FEAR

 


CHAPTER - 3

FEAR


Welcome to Hotel Earth

Fear does not prevent death. It prevents life.

—Buddha

The epic battle of Mahabharata is about to begin. The air is thick with anticipation: Thousands of warriors finger the hilts of their swords as their horses snort and paw at the ground. But our hero, Arjuna, is terrified. He has family and friends on either side of this battle, and many of them are about to die. Arjuna, among the fiercest fighters of the land, drops his bow.


The Bhagavad Gita opens on a battlefield with a warrior’s terror. Arjuna is the most talented archer in the land, yet fear has caused him to totally lose connection with his abilities. The same thing happens to each of us. We have so much to offer the world, but fear and anxiety disconnect us from our abilities. This is because growing up we were taught, directly or indirectly, that fear is negative. “Don’t be scared,” our parents told us. “Scaredy-cat,” our friends teased. Fear was an embarrassing, humiliating reaction to be ignored or hidden. But fear has a flip side, which Tom Hanks alluded to in his commencement address at Yale University. “Fear,” he told the graduates, “will get the worst of the best of us.”


The truth is, we’ll never live entirely without fear and anxiety. We’ll never be able to fix our economic, social, and political climates to entirely eliminate conflict and uncertainty, not to mention our everyday interpersonal challenges. And that’s okay, because fear isn’t bad; it’s simply a warning flag—your mind saying “This doesn’t look good! Something might go wrong!” It’s what we do with that signal that matters. We can use our fear of the effects of climate change to motivate us to develop solutions, or we can allow it to make us feel overwhelmed and hopeless and do nothing as a result. Sometimes fear is a critical warning to help us survive true danger, but most of the time what we feel is anxiety related to everyday concerns about money, jobs, and relationships. We allow anxiety—everyday fear—to hold us back by blocking us from our true feelings. The longer we hold on to fears, the more they ferment until eventually they become toxic.


      I am sitting cross-legged on the floor of a cold basement room in the monastery with twenty or so other monks. I’ve been at the ashram for only a couple months. Gauranga Das has just discussed the scene in the Gita when Arjuna, the hero, is overcome by fear. It turns out that Arjuna’s fear makes him pause instead of charging directly into battle. He’s devastated that so many people he loves will die that day. The fear and anguish lead him to question his actions for the first time. Doing so provokes him into a long conversation about human morals, spirituality, and how life works according to Krishna, who is his charioteer.

When Gauranga Das concludes his lecture, he asks us to close our eyes, then directs us to relive a fear from our past: not just imagine it but feel it in our bodies—all the sights, sounds, and smells of that experience. He tells us that it’s important that we not choose something minor, such as a first day at school or learning to swim (unless those experiences were truly terrifying), but something significant. He wants us to uncover, accept, and create a new relationship with our deepest fears.

We start joking around—someone makes fun of my overreaction to a snakeskin I came across on one of our walks. Gauranga Das acknowledges our antics with a knowing nod. “If you want to do this activity properly,” he says, “you have to push beyond the part of your mind that’s making fun of it. That’s a defense mechanism keeping you from really dealing with the issue, and that’s what we do with fear. We distract ourselves from it,” Gauranga Das says. “You need to go past that place.” The laughter fades, and I can almost feel everyone’s spine straighten along with my own.


I close my eyes and my mind quiets down, but I still don’t expect much. I’m not scared of anything. Not really, I think. Then, as I drop further and further into meditation, past the noise and chatter of my brain, I ask myself, What am I really scared of? Flickers of truth begin to appear. I see my fear of exams as a kid. I know—that probably sounds trivial. No one likes exams, right? But exams were some of my greatest anxieties growing up. Sitting in meditation, I allow myself to explore what was behind that fear. What am I really scared of? I ask myself again. Gradually, I recognize that my fear focused on what my parents and my friends would think of my scores, and of me as a result. About what my extended family would say, and how I’d be compared to my cousins and pretty much everyone else around me. I don’t just see this fear in my mind’s eye, I feel it in my body—the tightness in my chest, the tension in my jaw, as if I am right back there. What am I really scared of? Then I start to delve into fear around the times when I’d gotten in trouble at school. I was so worried that I would be suspended or expelled. How would my parents react? What would my teachers think? I invite myself to go even deeper. What am I really scared of? I see this fear around my parents—of them not getting along and of me, at a young age, trying to mediate their marriage. Of thinking, How can I please both of them? How can I manage them and make sure they’re happy? That’s when I find the root of my fear. What am I really scared of? I am afraid that I can’t make my parents happy. As soon as I hit that revelation, I know I’ve reached the true fear beneath all of the other fears. It is a full-body aha moment, like I sank deeper and deeper under water, pressure mounting against my chest, increasingly desperate to breathe, and when that realization hit me, my head popped up, and I gasped for air.


   Half an hour earlier I’d been so sure I wasn’t scared of anything, and suddenly I was uncovering my deepest fears and anxieties, which I’d managed to hide completely from myself for years. By gently, but consistently, asking myself what I was scared of, I refused to let my mind dodge the question. Our brains are really good at keeping us from entering uncomfortable spaces. But by repeating a question rather than rephrasing it, we essentially corner our brain. Now, it’s not about being aggressive with ourselves—this isn’t an interrogation, it’s an interview. You want to ask yourself the question with sincerity, not force.


Being scared of exam results was what I call a branch. As you develop your relationship with your fear, you’ll have to distinguish between branches—the immediate fears that come up during your self-interview—and the root. Tracking my fear of exam results and the other “branch” fears that appeared led me to the root: fearing I couldn’t make my parents happy.

THE FEAR OF FEAR

During my three years as a monk, I learned to let go of my fear of fear. Fear of punishment, humiliation, or failure—and their accompanying negative attitudes—no longer propel my misguided attempts at self-protection. I can recognize the opportunities that fear signals. Fear can help us identify and address patterns of thinking and behavior that don’t serve us.


We let our fear drive us, but fear itself is not our real problem. Our real problem is that we fear the wrong things: What we should really fear is that we will miss the opportunities that fear offers. Gavin de Becker, one of the world’s leading security experts, in The Gift of Fear calls it “a brilliant internal guardian that stands ready to warn you of hazards and guide you through risky situations.” Often, we notice fear’s warning but ignore its guidance. If we learn how to recognize what fear can teach us about ourselves and what we value, then we can use it as a tool to obtain greater meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in our lives. We can use fear to get to the best of us.


A few decades ago, scientists conducted an experiment in the Arizona desert where they built “Biosphere 2”—a huge steel-and-glass enclosure with air that had been purified, clean water, nutrient-rich soil, and lots of natural light. It was meant to provide ideal living conditions for the flora and fauna within. And while it was successful in some ways, in one it was an absolute failure. Over and over, when trees inside the Biosphere grew to a certain height, they would simply fall over. At first, the phenomenon confused scientists. Finally, they realized that the Biosphere lacked a key element necessary to the trees’ health: wind. In a natural environment, trees are buffeted by wind. They respond to that pressure and agitation by growing stronger bark and deeper roots to increase their stability.


We waste a lot of time and energy trying to stay in the comfortable bubble of our self-made Biospheres. We fear the stresses and challenges of change, but those stresses and challenges are the wind that makes us stronger. In 2017, Alex Honnold stunned the world when he became the first person ever to climb Freerider—a nearly three-thousand-foot ascent up Yosemite National Park’s legendary El Capitan—entirely without ropes. Honnold’s unbelievable accomplishment was the subject of the award-winning documentary Free Solo. In the film Honnold is asked about how he deals with knowing that when he free climbs, the options are perfection or death. “People talk about trying to suppress your fear,” he responded. “I try to look at it a different way—I try to expand my comfort zone by practicing the moves over and over again. I work through the fear until it’s just not scary anymore.” Honnold’s fear prompts him to put in extensive amounts of focused work before he attempts a monumental free solo. Making his fear productive is a critical component of his training, and it’s propelled Honnold to the top of his climbing game and to the top of mountains. If we can stop viewing stress and the fear that often accompanies it as negative and instead see the potential benefits, we’re on our way to changing our relationship with fear.

THE STRESS RESPONSE

The first thing we need to realize about stress is that it doesn’t do a good job of classifying problems. Recently I had the chance to test a virtual reality device. In the virtual world, I was climbing a mountain. As I stepped out on a ledge, I felt as scared as if I were actually eight thousand feet in the air. When your brain shouts “Fear!” your body can’t differentiate between whether the threat is real or imagined—whether your survival is in jeopardy, or you’re thinking about your taxes. As soon as that fear signal goes off, our bodies prepare us to fight or flee, or sometimes to freeze. If we launch into this high-alert fear state too often, all of those stress hormones start to send us downhill, affecting our immune systems, our sleep, and our ability to heal.


Yet studies show that being able to successfully deal with intermittent stressors—such as managing that big work project or moving to a new house—to approach them head-on, like those trees standing up to the wind, contributes to better health, along with greater feelings of accomplishment and well-being.


When you deal with fear and hardship, you realize that you’re capable of dealing with fear and hardship. This gives you a new perspective: the confidence that when bad things happen, you will find ways to handle them. With that increased objectivity, you become better able to differentiate what’s actually worth being afraid of and what’s not.


From the fear meditation I described above, I came away with the idea that we have four different emotional reactions to fear: We panic, we freeze, we run away, or we bury it, as I had buried my anxiety about my parents. The first two are shorter-term strategies, while the second two are longer-term, but all of them distract us from the situation and prevent us from using our fear productively.


In order to change our relationship with fear, we have to change our perception of it. Once we can see the value that fear offers, we can change how we respond. An essential step in this reprogramming is learning to recognize our reaction pattern to fear.

WORK WITH FEAR

I’ve mentioned that monks begin the growth process with awareness. Just as we do when facing negativity, we want to externalize our fear and take a step back from it, becoming objective observers.


The process of learning to work with fear isn’t just about doing a few exercises that solve everything, it’s about changing your attitude toward fear, understanding that it has something to offer, then committing to doing the work of identifying and trying to shift out of your pattern of distraction every time it appears. Each of the four distractions from fear—panicking, freezing, running away, and burying—is a different version of a single action, or rather, a single inaction: refusing to accept our fear. So the first step in transforming our fear from a negative to a positive is doing just that.

ACCEPT YOUR FEAR

To close the gap with our fear, we must acknowledge its presence. As my teacher told us, “You’ve got to recognize your pain.” We were still seated, and he told us to take a deep breath and silently say, “I see you,” to our pain. That was our first acknowledgment of our relationship with fear, to breathe in and repeat, “I see you, my pain. I see you, my fear,” and as we breathed out, we said, “I see you and I’m here with you. I see you and I am here for you.” Pain makes us pay attention. Or it should. When we say “I see you,” we are giving it the attention it is asking for. Just like a crying baby needs to be heard and held.


Breathing steadily while we acknowledged our fear helped us calm our mental and physical responses in its presence. Walk toward your fear. Become familiar with it. In this way we bring ourselves into full presence with fear. When you wake up to that smoke alarm going off, you would acknowledge what is happening in the moment, and then you would get out of the house. Later, in a calmer state, you would reflect on how the fire started or where it came from. You would call the insurance company. You would take control of the narrative. That is recognizing and staying in present time with fear.

TRY THIS: RATE YOUR FEAR

Draw a line with zero at one end and ten at the other. What’s the worst thing you can imagine? Maybe it’s a paralyzing injury or losing a loved one. Make that a ten on the line. Now rate your current fear in relation to that one. Just doing this helps give some perspective. When you feel fear crop up, rate it. Where does it fall next to something that’s truly scary?

FIND FEAR PATTERNS

Along with accepting our fear, we must get personal with it. This means recognizing the situations in which it regularly appears. A powerful question to ask your fear (again, with kindness and sincerity, as many times as necessary) is “When do I feel you?” After my initial work with fear at the monastery, I continued to identify all of the spaces and situations in which my fear emerged. I consistently saw that when I was worried about my exams, when I was worried about my parents, or about my performance at school or getting in trouble, the fear always led me to the same concern: how I was perceived by others. What would they think of me? My root fear influences my decision-making. That awareness now prompts me when I reach a decisive moment to take a closer look and ask myself, “Is this decision influenced by how others will perceive me?” In this way, I can use my awareness of my fear as a tool to help me make decisions that are truly in line with my values and purpose.


Sometimes we can trace our fears through the actions we take, and sometimes it’s the actions we’re reluctant to take. One of my clients was a successful attorney, but she was tired of practicing law and wanted to do something new. She came to me because she was letting her fear stop her. “What if I jump and there’s nothing on the other side?” she asked me. That sounded like a branch question, so I kept probing. “What are you really scared of?” I asked her, then gently kept asking until eventually she sighed and said, “I’ve spent so much effort and energy building this career. What if I’m just throwing it all away?” I asked again and finally we got to the root: She was afraid of failure and of being seen as less than an intelligent, capable person by others and by herself. Once she learned and acknowledged the true nature of her fear, she was on her way to recasting its role in her life, but first she needed to develop some real intimacy with it. She needed to walk into her fear.


One of the problems we identified was that she had no role models. All of the attorneys she knew were still practicing full-time. She needed to see people who had successfully done some version of what she wanted to do, so I asked her to spend time getting to know former attorneys who were now working in new careers that they loved. When she did that, she not only saw that what she dreamed of was possible, she was also delighted to learn how many of those people said they were still applying skills that they had acquired and used to practice law. She wouldn’t be throwing all of her hard work away after all. I also asked her to research jobs she might consider. Through that exercise, she found that many of the “soft skills” she’d had to learn to be a successful attorney, such as communication, teamwork, and problem-solving, were highly sought after elsewhere too. By developing that intimacy with her fear—getting up close and examining what she was afraid of—she ended up with information that left her feeling more empowered and excited about the idea of switching careers.


Patterns for distracting ourselves from fear are established when we’re young. They are deeply ingrained, so it takes some time and effort to uncover them. Recognizing our fear patterns helps us trace fear to the root. From there we can decipher whether there’s truly any cause for urgency, or whether our fear can actually lead us to recognize opportunities to live more in alignment with our values, passion, and purpose.

THE CAUSE OF FEAR: ATTACHMENT. THE CURE FOR FEAR: DETACHMENT

Though we are developing intimacy with our fear, we want to see it as its own entity, separate from us. When we talk about our emotions, we usually say we are that emotion. I am angry. I am sad. I am afraid. Talking to our fear separates it from us and helps us understand that the fear is not us, it is just something we’re experiencing. When you meet someone who gives off a negative vibe, you feel it, but you don’t think that vibe is you. It’s the same with our emotions—they are something we’re feeling, but they are not us. Try shifting from I am angry to I feel angry. I feel sad. I feel afraid. A simple change, but a profound one because it puts our emotions in their rightful place. Having this perspective calms down our initial reactions and give us the space to examine our fear and the situation around it without judgment.


When we track our fears back to their source, most of us find that they’re closely related to attachment—our need to own and control things. We hold on to ideas we have about ourselves, to the material possessions and standard of living that we think define us, to the relationships we want to be one thing even if they are clearly another. That is the monkey mind thinking. A monk mind practices detachment. We realize that everything—from our houses to our families—is borrowed.


Clinging to temporary things gives them power over us, and they become sources of pain and fear. But when we accept the temporary nature of everything in our lives, we can feel gratitude for the good fortune of getting to borrow them for a time. Even the most permanent of possessions, belonging to the most wealthy and powerful, don’t actually belong to them. This is just as true for the rest of us. And for many—indeed most—of us, that impermanence causes great fear. But, as I learned in the ashram, we can shift our fear to a soaring sense of freedom.


Our teachers made a distinction between useful and hurtful fears. They told us that a useful fear alerts us to a situation we can change. If the doctor tells you that you have poor health because of your diet, and you fear disability or disease, that’s a useful fear because you can change your diet. When your health improves as a result, you eliminate your fear. But fearing that our parents will die is a hurtful fear because we can’t change the truth of the matter. We transform hurtful fears into useful fears by focusing on what we can control. We can’t stop our parents from dying, but we use the fear to remind us to spend more time with them. In the words of ลšฤntideva, “It is not possible to control all external events; but if I simply control my mind, what need is there to control other things?” This is detachment, when you observe your own reactions from a distance—with your monk mind—making decisions with a clear perspective.


There’s a common misconception about detachment that I’d like to address. People often equate detachment with indifference. They think that seeing things, people, and experiences as temporary or seeing them from a distance diminishes our ability to enjoy life, but that’s not the case. Imagine you’re driving a luxury rental car. Do you tell yourself that you own it? Of course not. You know you only have it for the week, and in some ways, that allows you to enjoy it more—you are grateful for the chance to drive a convertible down the Pacific Coast Highway because it’s something you won’t always get to do. Imagine you’re staying in the most beautiful Airbnb. It’s got a hot tub, chef’s kitchen, ocean views; it’s so beautiful and exciting. You don’t spend every moment there dreading your departure in a week. When we acknowledge that all of our blessings are like a fancy rental car or a beautiful Airbnb, we are free to enjoy them without living in constant fear of losing them. We are all the lucky vacationers enjoying our stay in Hotel Earth.


Detachment is the ultimate practice in minimizing fear. Once I identified my anxiety about disappointing my parents, I was able to detach from it. I realized I had to take responsibility for my life. My parents might be upset, they might not—I had no control over that. I could only make decisions based on my own values.

TRY THIS: AUDIT YOUR ATTACHMENTS

Ask yourself: “What am I afraid of losing?” Start with the externals: Is it your car, your house, your looks? Write down everything you think of. Now think about the internals: your reputation, your status, your sense of belonging? Write those down too. These combined lists are likely to be the greatest sources of pain in your life—your fear of having these things taken away. Now start thinking about changing your mental relationship with those things so that you are less attached to them. Remember—you can still fully love and enjoy your partner, your children, your home, your money, from a space of nonattachment. It’s about understanding and accepting that all things are temporary and that we can’t truly own or control anything, so that we can fully appreciate these things and they can enhance our life rather than be a source of griping and fear. What better way to accept that children eventually go off to live their own lives and call you once a week, if you’re lucky?

This is a lifelong practice, but as you become more and more accepting of the fact that we don’t truly own or control anything, you’ll find yourself actually enjoying and valuing people, things, and experiences more, and being more thoughtful about which ones you choose to include in your life.

MANAGING SHORT-TERM FEARS

Detaching from your fears allows you to address them. Years ago, a friend lost his job. Jobs are security, and we are all naturally attached to the idea of putting food on the table. Right away, my friend went into panic mode. “Where are we going to get money? I’m never going to get hired again. I’m going to have to get two or three gigs to cover our bills!” Not only did he make grim predictions about the future, he started questioning the past. “I should have been better at my work. I should have worked harder and longer hours!”


When you panic, you start to anticipate outcomes that have not yet come to pass. Fear makes us fiction writers. We start with a premise, an idea, a fear—what will happen if… Then we spiral off, devising possible future scenarios. When we anticipate future outcomes, fear holds us back, imprisoning us in our imaginations. The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca observed that “Our fears are more numerous than our dangers, and we suffer more in our imagination than reality.”


We can manage acute stress if we detach on the spot. There’s an old Taoist parable about a farmer whose horse ran away. “How unlucky!” his brother tells him. The farmer shrugs. “Good thing, bad thing, who knows,” he says. A week later, the wayward horse finds its way home, and with it is a beautiful wild mare. “That’s amazing!” his brother says, admiring the new horse with no small envy. Again, the farmer is unmoved. “Good thing, bad thing, who knows,” he says. A few days later, the farmer’s son climbs up on the mare, hoping to tame the wild beast, but the horse bucks and rears, and the boy, hurled to the ground, breaks a leg. “How unlucky!” his brother says, with a tinge of satisfaction. “Good thing, bad thing, who knows,” the farmer replies again. The next day, the young men of the village are called into military service, but because the son’s leg is broken, he is excused from the draft. His brother tells the farmer that this, surely, is the best news of all. “Good thing, bad thing, who knows,” the farmer says. The farmer in this story didn’t get lost in “what if” but instead focused on “what is.” During my monk training, we were taught, “Don’t judge the moment.”


I passed along the same advice to someone I advised who’d lost his job. Instead of judging the moment, he needed to accept his situation and whatever came of it, focusing on what he could control. I worked with him on first slowing everything down, then acknowledging the facts of his situation—he had lost his job, period. From there he had a choice: He could panic or freeze, or he could take this opportunity to work with fear as a tool, using it as an indicator of what truly mattered to him and to see what new opportunities might arise.


When I asked him what he was most afraid of, he said it was that he wouldn’t be able to take care of his family. I gently urged him to be more specific. He said he was worried about money. So I challenged him to think of other ways he might support his family. After all, his wife worked, so they had some money coming in; they weren’t going to be out on the street. “Time,” he said. “Now I have time to spend with my kids, taking them to and from school, helping them with their homework. And while they’re at school, I’ll actually have time to look for a new job. A better one.” Because he slowed down, accepted his fear, and gained clarity around it, he was able to defuse his panic and see that fear was actually alerting him to an opportunity. Time is another form of wealth. He realized that while he had lost his job, he had gained something else very valuable. Using his newfound time, he was not only more present in his kids’ lives, but he also ended up getting a new, better job. Reframing the situation stopped him from draining energy negatively and encouraged him to start applying it positively.


Still, it’s hard to not judge the moment and remain open to opportunity when the unknown future spins like a whirlwind through your body and brain. Sometimes our panic or freeze responses rush ahead of us and make it difficult to suspend judgment. Let’s talk about some strategies to help us amend panic and fear.

Short-Circuit Fear :

Fortunately, a simple, powerful tool to short-circuit the panic response is always with us: our breath. Before I give a talk, when I’m standing offstage listening to my introduction, I’ll feel my heart beat faster and my hands getting moist. I’ve coached people who perform in front of full arenas and people who present at everyday meetings, and, like the rest of us, they feel most of their fear physically. Whether it’s performance anxiety or social fears, such as before a job interview or attending a party, our fear manifests in the body, and these bodily cues are the first signals that fear is about to take over. Panic and freezing are a disconnect between our bodies and our minds. Either our bodies go on high alert and rush ahead of our mental processes, or our minds are racing and our bodies start to shut down. As a monk, I learned a simple breathing exercise to help realign my body and mind and stop fear from stopping me. I still use it every time I’m about to give a talk to a large group, enter a stressful meeting, or go into a room full of people I don’t know.

TRY THIS: DON’T PANIC! USE YOUR BREATH TO REALIGN BODY AND MIND

“Breathe to calm and relax yourself” meditation: (see page 89)

  1. Inhale slowly to a count of 4.
  2. Hold for a count of 4.
  3. Exhale slowly to a count of 4 or more.
  4. Repeat until you feel your heart rate slow down.

It’s really that easy. You see, deep breathing activates a part of our nervous system called the vagus nerve, which in turn stimulates a relaxation response throughout our bodies. The simple act of controlled breathing is like flipping a switch that shifts our nervous system from the sympathetic, or fight-flight-freeze, state to the parasympathetic, or rest-and-digest, state, allowing our mind and body to get back in synch.

See the Whole Story :

Breath is useful on the spot, but some fears are hard to dispel with our breath alone. When we go through a period of instability, we fear what’s ahead. When we know we have a test or a job interview, we fear the outcome. In the moment, we can’t see the complete picture, but when the stressful period passes, we never look back to learn from the experience. Life isn’t a collection of unrelated events, it’s a narrative that stretches into the past and the future. We are natural storytellers, and we can use that proclivity to our detriment—to tell horror stories about possible future events. Better to try seeing our lives as a single, long, continuing story, not just disconnected pieces. When you are hired for a job, take a moment to reflect on all the lost jobs and/or failed interviews that led to this victory. You can think of them as necessary challenges along the way. When we learn to stop segmenting experiences and periods of our life and instead see them as scenes and acts in a larger narrative, we gain perspective that helps us deal with fear.

TRY THIS: EXPAND THE MOMENT

Think of something great that happened to you. Perhaps it was the birth of a child or getting that new job you wanted. Let yourself feel that joy for a moment. Now rewind to the events that occurred just before it. What was going on in your life before the birth of your child or before you were selected for that job? Perhaps it was months and months of trying unsuccessfully to conceive or being rejected from three other jobs you’d applied for. Now try to see that narrative as a whole story—a progression from the bad to the good. Open yourself to the idea that perhaps what happened during the challenging time was actually clearing the way for what you’re now celebrating, or made you feel even happier about the experience that came after it. Now take a moment to express gratitude for those challenges and weave them into the story of your life.

Admittedly, we do our best celebrating in hindsight. When we are actually experiencing challenges, it’s difficult to tell ourselves, “This could end up being a good thing!” But the more we practice looking in the rearview mirror and finding gratitude for the hard times we’ve experienced, the more we start to change our programming; the gap between suffering and gratitude gets smaller and smaller; and the intensity of our fear in the moments of hardship begins to diminish.

Revisit Long-Term Fears :

Panic and freezing can be dealt with using breath and by reframing the circumstances, but these are short-term fear responses. It is much harder to control the two long-term strategies we use to distract us from fear: burying and running away. One of my favorite ways to understand how these strategies work involves a house on fire. Let’s say you wake up in the middle of the night to your smoke detector beeping. Immediately, you’re afraid, as you should be—that signal did its job, which was to get your attention. Now you smell smoke, so you gather your family and pets together and you get out of the house, right? This is fear put to its best use.


But what if, upon hearing the smoke alarm, instead of quickly assessing the situation and taking the logical next steps, you hurried over to the smoke detector, removed the battery, and went back to bed? As you can imagine, your problems are about to magnify. Yet that’s what we often do with fear. Instead of assessing and responding, we deny or abandon the situation. Relationships are a space where we commonly use the “solution” of avoidance. Let’s say you’re having some major conflict with your girlfriend. Rather than sitting down with her and talking about what’s going on (putting out the fire), or even figuring out that you aren’t meant to be together (safely and calmly getting everyone out of the house), you pretend everything’s fine (while the destructive fire burns on).


When we deny fear, our problems follow us. In fact, they’re probably getting bigger, and bigger, and at some point something will force us to deal with them. When all else fails, pain does make us pay attention. If we don’t learn from the signal that alerts us to a problem, we’ll end up learning from the results of the problem itself, which is far less desirable. But if we face our fear—we stay, we deal with the fire, we have the tough conversation—we become stronger as a result.


The very first lesson the Gita teaches us is how to handle fear. In the moments before the battle starts, when Arjuna is overcome by fear, he doesn’t run from it or bury it; he faces it. In the text, Arjuna is a brave and skilled warrior, yet in this moment it is fear that causes him, for the first time, to reflect. It’s often said that when the fear of staying the same outweighs the fear of change, that is when we change. He asks for help in the form of insight and understanding. In that action, he has begun to shift from being controlled by his fear to understanding it. “What you run from only stays with you longer,” writes the author of the novel Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk, in his book Invisible Monsters Remix. “Find what you’re afraid of most and go live there.”


That day in the basement of the ashram, I opened myself to my deeply held fears about my parents. I rarely experienced panic or freeze reactions, but that didn’t mean I had no fears—it meant I was pushing them down. As my teacher said, “When fear is buried, it’s something we cling to, and it makes everything feel tight because we’re under this burden of things we’ve never released.” Whether you suppress them or run away from them, your fears and your problems remain with you—and they accumulate. We used to think it didn’t matter if we dumped our trash in landfills without regard for the environment. If we couldn’t see it or smell it, we figured it would somehow just take care of itself. Yet before regulation, landfills polluted water supplies, and even today they are one of the largest producers of human-generated methane gas in the United States. In the same way, burying our fears takes an unseen toll on our internal landscape.

TRY THIS: DIVE INTO YOUR FEARS

As we did at the ashram, take a deep dive into your fears. At first a few surface-level fears will pop up. Stay with the exercise, asking yourself What am I really afraid of? and larger and deeper fears will begin to reveal themselves. These answers don’t usually come all at once. Typically, it takes some time to sink below the layers to the real root of your fears. Be open to the answer revealing itself over time, and maybe not even during a meditation or other focused session. You may be at the grocery store selecting avocados one day when all of a sudden it dawns on you. That’s just how we operate.

Going through the processes of acknowledging fear, observing our patterns for dealing with it, addressing and amending those patterns helps us to reprogram our view of fear from something that’s inherently negative to a neutral signal, or even an indicator of opportunity. When we reclassify fear, we can look past the smoke and stories to what’s real, and in so doing, uncover deep and meaningful truths that can inform and empower us. When we identify our attachment-related fears and instead foster detachment, we can live with a greater sense of freedom and enjoyment. And when we channel the energy behind our fears toward service, we diminish our fear of not having enough, and feel happier, more fulfilled, and more connected to the world around us.


Fear motivates us. Sometimes it motivates us toward what we want, but sometimes, if we aren’t careful, it limits us with what we think will keep us safe.


    Next we will look at our primary motivators (fear is one of four) and how we can deliberately use them to build a fulfilling life.








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