Fear is a sensation that we name according to the situation.
If you are standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon, you speak of fear of heights: acrophobia. If you are in a crowded place the word is agoraphobia. There are a thousand names for fear, but only one sensation, which of course can be present in varying intensity.
Throughout evolution, fear was our teacher of survival. It alerted us to danger. It told us be prepared. This was and remains the healthy aspect of fear. But today, at least in the developed world, we have relatively few threats from outside. Our greatest threats come from within us, from what we tell ourselves about others or our situation and the anxiety, insecurity, hate, or even terror those thoughts create. Our minds create fears by believing stories such as, “I’ll be all alone in my old age,” or “I won’t have enough money.”
There is only one sensation of fear, but limitless stories that will arouse it in us.
As long as there is a compulsive avoidance of any threatening or distressing feeling, fear unconsciously remains the god ruling our psychic life. Real transformation begins when you are able to bow before fear and acknowledge its power, but declare that it is no longer your god.
At that moment you become the disciple of a new god: Awareness. Immediately, what awareness asks of you is to learn, to the best of your ability, to remain present and open even when there is fear.
The sensation of fear is difficult to be with, and when we cannot create a big space for it, the immediate tendency is to become self-involved. We contract in upon ourselves, our heads start spinning more thoughts; our minds become strategic: “How do I regain control?” How do I get away from this feeling?” All that matters to us is our self-interest and we stop caring to others and their needs.
From a psychological point of view, the combination of fear and self-interest is probably the greatest threat facing humanity today. It poisons all relationships whether within marriages, families, business, politics or international affairs.
But there is no such thing as being safe; life is and will always be full of uncertainty.
Nothing from the outside: no laws, no high tech inventions, no amount of guns, no leader, can make us truly safe. We can only do that inside ourselves. The terrible irony is that when fear intensifies self-interest to unhealthy levels this weakens healthy connections between people, which only leads to a sense of separation and even more fear.
As soon as fear closes us down, we have reached the limit of our ability to love and grow. For example, as we risk building a new business, it will be fear, perhaps the fear of failure or even of success that might slow or even sabotage us. If we are in a relationship, it will be the fear of abandonment, or being a betrayer, or just a sense of insecurity that will make us pull back.
To “live fearwards”—or sometimes I say “move fearwards”—means that instead of being halted by fear, we let fear become our teacher. We open ourselves to the sensation of fear. We let ourselves become vulnerable. We stop blaming others. We stop seeing threats and start seeing opportunities to awaken to greater consciousness.
If we lived in a Harry Potter Universe, the wizard would wave her wand and say the incantation: “Fearwards!” Suddenly everyone on Earth has three-times the capacity to be with fear and not become self-involved and self-protective. This means they have three-times the ability to be vulnerable and not close their hearts. Instantly, there is a fraction as much greed and distrust, a fraction of the power struggles and conflicts. Instantly, there is three times more openness, three times more capacity for intimacy, three times more fairness, acceptance, and tolerance, and three times more love. The whole world changes in an instant and it is all tied to how we handle fear in ourselves.
But let’s not wait for magic.
Let’s learn to dance with fear.
Here are a few ways to do so:
When we feel fearful, we can ask ourselves: “What specifically am I telling myself that is creating this fear?”
If we can see these thoughts are negative judgments, we can take five deep, slow breaths and bring all our attention back to the present moment.
Be present for every perception and every sensation. Repeat this over and over until the fullness of the present moment has filled our senses completely.
As soon as our attention moves into the Now, all thoughts and mind-made images will recede and the fearfulness will fade away.
Then, if examining our stories suggests that there is an action we can take to properly address what must be done, we can commit ourselves to act immediately.
If the threatening feeling seems to be present without any thoughts to provoke it, then we should be alert not to let the fearful feeling cause us to think stories like “My life is not working,” or “Something is wrong with me.” All thoughts born of fear either create more fear or they create imaginary hope, which is another kind of delusion.
Instead, we keep our full attention in the present and let ourselves be spontaneously creative as we breathe into the fearfulness. We can let out sounds, or even dance a silly jig. This lays down new associations and new neural pathways in the brain that short-circuit the conditioned responses to fear.
Keep breathing into the feeling and try not to label it with names like “unsafe” or “terrified.” At the same time, no matter how familiar the feeling may seem, we pretend that we have never felt it before. Naming separates and puts us in the past and in our egos. Transmuting fear requires becoming one with it in the Now.
This also means that we must let go of the future: Breathing into fear and dancing with it is not about getting rid of fear or gaining any desired outcome. It is about an unconditional relationship with fear so that fear becomes a doorway instead of a wall.
We can even use the energy of fear with what I call the “Practice of Gratitude.” Instead of dwelling on fearful mental images and thoughts, say “Thank You” for every present-moment perception: the light you see, the colors, all the sounds, smells, and any sensation. Say “Thank You,” even for the feeling of fear itself. Keep expressing gratitude for everything that you are aware of or for anything whatsoever that comes into your mind and soon the fearful sensation will transform and perhaps become softness or even a smile on your face and in your heart.
Living fearwards is something anyone can do—as soon as we decide we would rather live in a loving world.
Fear will never go away completely, but the capacity to be with it will grow; steadily, we will become champions of openness and love.
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Assistant Ed. Paige Vignola/Ed: Sara Crolick