Your One Fear and the Two Things to Heal It

The Wound

All fears can be distilled to one single fear. It’s the fear of not being enough. For most people, the marching band of “never enough” will parade its way down the main street of your headspace several times a day without your permission. The playlist of this raucous and persistent band includes the following thoughts played in a torturous monotony: I am not smart enough, funny enough, good enough, loveable enough, forgiving enough, attractive enough, thin enough, popular enough, strong enough...

The repetitive stream of “never enough” appears to be a thoroughly convincing and completely accurate summation of our innermost value. We conclude we are broken beyond repair and settle for strategies to hide this painful truth from ourselves and others. To manage what seems like the intolerable pain of “never enough,” we hide behind distraction and facades. Some of us shop, exercise or self-medicate. Others become addicted to accomplishment and activity. For some, appearance or screens dull our feeling of inadequacy.

To bolster this inherently unpleasant condition we can become bitterly judgmental of others, ironically elevating ourselves to numb our self-loathing. Of course, comparing your idealized best self to your friend’s hypothetical worst self is not only unfair and unkind, but ultimately unhelpful. In the long run, this judgment only fuels your intuition that you are in fact irreparably broken. From this perspective, we are all addicts clawing for the next fix to make our craving disappear by self-medicating. Of course, this only fuels our sense of inadequacy. Is there any other option for those of us who think, “If people really knew me and glimpsed just how broken I really am, they would sprint away with a mix of disappointment and disgust”?

One of the great spiritual masters of the twentieth century, Henri Nouwen, called the pain of “never enough” the great primordial wound which longs for unconditional love on the one hand and obsessively anticipates love’s rejection on the other. In a self-defeating spiral of despair, the heart longs for the love it concludes it’s unworthy of.

Think Happy Thoughts?

It’s tempting to hate this voice of negativity and resent its rants. The common temptation is to go to war with the primordial wound of “never enough.” Arming yourself with positive thoughts and shallow self-help platitudes, we attempt to think our way toward healing. This makes a certain amount of logical sense: “I’ll simply replace one negative thought with another positive thought.” Not only is this exhausting, it’s a never-ending war. Einstein’s oft quoted wisdom is instructive here: "The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” Hatred doesn’t eliminate hatred. Warfare does not end warfare. Thinking is not healed with more thinking. There are two resources that we can cultivate to meet this inner wound and the wounds of our world today, resources that meet Einstein’s criteria of arising from a different level of thinking: presence and love.

Presence

This fear of “never enough” has something important to teach us. This inner voice of criticism doesn’t need to be conquered; it simply needs the same thing that every other being needs: our compassionate presence. When the inner critic appears, observe it with curiosity and gentle awareness. Watch it with your mind’s eye. Carefully notice each thought. Lean in to look carefully at the very thought that seems to want to crush you. Thoughts are only thoughts. They only have the power we give them. Even more, remember that you are not your thoughts. The very act of observing your thoughts of “never enough” itself is healing, because this observation reminds you that who you are is vastly larger than any thought form.

Of course, it’s one thing to know this as a concept and another thing to know this directly through experience. Mindfulness and meditation practice provide a direct taste of this freedom as we give ourselves to the practice of presence. This is our deepest conviction at Copper Beech Institute: that mindful presence is the healing balm that the wounds of the world sorely need.

Love

For those of us whose mindfulness practice is nested within Christian spirituality, there is another layer to uncover in our journey to freedom. From the Christian perspective, the human heart has been made to be infinitely loveable by a love which is boundless. Unconditional love is our source and our destiny, yet somewhere within this human sojourn, we have forgotten that we are infinitely loveable.

In an age of cynicism, when we’ve grown accustomed to assuming the worst of one another, we might remember our common longing for unconditional love and our common fear that we might be rejected in our search for it. In the Christian tradition, this unconditional love is called grace. At the heart of the Gospel is the striking teaching that love is the very essence of who we are and the very reason for why we are. The great work of a human life is to give and receive love. The great error is to forget that this is the very reason we exist.

A Home to Practice Presence and Love

Not dependent on religion, race, political affiliation, immigration status, sexual orientation, or behavior, this divine love and grace is given freely to everyone. For seven decades, Holy Family Passionist Monastery and Retreat Center in West Hartford, Connecticut has been an oasis of grace defined by this offer of unconditional love. So central is this teaching for the Passionist Community of Catholic priests and brothers that for the next year, Holy Family will offer a retreat nearly every weekend entitled Grace Enough which explores the power of unconditional love to heal the heart and transform the world. Dedicated to the inclusive and transformative wisdom of the Christian tradition, Holy Family has become a welcoming home to seekers who wish to discover and share this deeper love.

The campus of Holy Family Passionist Retreat Center and Copper Beech Institute, West Hartford, Connecticut
The campus of Holy Family Passionist Retreat Center and Copper Beech Institute, West Hartford, Connecticut

In 2014, Copper Beech Institute, an independent non-sectarian nonprofit organization joined Holy Family’s campus to share the power of presence through mindfulness and meditation practice. Copper Beech Institute has become a contemplative crossroads welcoming people from around the world from any or no particular religious tradition to practice present-moment awareness through mindfulness. In a spirit of warm acceptance, Copper Beech has found a home amid the sacredness of this historic campus which for generations has celebrated the power of love to heal the wounds of the human heart. If the central wisdom of Holy Family is unconditional love, then the central wisdom of Copper Beech is presence. This unique partnership reminds us that love without presence is half-hearted; presence without love is sterile. Together, these two organizations declare that unconditional love and presence together are the two wings by which the soul can soar. The natural collaboration between the dynamic Catholic retreat center and the growing mindfulness institute represents the dual wisdom of unconditional love and mindful presence working together to heal a world scarred by division and fear.

The labyrinth on the campus of Holy Family Passionist Retreat Center and Copper Beech Institute.
The labyrinth on the campus of Holy Family Passionist Retreat Center and Copper Beech Institute.

Longing for Love

The belovedness of the human heart is universal and though we often forget in the tempest of busyness, we have boundless amounts of love to share — even for our inner critic. This is the powerful reality that every great spiritual tradition names each in their own way. The good news is that you don’t have to feel this for it to be true. This one fear of “never enough” is the hidden voice of the world calling out for love.

Some teachers through their wisdom show us who we want to be. Other teachers show us through their ignorance who we don’t want to be. Still other teachers teach us by offering countless invitations to practice in action what we value in our hearts. “Never enough” is this kind of teacher inviting us to share our love and presence. There is unspeakable power in your presence because presence is the riverbed through which the waters of love can flow. The world, like the inner critic, is longing for our love. What a treasure that within all of us is one single fear that teaches us everything — to practice presence and love in all we do. Is there any greater lesson?

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