Fear is the first natural enemy a man must overcome on his path to knowledge… A terrible enemy – treacherous, and difficult to overcome. It remains concealed at every turn of the way, prowling, waiting.

~ The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, Carols Castaneda, p. 62

I’ve been diagnosed with a cancer that must have been dormant in my system for a very long time. It emerged in manner that has never been seen before. I am the only one with this cancer in this way.

At the same time a cultural disease, the signs of which were long ignored, finally erupted, explicit on the national stage. Like nothing seen before in our history.

And the synchronicities between these realities are sometimes overwhelming:

The first symptoms of both of these diseases (and for me they are inseparably one) emerged in October. Some discomfort, some concern, but nothing that could or should be taken too seriously – all easily resolved, the problem could still just go away – and it would have been silly to be too worried. Maybe over nothing. No need to assume that the sky was falling.

Over the course of the month it became clear that signs  were accumulating, that some alternate reality was gaining momentum, that indications were pointing toward dangers more serious than imagined. But, still, nothing was definitive. Yet. Denial had its function. We didn’t know for sure. Nothing was confirmed. Yes, it was disturbing to even have to consider some of the potential outcomes, and to come so close to such a dire forecast – fear began to mount, but still: it could all be just fine, or maybe something that could be dealt with. There was nothing to be done until the final test was over.

And then, the second week in November – the results. The diagnosis confirmed. The disease named and explicit. The vision of future forever altered. The prognosis? Unknown. We could have eight months, or eight years left. Or a cure could come from out of the blue and save us all. It could be terminal. Or we could survive with it –  but there would be unavoidable losses, inescapable suffering. 

And survive or perish: we are all called to encounter our first natural enemy in one form or another.

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I first read Carlos Castaneda’s series about the teachings of Don Juan the summer before 7th grade. I’d spotted them on my defacto step-brother’s bookshelf, and had seen other college kids with them before. Even looking at the book jacket frightened me: images of large crows with knowing eyes, luminous eggs, and shining human forms, filled with light, devoid of faces. I’d heard the books were about “drugs” and I doubted my mother would let me read them if I asked.

We had all just moved in together after relocating to southern California from the midwest– my brothers, mother and myself with my soon to be step-father, who we all feared, and his son, Steven. We moved into a cheap two bedroom apartment in San Marcos while Mom looked for a job and a house for us to live in. The boys shared Steve’s room and Steve’s orders were not to touch anything of his.  Nothing, understand? Don’t. Touch. Anything.

I slept on the couch.

But my real “room” was the nearly empty coat closet. I’d arranged stacks of my favorite books, along the back wall. In one  corner  – I’d squirreled two couch pillows and fashioned them into a reading nook, with an industrial flashlight and a box of Ritz crackers. I’d read all of the Judy Blume, S.E. Hinton, and the Narnia books in my stacks at least twice, and so, when everyone else was watching 60 Minutes, I snuck into Steve’s room, and slid the Don Juan books off his shelves and deposited them in my make-shift sanctuary.

The books were about drugs, peyote, mushrooms – but they were also about magic and sorcery and seeing – as an anthropology student finds himself falling deeper and deeper into hallucinatory shamanistic practice. It was the strangest fairy tale I had ever read. There were long boring parts. Detailed passages about growing plants and preparing magic concoctions to smoke or eat. Peyote and mushrooms used as port-keys to other worlds instead of a wardrobe or a pair of silver slippers. I had no idea if what I was reading was fiction or non-fiction, dream or fact.

But I knew this: Carlos Castaneda, Don Juan’s apprentice  was afraid all the time. And Don Juan trained him to face his fears – by testing and terrorizing him. By frightening him over and over again. By telling him his life was in constant danger from spirits and dark sorcerers. By warning him that if he did not develop a warrior’s heart he would be destroyed.

“And what can he do to overcome fear?”

“The answer is very simple. He must not run away. He must defy his fear and in spite of it take the next step in learning and the next and the next. He must be fully afraid and yet not stop. That is the rule!”

~ The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, Carols Castaneda, p. 62

I was afraid all of the time. I needed those books. I wrestled with my fears every day and took on a dark sorcerer who seemed, in every way, to have power over our household, to have taken control over my mother and threatened to destroy everything I cherished.

I am afraid now. Cancer challenges every premise, every value, every belief that I have ever rested my sense of identity upon.

When visitors come to our home they ask how I am, but quickly the conversation shifts to our collective fears – the larger cancer that we are all contending with.

Fear is triggered by the sharp sound of a stick snapping in the silence. By shocking news that threatens your survival or your chances of happiness. By events that could consume those you love and cherish. By orders  that could harm your child, threaten your health care, deport your neighbor, cause you to question everything you believed about “inalienable” rights.

Fear reminds us that nothing is inalienable.

Fear grips physically, neurobiologically, spiritually – taking us down to the place where we contemplate losing everything, every one, our very lives. The most brutal primal experience of fear is a physical one, a visceral pain that burns like fire when we realize that our deepest attachments, to each other, to our children, to our neighbors, to our values, to our hopes for the future can all be severed by forces greater than we are.

And sometimes fear arrives like a disembodied spirit – in the middle of the night, stealing sleep, rattling dreams. We can be afraid and not know why we are afraid. Fear can fill up the empty hours like inhaling a gas in and out, until it fills every cell, contaminates every thought. Fear is a demon spirit that can possess and destroy us.

And you will learn in spite of yourself, that’s the rule.

~ The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, Carols Castaneda, p. 34

But the fear can also be the refiners fire – burning away anything that is unnecessary or excessive. Purifying, clarifying priorities. Boiling down to the essence:

What do we fight for? What do we live for? Who do we mean to be?

And if the fear is allowed to burn through – and this is a repetitive task because fear is never  extinguished as long as there is life, as long as there is attachment – we can find ourselves in a place beyond fear:

A place where the outcome is none of our business.

A moment that is lived so thoroughly, so impeccably that what happens next is irrelevant.

An instant that reveals everything that is more important, more essential than fear.

The split-second when our core purpose is located.

A space where we do what we must do – for love’s sake, for integrity’s sake, for the sake of our own fragile soul – because our heart has become, for the moment, a warrior’s heart. 

Oppressors and oppressed meet at the end, and the only thing that prevails is that life was altogether too short for both.

~ A Separate Reality, Carlos Casteneda, p. 143

 

 
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