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Real But Not True

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When very strong emotions -- like fear, anger, or jealousy -- come up, it's very hard to resist giving up and giving into them.

For example, several years ago I was traveling on a very small airplane between Pokhara -- one of the lowland regions in central Nepal -- to Muktinath, a remote site high in the Himalayas. I was traveling to oversee the rebuilding of a Buddhist nunnery there, which had fallen into disrepair. The plane was supposed to depart at 8:00 a.m. in order to avoid the high winds that almost always develop later in the day. But in those days, airplane travel in Nepal was an uncertain prospect at best, and planes often departed hours later than they were supposed to. Eventually we left the airport, 3.5 hours after the plane was scheduled to depart and long after the winds had begun to blow.

As we flew between two huge mountains, our tiny plane was buffeted up and down by turbulence for almost half an hour. The few other passengers on board were screaming and crying, sure they were going to die. I applied a little method I hoped might steady me a bit: Instead of focusing on the movement of the plane, I looked out the window and focused on one of the mountains. But I must admit I was infected by the same fear that gripped the other passengers. Although we landed safely, I prayed that there might be another way to get back to Pokhara -- by car or bus -- but the only route in those days was flying. On the return trip, crammed in the same small plane with foreign tourists, I sweated so badly my robes began to get wet. I clutched the armrests tightly, and though doing so made me feel a little better, a part of me knew that no matter how tightly I clutched, it wasn't going to help if the plane really crashed.

The fear I felt on that return trip, however -- and the fear I felt for many years later, even when I was traveling on large commercial airliners -- was real, in the sense that I was fully experiencing it. However, as I looked back on each subsequent experience, I had to admit that it wasn't true. That is, it wasn't grounded in actual, present circumstances, but instead was triggered by residual memories of a past experience.

This sort of experience, in which fear or some other strong emotion arises in a context that doesn't necessarily warrant such a reaction -- or perhaps to a degree that isn't warranted by the actual circumstances -- that I've learned to engage in a little conversation with myself: "Yes, what you're feeling is real. I recognize and honor that. But this fear is not based on true conditions."

Over the years, I've shortened this conversation to a kind of mantra occurred to me. Mantras are usually special combinations of ancient syllables that form a sort of prayer or invocation that help to open our being to a deeper connection to possibilities beyond our immediate conceptualization. In my own case, I don't rely on any mysterious syllables, but only four simple words: Real but not true.

Repetition of this mantra has become a practice for me: a recognition that when I feel troubled in any way, the feelings of a particular challenge are real in terms of thought and feeling. But however strongly such thoughts and feelings may arise, they're not based on immediate circumstances. I began to see that whatever situation I'm in, whatever challenge I'm facing, can actually serve as an opportunity to educate the part of myself that identified with and as a strong emotion.

I invite you now to participate in a little mantra exercise when faced with the strong emotions that arise in various situations in your life -- for example, being stuck in traffic and being late for work or a meeting; dealing with a coworker, a manager, your spouse, partner, or children; or talking with bank officials.

Take a nice, deep breath, observing your inhalation and exhalation. Then take a moment to greet your feelings as guests. Say "Hello," and start a conversation. You can begin by saying something like "Yes, I know that you're real."

Then ask "Are you true? Are you based on present conditions, or are you based on past experiences?"

Ask yourself again and again if what you're experiencing is real or true, until mentally and emotionally you can accept your feelings as real but the conditions on which they're based as possibly not true.

Such momentary pauses can transform your understanding of who you are and what you're capable of.

As you go through a day, a week, even a month, how often do you find yourselves confusing what is real and true?

What happens if you allow yourself the simple kindness of acknowledging that what you feel is real, but that the situation may allow for a bit more of a friendly chat?

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