There is a new missive making its way around the yoga community, and I have to admit, it has me a bit baffled: “Choose love over fear.”
The more I hear this phrase repeated in various iterations, the more I feel compelled to question its meaning.
The “Love vs. Fear” sentiment was first introduced to me at a weekend workshop with a yoga teacher, for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect. At the time, I blindly accepted it as the generally positive, motivational self-speak I suspect it’s meant to be. The idea, as I (don’t) understand it, is that love and fear cannot exist—or be felt—simultaneously. When confronted with a stressful choice or situation, whenever possible, one should always choose love over fear.
But as I began to really explore the concept, I couldn’t help but wonder: are love and fear really opposites? And more to the point, are they mutually exclusive? And if this is a concept that is becoming broadly accepted by my friends and peers in the yoga community, why am I having such a hard time understanding it on its most fundamental level?
It has been explained to me that the concept is rooted in the fact that you cannot think two thoughts at the exact same time.
At any given instant, you are only holding one thought in your head, even if those thoughts seem to bounce around at a rapid-fire pace. This sounds kind of reasonable. But to what degree do we define love and fear as thoughts as opposed to emotions? And to what degree are we able to choose our emotions?
When I think about the greatest sources of fear in my own life (excluding the unpredictable accident or tragic event), each and every one of them is rooted in love: I love my husband, therefore I fear for his health and safety on a daily basis. I love my job, therefore I fear for my ability to do it well. I love my pets, therefore I fear that I am doing a crappy job raising them and taking care of them.
Of course, I might not be the best example. My mother diagnosed me as a “worrier” when I was a young child. But my point remains: the things that are important to me, the things I love, are the things I fear for the most.
The conversation went a step further when I asked my parents for their input on the topic. (Who knows more about the complicated relationship between love and fear, after all, then those who have birthed and raised children? As a friend of mine with children says, “I have not had a worry-free day since my daughter was born.”)
For my father, however, this was not a conversation about parenthood, but about his experiences serving on the board of directors for a non-profit domestic abuse shelter in their community. He has witnessed multiple examples of the Gordian Knot of love and fear that keeps women in dangerous domestic situations, sometimes convinces them to leave, and often finds them bouncing between leaving and staying. I would imagine that for many of these families, love and fear are virtually indistinguishable.
In this “love versus fear” equation, fear always seems to get a bad rap.
Fear is thought to promote inaction that can keep us from pursuing the things we love or desire: fear of failure at work or fear of rejection in relationships. But while fear can certainly stagnate, it can also motivate, as a huge swath of people who claim they “work best under pressure” would probably agree. And looking at the popularity of horror movies, roller coasters, and adventure sports, fear is a lucrative commodity.
Perhaps most importantly, fear is a protector. Fear helps you make the choices that keep you safe. Fear makes you wear a helmet when you ride a bike, think twice about getting into a car with a drunk driver, and not talk to the guy in the bar who gives you the creeps. There is even a best-selling book, The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker that teaches readers to learn to listen to their physiological fear signals.
But fear doesn’t always come in the form of subtle hints and physiological cues. Sometimes, danger is very immediate and very real. What if, for example, I am being chased by a bear? In that scenario, how can choosing love over fear help me? Am I supposed to love the bear into non-existence? As the great philosopher JR Ewing of the TV show Dallas once said, “Fear in the presence of legitimate danger is a sign of intelligence.”
Even in my asana practice, fear and love seem hopelessly entangled.
While I love deepening my practice with inversions, arm balances, and “advanced” poses, it is a healthy sense of fear that encourages me to practice responsibly, backing out of poses when I need to, taking modifications when fear tells me I am not ready.
Of course, we can’t really make this a discussion about yoga without talking about non-attachment, vairagya. In the end, it is attachment to my marriage, my career, my relationships, and all other earthly things I care about that causes me to love and fear for them. If I were further down the path of enlightenment, perhaps I could feel a sense of removal that would make both love and fear a non-issue. That being the case, I can happily admit to being several thousand lifetimes away from achieving samadhi, or ultimate peace.
As a fellow yoga-teacher friend (a proponent of this “choose love not fear” business) acknowledges,
“Those who can truly practice non-attachment may experience a certain degree of liberation, but they are missing out on much of the human experience.”
The “human experience” is another one of those things I find myself feeling stubbornly attached to. With that in mind, I do choose love . . . and also the fear, joy, heartbreak, anxiety, and elation that go with it.
Jenny Finkel began doing yoga as a scoliotic, asthmatic 12-year-old after reading an article about it in Seventeen magazine. Now that she is kind of an adult, she teaches yoga full-time. She completed her 200-hour training with YogaWorks, and followed that with a 50-hour specialized training in Therapeutic Yoga for Cancer at Duke Integrative Medicine. She recently relocated from New Orleans to Chicago, where she is pursuing her 500-hour certification from Moksha Yoga. Jenny would very much enjoy keeping in touch with you through her website, and her facebook page.
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Assistant ed: Catherine Monkman
Ed: Kate Bartolotta