Making Peace with Fear

ian-dooley-347942-800x400.jpg

Gandhi once said, The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but, it is fear.” 

Last week, people from both our Wednesday and Saturday practice groups asked questions about working with their fears.

People spoke about everything from the fear of nuclear war and the state of the world today, to the fears we feel about how someone might react to us when we express something tender and vulnerable and risky.

We are afraid of so many things.

Waking from a nightmare as a child, I remember being frozen in bed, sweating and afraid to breathe in case “something” saw me move, and pounced on me.

Imagination is powerful.

Fear grips our hearts, paralyzes our bodies, silences us, inhibits us, freezes us and disables us.

When we are lost in our thoughts and our minds, our bodies can tighten up with fear - either mobilizing to fight or flee, or shutting down into a frozen state.  Either way, we become disconnected from openheartedness, courage, clarity and love. 

Dan Emmons once said, "What most needs our attention is the part of us that we seek to avoid feeling.  When we have tended to that, we are changed, and the world changes with us."  

So, when you find yourself locked up in fears, here are some practices and strategies to help tend to our fears, feel our fears and transform our fears: 

1. Practice "Breathing Through"  

Tara Brach describes this practice here, but in essence, imagine yourself breathing in and allowing fear and the suffering that accompanies fear to pass through your heart.

Allow yourself to experience how fear feels in your body, registering its felt-sense in your body.  This allows you to start accepting and integrating it, instead of bracing against it.  As you exhale, imagine breathing out the fear and surrendering it into the universe.

With this repeated practice, your heart transforms and releases fear by strengthening your sense of wholeness and interconnectedness with a larger universe.   In this video talk, Tara discusses how befriending fear allows our hearts to awaken.

2.  Turn Fear into a Character.  

Turn fear into a character and give it a name.  Doing this will help you internally separate out the part of you that is afraid, from the part of you that has access to courage.

Your fears arise out of your instinctual, reptilian brain: it wants to avoid risk at any cost.  Naming the voice of fear, turning it into a part of you instead of all of you, observing it with a little more detachment: these will all help get the rest of you back online and in charge.

This strategy helps you practice the first NVC distinction of separating out Observation from Evaluation/Judgment.  When we are able to observe the fear, and not identify with it, we are that much closer to working with it effectively and choice fully.

3.  Try Byron Katie’s approach by asking yourself repeatedly, “Is it true?  Can I be absolutely sure that this thought is true?” The answer is most often, No.

Whatever images and imagined futures fear is generating for you, remember that they are not actually happening in the here and now.  They may or may not actually happen.  The fearful part of your brain is overprotective, hyper vigilant and quite irrational.

4.  Follow Fear Further (and further still)  

Practice asking “So what? Then what?” over and over again.  For example, if you are afraid to express a truth to someone who might get upset with you, ask yourself, “So what, then what?” 

You may hear yourself thinking something like “Well, they’ve been upset before and it hasn’t resulted in the world ending. I would survive it even if I didn’t like it.” If so, you’ll have reclaimed some power from the fear.

But, if you heard yourself saying something like, “I’d be devastated and would feel worse” then ask the question again:

“So what? Then what?”  

You may find yourself saying, “Well, then I guess I’d feel badly and avoid the person in the future.”

“So what? Then what?”  

“I guess I’d be lonely for a while…”

“So what? Then what?”

 “I guess I’d have to grieve the relationship and find new people in my life …”

Keep following the layers of the fear until you begin to reconnect with your sense of perspective and hope.

5.  Reconnect to Love and Courage

We are unable to feel fear and love at the same time, so when we find ourselves stuck in our fears, we can reconnect to love.

Put your attention on those things that resource your ability to love: 

  • Walk in nature; listen to music.

  • Find pictures of people you love and memories that fill you with joy.

  • Be of service to someone or engage in random acts of kindness. Doing things for others connects us back to love.

  • Practice this meditation on Loving Heart Presence .

6.  (When all else fails) Allow Fear to Walk Beside You

Often I am able to relieve and shift my fears, but sometimes, they just hang on.

Instead of judging, controlling or pushing them away, welcome them. 

Don’t resist.  Get curious.  Fear is a universal experience, inviting us to grow courage. Allow them to travel next to you. Name them, watch them, let them be there. Just don’t let them be in control or make decisions for you.  

Fear teaches us about life-serving contrasts:

The antidote to fear is courage.  

The antidote to constriction is expansion. 

The antidote to violence is nonviolence.  

The antidote to freezing is melting and moving.  

The antidote to silence is self-expression.  

These contrasts, in turn, help us get clearer on what we want to move towards, or away from; what we want more of, or less of.

Ultimately, we can use our attention to grow our fears, or to cultivate our courage.  

I would love to hear more about the situations you are struggling with and the questions that you have! Please leave a comment below! 

"Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.  On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."  Arundhati Roy.