Our Fears Are Simply, Paper Tigers
The Paper Tiger Story
She innocently laughed at me. “No, my dear, our fears are just paper tigers.”
During a meditation retreat several years ago, an elder sister (monk) once shared with our group a terrifying story of courage, love and forgiveness.
One evening, while this old woman was living in her native land of India, she was awakened in her bed by a startling noise coming from the farthest corner of her room. Before she could understand what was happening, a strange man leaped to her side, silencing her with his hand, forcefully asserting control with a knife pressed to her throat. He threatened to kill her if she talked.
Terrified and shaking, the hostile man yelled, “Where do you keep your money, your valuables?!” He uncovered her mouth, hoping she would reveal the secret hiding place of her wealth, but was disappointed when he listened to her reply.
She spoke gently and slowly as to not upset the man any further, “I have no money sir, I am a monk. My greatest valuables live within my heart and soul, as does yours.”
Confused and threatened by the calmness she emanated, he tried to regain power, threatening to slit her throat if she did not tell him where she kept her money. “Don’t lie to me you bitch, tell me where your jewelry is or I will kill you right here!”
Rather than responding to his demand, she asked, “Please turn on the light so I can see. There is a lamp right next to the bed. Just pull the chain down.”
Slowly he turned toward the lamp on his right, knife firmly in place just below her left ear. He pulled down on the chain dangling from under the lamp shade and turned on the light. When he repositioned his body to face his victim, he saw the old woman clearly for the first time since breaking into her home. Her faced was tanned and carved deep with the wrinkles of time. She had dark, new moon eyes that penetrated deeply into his soul. She was beautiful, even in her elder years.
When the Sister looked into his eyes, she witnessed a frightened young man, no more than thirty years of age. His face was also marked with wrinkles. But these wrinkles were lines etched from years of living in a state of fight or flight — lines that defined where he fell in the caste system that dictated the fate of people born in India, and lines that etched a story of suffering and loss that he endured growing up as a vagabond child in the streets of Mumbai.
She smiled gently at him and asked him to remove the knife from her throat. “I will not scream, I am not afraid of you young man. If I am to die at your hands, I will die in peace and honor for the life that gave us both our wrinkles.”
In obedience he lowered his knife, as if a power beyond his understanding took control of his body, forcing the weapon to fall to his side.
“Thank you,” she said honestly. “Now we talk.”
The man listened to her and allowed her to speak. Contrary to what most of us would have done, she didn’t plea for her life, she did not scream as she had promised, nor insult him with words. Rather she opened her heart and asked him to share his story with her:
“What have you seen my child, what pain have you felt so deeply that has caused you to choose this path?” And he responded and shared his heart.
She ended her story with a smile. Our group was speechless, our mouths dropped to the floor. She never did tell us what the intruder shared with her, only that they had spoke for hours and after he left she quickly fell asleep.
It was right at this point my eyes began to swell in tears, my heart full of questions: How did this woman face this unstable and violent man with such tenderness, such compassion and grace? How did she overcome the primal fear of death and surrender her heart into the unknown? Did the power of compassion and love truly command this man to drop the knife from her throat? How can I find that love within me?
Now I am sure most of us were thinking that this woman was the Bruce Lee of Hindu devotees and we all wanted to ask her many questions concerning this tale of heroism. But our reverance for this woman and the love she projected compelled us into silence for several moments. Only after careful respect for the sanctity of that silence, I broke through and asked her:
“Sister, how did you stay so calm when he had a knife to your throat? Weren’t you afraid?”
The old woman laughed, with joyful light pouring out from the cracks of her wrinkles.
“No, my dear, our fears are just paper tigers.”
“What is a Paper Tiger,” I curiously inquired.
The Elder took my hands into hers and said:
“See, our fears, well, they are like paper tigers. The tiger represents our fears. When we first experience our fears we are scared and tricked into believing we are powerless. We run around frantic, attempting to seize control over our racing heart, but control is a slippery slope and our reactive response to fear only gives our fear more power, more energy.”
But when we use the Wisdom within our Mind to pierce through the illusion, and we use the Love in our Heart to feel the truth, we recognize that those tigers are no more powerful than a piece a paper.
We quiet down, we allow our breath to return and our heartbeat to calm to a steady rate. We relax. It is then, and only then, can we become aware that these tigers are one dimensional fears that can be easily crushed with our hand. They pose no real threat over us!
So, our fears are simply, Paper Tigers.”