"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.