"Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones."
- Thich Nhat Hanh
In the last post I talked about the origins of our fears and how we need to try to find out what we are truly afraid of. Fear is a complex, deeply rooted, and powerful emotion that can control our actions and thoughts without us being aware of it. It is therefore so important that we know when we are fearful and understand what it is that we are actually afraid of. But after we've identified the source of fear, then what do we do?Just because we know we are afraid does not make us feel any better or act any differently. How do we move forward and grow with this emotion?
There are numerous theories and practices surrounding the idea of fear and how to overcome or work with it. Many of them seem to benefit people, others seem a bit odd... In this discussion I am going to focus on the practices and concepts that I have personally found to be the most helpful in my own practice. No one idea can be attributed to any one person (at least not that I am aware of); instead it is a melting pot of ideas that I have gathered from my teachers, my readings, my therapists, and my life! My way may not work for you.
To start, we need to acknowledge that we will always have fear. The goal is not to eradicate the emotion. If we had no fear then we would have no sense of self preservation or care for others; I don't think we would be alive. Instead, the idea is to learn how to work with fear and how to use it for our own self discovery and growth.
Fear is an emotion, and like any emotion we have 3 ways to approach it: 1) to act it out, 2) to repress it, 3) to sit with it. When we act out fear, we tend to express it as anxiety or anger; neither of which are particularly healthy mindsets. And repressing emotions never ends well. When our emotions are ignored, they grow stronger and more powerful until we can no longer contain and we explode in a very messy, often destructive manner. Since the first two options are less than ideal, we really are only left with the third option: to sit with the fear, or to be aware of it. Meaning when we begin to feel those fearful sensations or when we know we have been triggered (because we know the source of our fear), instead of leaping into action, thoughts, etc. try to step back and just observe.
Fear lives in the future. We tend to be fearful about what might happen, creating stories about future events. Instead of getting carried away in your imaginative future, draw your thoughts back to the present moment. How do you feel right now? What sensations do you notice in your body? How is your breath? By focusing on concrete and tangible concepts, you can begin to come out of your fear slightly and see what is actually happening. And then, sit with what is happening. I find this the hardest thing to do. To simply observe what I am feeling, be OK with it, and to just feel. It may be tempting to take this step and turn it into repression, shoving it away so you don't act; but don't let yourself. Allow yourself to feel the fear. Say to yourself "This is what fear feels like". Over time and with practice, you will be able to sit with the emotion for longer periods of time. It takes a lot of courage to just sit and be afraid.
Once you recognize that you are fearful, and you can sit with it for a moment, then you can begin the process of confronting it. The strategy I suggest here is to ask yourself "and then what?". For an example, lets consider someone who is afraid of public speaking. She would ask herself "what is the worst possible thing that could happen?". She might answer herself with "I could stutter all of my words, make no sense, and people will laugh at me". The next step is to ask "and then what will happen?". Her answer: "I will be completely embarrassed". "And then what?", "I will go home and eat ice cream to try to feel better", "and then what?", "I will go to bed". "And then what?" "I will get up and start another day". Obviously, this example could go many different ways, but the key here is to track down what will actually occur and acknowledge that you will be OK. If we can visualize ourselves surviving the worst case scenario, then the fear will have less control over us.
There are 2 things that I need to point out here. First, this only works if you are completely honest with your answers. If you say "I will die of embarrassment", that is not true. You will not die simply because you are embarrassed. The second thing is this is an imperfect system. If you catch yourself spiraling down a scary and never ending "and then what" disaster, step out of the exercise and distance yourself from your fear. This may not be the exercise for you.
This three step process for working with fear, (identifying your true, bare bone fear, sitting with the emotion, and then working your way through it) has worked for me and helped me through very scary situations. But that is not to say that this is the strategy everyone should use. The take away here is to begin to acknowledge your fears and recognize how they are controlling your actions and thoughts. It is harmful to you and to those around you to live in ignorance of your fears and to act without recognizing the stimulus. Maybe, after you've begun noticing how much fear interferes with your life, try this exercise or another one to help you work with and grow from your fears. Use your support systems. Your family, your friends, maybe even a mentor, therapist, counsel, or other professional. Fear is consuming our society and we need to put an end to it. And the only way to do so is to first help soothe our own fears. So be courageous with me. Learn about your fears, allow yourself to grow out of them, and lets embrace life!
"Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom."
- Bertrand Russell
Recently I have been astonished by the dominating effect of fear and how it impacts our lives. Everywhere I look, I see people acting and making decisions from a place of fear. A fear for safety, a fear for stability, a fear of not being liked, a fear for others, a fear of others, a fear of missing out, or even an unidentifiable fear. For me personally, I have noticed that a lot of my day to day and long term decisions are rooted in a fear of something. Why did I not speak up to my coworker? I was afraid to start a confrontation. Why do I follow traffic laws? I am afraid of the consequences if I don't.
Fear, according to the ancient yogis, is also one of the root causes of violence, anger, and hate; all emotions that are dictating our current political and social atmospheres. Since fear is so prevalent and dangerous, I want to explore what fear is and why we are so fearful. Short disclaimer: I am trying to figure all this out myself and might ultimately just create more questions...
Fear is a universal emotion that people from all around the world experience. It is the response we have when we perceive a threat caused by a complex interaction between your sense organs (eyes, ears, etc.), thalamus, amygdala, hippocampus, and other areas or your brain. Hormones and neurotransmitters are released and our sympathetic nervous system kicks in. As a result, our heart rate speeds up, our breath quickens, and glucose is released into our blood stream so our muscles have energy to fight or run. All of these responses are great evolutionarily. If there is a danger we need to be able to act quickly in order to stay alive. But in today's world, our threats aren't always as logical or straight forward as a predator charging towards us and so many things and circumstances can create this acute fearful response. Why are we afraid of so many things?
Scientists were able to demonstrate that all humans, and most animals for that matter, are born with only two fears: a fear of loud noises and a fear of falling*. Think about it. When we hear an abrupt, loud noise our instinct is to duck and we begin to feel our heart beat quicker and you may feel an adrenaline surge in your body; your fight or flight response is activated. The same sympathetic response happens when you misplace your foot while walking and you almost fall. These fears are engrained within us and evolved in order for us to stay alive.
Of course we all are afraid of many more things. Public speaking, flying in planes, looking silly in yoga class; our list of fears is enormous. These fears, it is believed, developed as a result of life experiences and conditioning**. As a child, we learn a lot from observing our parents and those around us and learn behaviors from them. Consider, for example, someone who is terrified of dogs. He may have developed this fear either because he had a bad encounter with a dog (i.e. A dog bit him) or because he grew up in a family or a community where dogs are not pets and viewed as a unpredictable animals. This is vastly different from the person who grew up with 3 pet dogs and who loves the animal. Our environment and our experiences shape our beliefs and our fears.
Which leads us to the interesting, introspective questions of "why do I have the fears I do?", and "how am I conditioned to be afraid of certain situations?" And I challenge you to sit with these questions, ponder them, and explore your fears. I don't mean to imply that your fears are not valid, because they are; but I do believe that knowing what we are afraid of and why we are afraid is critical to moving forward. Living in and acting from fear is not the answer and simply leads to more suffering. So be curious, ask "why", and try to understand where you are coming from. I'm doing the same. Next time you find yourself afraid or anxious, pause for a moment, acknowledge that you are afraid and be empathetic to yourself, and then try to trace the fear back. Find its origin. Maybe you'll realize that you are actually afraid of something completely different. Maybe you will discover your fear has a solution. Maybe you won't find anything at all. No matter what you find, recognizing that you are afraid is a huge first step in moving away from violence, anger, and destruction and towards calmness, understanding, and compassion.