Getting ready to give a dharma talk is like waiting your turn to have an interview with the teacher at a Zen retreat. At our one-day retreats, I’m often the moktak master, which makes me the last person to interview, and gives me a lot of time to wait.

Now, ideally one would sit with a relaxed, clear mind, not thinking about the interview at all. But for me, there’s often a little fear. And then, because I’m nervous, all my stuff comes up…all the habitual coping devices I employ when I’m afraid.

Foremost is planning. An interview starts with the teacher asking, “Do you have a question?” So I usually try to cook up the perfect question. It shouldn’t be a thinking question, that would be incorrect…it should be a spontaneous question.  There I sit, trying to plan my spontaneity and tying myself into knots…until I’m like, Arghhhh!! Caught in a zen paradox!

Sometimes, if I churn away like this long enough, the entire effort collapses in exhaustion and futility, and I just let go. Or not… I may keep at it till the bell signals my turn. Either way, when the time comes, I  get up, with or without my little coping devices clutched in my hands, and then whatever happens, happens.

I want to talk tonight about the things we hold onto in an attempt to feel more secure when we are nervous, afraid, facing the unknown. These things are endless…they can be habitual activities like compulsive planning and rehearsing, or they can be routines, comforts, identities, relationships, even spiritual practices. Often they are simple material objects – seemly trivial, but our grip on them can be surprisingly powerful.

At a retreat last year, I was waiting in the hallway for an interview with a handsome youngish teacher I’d never met with before. At the last possible minute, I felt a powerful need to bolt back to my room, which was very far away in another building, and put on some lipstick. I’m not a big makeup person, especially at a retreat, but at that moment it seemed that I’d be better equipped to deal with the interview with a little lipstick on.

This is the kind of impulse we have a hundred times a day without noticing, but in the state of heightened sensitivity that comes on retreat, it was crystal clear…the fear, and the grasping at a straw. My feeling on seeing it was, “AWWWW….that’s kind of cute.”

Most of you women understand this. This week, I’ve been watching the PBS series, Frontier House, on NetFlix. Frontier House is a reality show in which three modern families volunteer to go out into the wilds of Montana to live like 1883 homesteaders. They have to give up all the comforts of modern life, have to learn to build their own houses, milk cows, and churn butter. But the thing that seems to freak out the the women and teenage girls most is the prospect of giving up their makeup.

There’s a funny moment when the group is about to head out with the wagon train, and the producers of the show invite them to voluntarily surrender any contraband they may be smuggling. The women rummage around in their corsets and bustles, and out comes an entire pile of mascara, lipstick and eyelash curlers.

My son, Alex, was always a big one for security objects. When he was about four, he went everywhere with a little plastic Ernie figure clutched in his hand. One day I took him to Curt’s house to play. Curt was a kid he especially admired, and this was their first play date together, so Alex was a bit nervous. He intended to leave Ernie in the car because he didn’t want to look babyish.

Alex started up the walk towards the house, and then he turned, ran back and grabbed Ernie. Clearly he just needed him at that moment. I was very touched by the sight of Alex bravely marching towards the scary unknown, with nothing but a little plastic doll to help him.

Not everything we clutch is small and material. I always say, if you think you’re not afraid of dying, try teaching a 16-year-old to drive. You’ll quickly find out the truth. You try to look all calm and relaxed so as to inspire confidence in the kid, but in reality you’re gripping the edge of your seat, clutching at life like a gollum. It’s humbling! I remember thinking, Wow, I think I’m all accepting and spiritual and stuff, but in fact I may be the kind of person who tramples over everyone else to get into the lifeboat first!

But this is all okay. It’s not about forcing ourselves to stop holding onto our security blankets, as much as just noticing the fierceness of the grip. It’s about seeing what it is that we are clutching onto for dear life, tasting the flavor of the fear that’s driving it, and sensing the abyss we think we’ll fall into if we don’t hang on. There’s no need to be judgmental about any of this. We can feel the same kind of tenderness and sympathy towards our little maneuvers that I felt for my son clutching his Ernie doll. Eventually maybe we’ll come to fully see the futility, even the silliness of our effort to control the situation. And then we’ll just naturally begin to relax our hold.

A retreat is a powerful opportunity to voluntarily relinquish our grip on the things we think we can’t do without.  For the duration, we give up coffee, our books, cellphones, email, talking, in fact all our regular comforts and routines. It can be challenging! We get to see how strongly we’re attached.

But even if we don’t go on a retreat, life will inevitably offer us similar challenges. My son Alex is about to graduate from college, and he seems to be absolutely terrified because everything that has structured his life up to now is about to end. Or so he thinks. He refers to his upcoming graduation as an “impending execution.” My friend, who has a daughter going through the same thing, said “It’s hard for them to relax into the change.” And I thought, Yeah…relaxing into change is hard for me, too, and I’ve been working on it for more than 50 years.

This current economy challenges a lot of us with the loss of things we have counted on for security….loss of jobs, loss of homes, loss of retirement money. A lot of people seem to be going off the rails. There have been all these shootings, and the rate of suicide is up. When I hear about the latest awful thing, I think, Come on everyone, we’ve got to get a grip. But actually, no….we are already gripping, the problem is that the things we are gripping onto are slipping away. Our culture doesn’t give us a lot of support or guidance in dealing with these kinds of losses. It’s general message is hold on tighter, get more, shore up the supports, and if you lose, well you’re a loser. It’s no wonder there is so much suffering now.

This is one of the reasons we practice…so that when the bottom falls out, we don’t completely fall apart. The truth the Buddha taught is that there really is no bottom, that everything is slipping away all the time, and ultimately we can’t hold onto anything. I hear that it’s possible to get comfortable with this reality, to live happily without holding on to anything. I’m not there yet, so I keep practicing.