The Haunting Fears of Others

When my mother found out that her cancer had come back for the 2nd time (it went again, later to return for the third and last time), she spent a lot of time trying to work out what might have caused it, focusing often on various environmental contaminants, which I won’t go into here, as there is no need to pass her fears on to anyone else.

Because unwittingly she had already passed her fears on to me. Or, at least, I took them upon myself and for years have often been frightened by the things she most fretted about. I’ve been having nightmares recently about one of the things in particular that worried her most, recurring nightmares, and this bothered me, until the middle of last night.

I woke up after another such dream, and, as I’ve started doing recently, said to myself, “these are not my fears, I can let go of them”. I had already worked out that these fears were my mother’s, but this time I saw how clearly these fears weren’t just passed on to me by my mother, but were haunting me just as they’d haunted her in her life. Just like a ghost might haunt someone. Through these rather unpleasant dreams I was still asking all the same questions she was, namely, what made her ill.

But that question isn’t mine, it’s hers, and it didn’t do her any good in any case. She might have speculated forever and never worked out what caused her illness. But she did speculate, and I see how I took it on, and now it haunts me in my dreams. But I see it is just that. A haunting. A haunting question that would better have been laid to rest with my mother, and cannot do me any good in the present.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that in order to overcome our fears, we have to understand where they come from. I understand now where so many of my fears come from, and that so many of them are not mine. I think that seeing how they were haunting me like a ghost – the ghost of someone else’s fears, is another important step in letting them go.

And letting go of the haunting shadows, I am freer to choose and enjoy the greatest gifts of my inheritance. My mother (the secret Buddhist!) gave me a sense of wonder and awe in the face of this astoundingly beautiful world, and my father, thankfully still here, taught me photography to help capture and share it.

Update: It’s two days since I wrote this post, and since then the dreams have stopped. Perhaps they will return. Perhaps writing this post, and coming to the realisations behind it, was an exorcism of sorts.

Do you have a problem right now, in this moment? Look at yourself in your physical form, your feelings, your perceptions. Do you have a problem? If we see that we don’t have any problem at all in the present moment, we shouldn’t let the ghosts of the past dominate us. We should not let the projections of the past or the future break us down. They’re just ghosts. That’s why we train ourselves to always be in the present moment. That’s our practice. That’s our path. It’s the way to reconciliation. Thich Nhat Hanh, Reconciliation.

4 thoughts on “The Haunting Fears of Others

  1. Sarah Smith

    When my mother worried about my father out fishing during a storm, a simple old country woman with not much education told her that as often as she had worried about this or that in her long life, she always found she was worrying about the wrong thing.
    Peace to you this Christmas Season.

  2. James

    Your mother’s search for answers resonates with me. My mother died after a second round of cancer in 1998. Each case is different, of course, but cancer can cause prolonged suffering before it actually kills you. It’s a scary disease to watch.

    Since her death, I find myself trying to figure out what causes such a disease and how to live in a way that prevents it. Maybe it is too much red meat. Too much white flower and sugar. Processed foods, fast foods, junk food. Not enough exercise. Too much alcohol or not enough red wine. Should I eat more kale or take supplements? Am I doing enough exercise and handling stress correctly? Should I drink green tea each morning? What about raw foods and chemical-free products such bamboo bed linens and organic cotton clothing?

    And on and on.

    Nothing wrong with keeping an eye on my health and lifestyle, but I think excessive fear of illness and death drive a lot of my ruminations. I have also waken in the middle of the night with these fears. Let these go, I say to myself, practicing my breathing.

    I think the best thing I can do is work on acceptance. Jon Kabat-Zin says if we are breathing, things are still pretty good. I’ll continue having those raw kale fruit shakes in the mornings, but as importantly, I am working on acceptance of what is now, in the present moment, and recognizing my insecurities about the future as mind waves that I can watch raise and then fall away.

    1. Ben Post author

      You obviously understand just where I’m coming from. I’ve been and go through the same ruminations, and precautions over lifestyle, food etc – we take a lot of care with our diet, try not to work too hard etc – but recently I also increasingly see where I can still find ways let go more and enjoy life – and I’ve still got lots of letting go to do. For years after my mothers death, I was quite mentally and emotionally paralized by it all, but it’s lifting. I think John Kabat-Zin is right, yes, we’re breathing, everything is alright. And as Thich Nhat Hanh says in that quote above, “we shouldn’t let the ghosts of the past dominate us.” It can be hard though! Thanks for the comment as always.

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