Recently I read a brief talk by Sharon Salzberg, in which she said, “There is always trauma in the room.” You don’t have to be a war veteran or a survivor of abuse, trauma is in the room. And with trauma comes fear.
The dana paramita, the paramita of giving, is about the giving of fearlessness. One way to do that is by showing fearlessness. When we sit we let go of thoughts, eschewing fear and distraction, and give ourselves the gift of our own life. We let go of protective mechanisms and the world comes in. We let go of separation, and the riches of the universe pour in. Off the cushion we practice and live in the same way, as though nothing is missing. Anytime we think we’re poor or we withdraw in fear, it reflects a fixation on some aspect of poverty or suffering. Life lived out of that attachment is narrow and fearful. Living from the moment, living out of letting go, is a gift of fearlessness to others.
There is another way of giving fearlessness that is quite different. It’s sharing the fear and vulnerability, showing the trauma as it’s being healed. This is a way of giving not from our strength, not from what we have a lot of, but rather from what we perceive as weakness, from our own vulnerability, from the side we prefer to keep private.
Ordinarily we like to show the world our best side, the side that is successful, that manages, that’s healthy and under control. But there’s always trauma in the room. We have another treasure trove from which to give, and that is the sharing of our failures, of our struggles to remain connected in a real way to ourselves and others, of trust in the big picture. It’s like presenting a koan, and the koan I’m presenting is my own life, including what I label as its underbelly. Instead of keeping weaknesses and doubts secret I share them, I present the day-in, day-out work that I do in engaging with them.
One sees that in council, when we’re asked to be spontaneous and speak from the heart. Those who do that often speak hesitantly, as if hearing the words for the first time, working out what they have to say as they say it. That, too, is a model of fearlessness. Natalie Goldberg says that when you write, don’t be afraid to be the worst writer in the world. Don’t be afraid to present incorrect grammar or spelling mistakes, don’t be afraid to be repetitive or tentative or garbled. Just write. That’s fearlessness.
It means not hiding, not posturing, not pretending. The Dalai Lama has said that if you understand the doctrine of dependent origination, you understand the dharma. If there’s this, then there’s that. If this happened, then that happened. Everything is interdependent and co-arising. How do you teach it? By being it. By facing our lives cleanly and transparently. By not hiding or holding secrets.
Giving possessions is often easier for me than giving the dharma, which means sharing all of me. It’s easier to give homeless people money than introducing yourself by name; it’s easier to write a check to a distant charity than go into our own schools and slums. It’s easier to give a workshop on something I’ve mastered than to share something I struggle with. It’s easier to know than to bear witness.