Sometimes my life feels wild and free and bubbled-over with possibilities and potential. Other times, more times than I care to admit, my life feels stifled and dark, shrouded in crippling fear and anxiety.
I am in my early 20s, three years out of college, and finally on my own (aside from the occasional pack of toilet paper and razor cartridge refill from my mother). A voracious planner, avid preparer and internal ruminator, I have always been prone to anxiety.
I have for as long as I can remember had a little black creature living inside my spinal cord. It clings there, wrapped tightly around my nerves, and spews buts and what-ifs.
“I get it,” the creature says, “You want to be spontaneous and move away somewhere and start a brand new beautiful adventure…” It pauses, and then they come—the buts. “Yeah, but have you considered your budget. Yeah, but what if you hate it?” I can feel its grip tightening around the base of my brain. “Yeah, but what if you end up alone?”
The slimy, twitchy creature spits out these scary possibilities faster than I can counter them, and they flood my brain, too real to ignore or set aside. After a while they travel from my brain into my chest and belly, sticky globs that pulse and throb in time with my heart. The creature sits, satisfied.
For a long time it was a stranger to me, this thing that made me trip over my ideas and longings and retreat to safety, nerves rubbed raw. I was certain of its presence but couldn’t assign an identity to its shadowy face.
And then, toward the end of my first yoga teacher training, I learned its name: Fear. Pure, powerful, paralyzing.
Probably not coincidentally, my level of fear reached an all-time high during the yoga teacher training. I was twenty-one, fresh out of college, and grappling with how I would make money, where I would live, whether I’d find a relationship, basically what the rest of my life would look like.
Now, tack on the fact that I was doing between three and nine hours of yoga a day; I was twisting and bending and cracking myself open—I was asking my body what it had to show me, and my sweet body, so dependable, answered me faithfully: “I am full of Fear,” it said. And so commenced my courtship with Fear.
Recognizing Fear for what it is consists of a vast majority of the process of working with it.
That’s the first thing I learned in my journey with Fear. You can’t process something if you aren’t aware of it. Sometimes it likes to wear masks of different flavors: anger, blame, depression, anxiety. I would argue that, many a time, these emotions are the creature of fear in disguise.
I felt anger at my family, but really it was fear that they wouldn’t approve of my life choices. I experienced massive depression, but it stemmed from a fear of uncertainty about my future and wellbeing. Sometimes when we recognize an emotion for what it is, follow it underground to its root and look at it, that’s it all takes to release it.
Try not to judge Fear, or tell it that it shouldn’t be there.
Have you ever told a rather mischievous child to absolutely not doing something, no matter what? I have. The result was undesirable. I had unknowingly increased the child’s interest in doing the forbidden act by tenfold. And he did it. The same goes with the creature of Fear.
Zen Master Adyashanti says that what we resist persists. The more you attempt to push away fear, the more it will seem to sink into your bones and push your heart up into your throat. Everyone wants to be seen and validated—the fearful part of you included. I try now, when I feel my stomach clench and heart pound, to simply say, “Hi Fear. I see you.” No judgment.
Get to know your fear, like you would a new friend.
It took me a while to figure out that Fear is not the enemy. It is, in fact, a powerful ally, and a valuable teacher. Ask it questions. What triggers you? Why have you come to see me? What do you want to teach me about myself? Buddhist monk and teacher Pema Chodron says that our fear shows us where our edges are, the places where we are ready to grow and expand (her book When Things Fall Apart is an amazing resource for anyone dancing with Fear).
My own fear has taught me that I desperately want to feel accepted by my family, that I have a tendency to think I can solve emotional problems with money, and that I lose my shit anytime fire ants are involved; among other things.
Let it be.
Get comfortable with the presence of Fear. In my own personal experience, I’ve found that meditation is most helpful. When your fear makes an appearance, sit with it; try not to wish it away. This can be quite gut-wrenching. The first few times I sat still inside a fearful moment I thought I might crawl out of my skin. It does get increasingly easier with practice, though. A year spent on the mat and cushion has taught me how to breathe in the face of Fear. It is liberating, to face your scary parts head on and come out alive.
The creature is still present, very much so.
The difference now is that we’re more like old friends who squabble from time to time.
I smile at it and say, “I’m not afraid of you, Fear.”
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Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: via Wikipedia