As long as we are alive, we feel fear. It is an intrinsic part of our makeup, as natural as a bitter cold winter day or the winds that rip branches off trees. If we resist it or push it aside, we miss a powerful opportunity for awakening.
I feel fear every day. Small fears. Big fears. Existential, metaphysical fears. And like many of you, I have spent much of my life avoiding my fears.
But I have recently come to understand the importance of fear.
To start with, it’s unavoidable! As Tara Brach states, as long as we live we will feel fear. And this is a good thing! Fear is actually part of our biological makeup. Without fear, we wouldn’t run from an intruder. Without fear, we might not apply ourselves at school or in the workplace. In fact, it is fear of the loss of parental love that acts as conscience until a child turns seven, when conscience becomes fully established in the psyche.
The problem is not fear.
The issue is our relationship to fear. We are afraid of fear itself. And, this is understandable! Fear is overwhelming and powerful and we fear loss of control to this powerful force. For this reason, we usually prefer to avoid facing fear. Or, we seek self-help methods that tell us how not to be afraid.
But there are two ways to handle difficulty: either we avoid it (which simply means that we delay dealing with it) or we face it. So, if you’re going to have to deal with difficulty anyway, why not just face it now, and avoid unnecessary trauma?
We start the process by acknowledging the fear. You can actually say to yourself, “Welcome fear, I accept that you are here.” And now a huge shift happens because you are intentionally inviting the fear in, rather than slamming the door in its face.
Next, we can go straight to the body and find where the fear is manifesting itself: tightness in the throat, a stomach ache, a pinched nerve, or perhaps a back ache. We can breathe into our body, imagining our breath as a powerful, loving and nurturing force massaging the fear and lessening the tension. Once our body feels more peaceful, we can see what thoughts and story are attached to the fear. Sometimes the most crippling fears are ones that bring back old issues, history, or trauma. In these cases, we should be especially sensitive with ourselves, never judging or criticizing.
And this is when, as Tara Brach notes, fear can be a powerful opportunity for awakening. We can use the fear to show us deeper parts of ourselves, to teach how to be in the full experience of our lives, not just the pretty parts, but even the dirty gritty painful parts. We can also learn compassion for others as we connect to the human experience of fear.
And remember, always, regardless of whether you are feeling fear, happiness, sadness or love, to return to the breath, knowing that this moment, like all moments—whether pleasant or painful—will pass. There is nothing to do, nowhere to go, only to be in the fullness of our human experience.
I have a short guided meditation here that can help us when we are feeling very strong emotions, like fear.