maras, you know, and they’re always on his back up until the moment of enlightenment. So there really is no kind of warriorship or real growth without fear. What do you think the ultimate reward is for facing that fear?
Susan Gillis Chapman  28:48
Well, I don’t know if we call it a reward it it’s really the opportunity to wake up. And what my teacher Trungpa Rinpoche said is there is such a thing as fearlessness. It’s just that that fearlessness cannot be achieved by turning away from fear it can only be achieved by going into it fully. And so in that case, I would say like, you know, if we were imagining this as the Bardo and if the mother the loving mother actually can bring the last child home. The last child being our fear, this part of ourselves that’s free, frightened, and home is really reconnecting. It’s we are interdependent. Life is fluid, everything is about letting go but also about things being born on the spot, you know, the things that we’re afraid of become more illusory as we get to this home. So, you know, they the result you could say And, you know, this could, this isn’t something we can experience on the spot. But paradoxically, we can experience some of these glimpses of our own goodness, on the spot. Again, you, you’re terrified, you’re going for a walk, and, and then you see that Wildflower. And in that moment, you’re home. And then the fear reconstructs itself. And but maybe it’s changed a little bit. Maybe it’s softer and less intense. So this constant interruption that occurs with moments of beauty with moments of love, with moments of wisdom when we say, Oh, I’m wrong. You know, I thought I bought into that. But now I’m realizing it was wrong. I mean, those interruptions are in some ways, complete. You know, in those moments, if we were really to see them under the microscope, we’re fearless in those moments. It’s just the habit of reconstructing ourselves again. So, you know, everything that I’m saying has kind of a macro and a micro, the macro sense is ultimately yes, it’s possible to experience fearlessness. That’s what the Buddha, you know, experienced with enlightenment. But on a micro level, there are moments of seeing that complete goodness. All the time, it’s just that we normally overlook them. And this path is really about going into any moment, any interruption, and finding that kind of, you know, drinking in nourishing ourselves with the affection for our ordinary everyday life. Which in some ways is the antidote to this kind of, you know, fear of what will happen next. Because those micro moments of our everyday life, those wildflowers, that’s what’s true, you know, what we’re afraid of, is usually some kind of thought. It’s not something you can smell and, you know, doesn’t have color and taste.
Silas Rose  32:31
Sounds like I’m talking about nowness, which might be a topic for a future podcast,
Susan Gillis Chapman  32:39
Yeah. So this is what I mean, but that is what mindfulness is, isn’t it? Mindfulness really is training to come back to the present moment. And when you’re in the present moment, you know, there’s affection. And but there’s not necessarily fear. I mean, fear may be a pathway, or it may be a blockage. So this is what I’d say the victory story is that love. I was gonna say Love trumps fear. I’ll just say, Love wins out over fear. Love is bigger than fear. And, you know, if you see enlightened people, they are full of love. They’re not full of fear. So love is much bigger than fear. That’s the good news.
Silas Rose  33:29
I so appreciate our conversation. Susan, thank you. How can people learn more about you and stay in touch?
Susan Gillis Chapman  33:38
Well, they could always check my website, susangillischapman.com. I was putting chapters from my book in there, but I’ve decided to take them out because it’s still so dynamic. But I have some information there. And so I’ll try and communicate with people through the website.

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