Nov 19 … Fear
Waking up today, I feel fear
Getting up, I look in the mirror, and seeing a fearful face looking back at me, I don’t like what I see. And I don’t like what I feel, either.
So, I want to do something about it.
Because I’m feeling fearful, my fight/flight(/freeze) response system is ready to respond….I’m predisposed towards rapid response: evolution itself screams at me: “Don’t just sit there, DO SOMETHING!”
That is, of course, the wrong answer.
Why “of course”?
In fact…why is it the wrong answer at all?
Because I just got out of bed. Because my fear arises from lying awake thinking about things. My fear comes from imagining possible futures, and from reliving past experiences that contain elements of the futures I imagine.
Imagination: it’s what makes humans. It’s the most fundamental tool that we use; and the most profoundly dangerous. (There’s another blog post — or 30 — to write on that topic.)
But back to fear…I don’t like it.
I don’t like the discomfort in the present moment and I don’t like the long-term impact of fearful thinking.
I don’t like to be around fearful people, and I observe that many people seem to prefer not to be around me when I’m in a fearful state.
So sitting in the fear is not a tenable answer.
A wrong answer
The “Just DO something” reaction is to cover the fear with … something else. Anything else.
How about ANGER?
My fearful brain, my evolutionarily conditioned brain thinks: That’ll do! That’ll do just fine! It’s basic, simple, close to hand. The threats in the world have caused me pain — If I appear threatening, then the things I’m afraid of will avoid me, and everything will be fine.
uh, yeah. let me know how that works for you…
It took me years of trying to realize…it doesn’t work out so well.
(It’s not working! Why isn’t it working? Maybe I’m just not doing it right? Maybe I just need to be MORE angry! Maybe if I turn into the Hulk…? Still not working! Oh God, maybe I’m just not strong enough, Maybe it’s never going to work. Oh God, now I’m really afraid! Oh God, Oh God, Oh God…ok just TRY HARDER!)
(And — damn it! — it looks like it’s working for that guy over there… Maybe I should keep trying. Maybe I should see what he’s doing that I’m not doing, and try to be like him.)
Yeah, so…it me took some years to figure out that approach doesn’t work. And, it’s so seductively, addictively available, I still catch myself in it sometimes.
A better answer
The good news is: there are things that DO work, things which are effective at counteracting fear, things that prevent both the present-time pain, and the negative consequences of abiding in a fearful state of mind.
In fact, the fundamental principles are simple. There’s many ways to put them in words, and many ways to put them into action.
Poetically, I love the litany against fear, from Frank Herbert’s Dune novel:
I shall not (be possessed by) fear.
Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
Practically — for a long time, I found that a little hard to grasp. (My meditation teachers found me to be a slow student sometimes.)
What does it mean — “I will face my fear”?
What does it mean — “I will permit it to pass over me and through me”?
These are critical questions. The litany is nothing more than an intriguing riddle (at best) or a meaningless cantrip (at worst) without an understanding of how to DO something with those lines.
Okay, but HOW does that work?
(NOTE: I owe Tara Barach, among many others, a debt of gratitude for some of the key instructions that pointed me on the way that follows.)
“I will face my fear.”
I will look in the mirror, and really look. I will not look away. I will not lose touch with my curiosity, my compassion even for the person I see there.
I will look with some detachment — just enough that I do not get caught up in reactions to what I see. I won’t attach meaning to my observations, I won’t jump to conclusions about how this fearful face will affect me, will affect the people around me, will affect my experience. I will just look. I will FACE it, I will be PRESENT with what I see.
“I will face my fear.”
I will look in the INNER mirror, and really look. That means, I will take time to feel what is present in my body — to feel what my nerves, my sensory receptors are telling me. I will attend to the sensations in my chest as I breath; I will notice the places where my muscles are tense — or places where there is some feeling of uncertainty, anxiety. I will observe any sense of being unsettled, jumpy — and I will let it be. I won’t try to change it; I won’t ignore it or shift my attention away. I will FACE it, be present with it; I will let it have space, time, and attention.
This is actually quite profound. This very action is a recognition that I am larger than my fear. I am more than my fear. I am stronger than my fear, I am so strong that my fear — this fear that trying to impose itself on me — cannot make me run, cannot make me turn away, cannot manipulate me. When I simply stop and look at this, when I observe my experience — I step out of the movie for a moment. I see it as the director sees it. I become the director. I’m no longer an actor, caught up in the drama without even knowing it — instead, I’ve fundamentally stepped out of the charade. This shift is subtle, and fleeting at first. But the reality of it takes hold, and gets stronger with practice. Fear is an actor on the stage; but the stage itself and theater as a whole, and world around the theater, they are much bigger and more powerful than the actor — and in shifting my view to that of an observer, my consciousness becomes the world around the theater. Already in that instant, even if it is just for an instant, I am no longer possessed by my fear. I have surrounded it, I am larger than anything it can possess.
“I will permit it to pass over me and through me.”
Sensations change, instant by instant. They change on their own, with or without my attempts to do something about them. If I fight my sensations of fear, I’m playing whack-a-mole. If I fight the feelings, I’m generating more feelings. I’m back to being an actor on the movie set, caught up in the drama. If I fight my fear, then, ironically, I’m responding with more fear. I’m acting afraid of fear, and thus I’m engendering, propagating even more fear. Bad idea. Instead, I don’t fight the feels, I don’t even resist the feels — I PERMIT the feelings. I give them free rein, let them pass over me, let them pass THROUGH me even. I open myself up completely to the feelings.
Key point in this is to keep it simple. Keep it strictly in the present moment — we’re talking about the simple sensations that appear to a careful observer. I have to FACE the feelings, THEN permit the feelings. If I turn away, by getting caught up in imaging what the feelings mean, or imagining what I look like, or what I will do in the next minute after the feelings are gone, or what I was doing in the minutes before the feelings came, then I am no longer Facing the feelings, and there is no sense in thinking I’m Permitting them. Permitting requires awareness. If I’m ignoring or distracted from my sensations, then they are running wild without my awareness, without my permission, and I am back in the world of being possessed by them.
“When it has passed, I will turn the inner eye to see it’s path.…only I will remain.”
This part is still a little mystical. The litany still seems to hold the perspective of the biggest view of the universe, and in that view there is nothing left to be done…but in the practical world that we live in most of the time, it’s time to get to work on the situation at hand. Only I remain in the inner mirror — that’s fine. In the outer mirror, it’s time to smile…and get on with the next thing in front of me.
Getting on with the next thing is actually important. Another part of fear, which the litany itself doesn’t address, is the biochemistry. Adrenaline and cortisol are useful — but they work best when they’re used, and used up. In the face of fear and the aftermath when it has gone, it’s important to get moving, get productive. A walk, a blog post, a cleanup task around the house, some task or chore I’ve been procrastinating on. Anything that makes the world a little better.
And when I DO something, I have direct experience that my presence makes the world a better place, and I come to know it more deeply. And — I use up the adrenaline and cortisol, so they don’t remain a part of me.
Fear is good for waking up, but it doesn’t help things by sticking around. When it passes over and through, where it has passed, there is nothing of it left. “Only I remain” — and without being possessed by fear, there is a chance my presence makes the world a better place for more than just myself.