As I was meditating the other morning, I noticed fear arising. This is not unusual. Fear appears in many guises — worry, planning, anxiety, hurt feelings, self-doubt, anger, etc. Fear is felt in the body as tension. Fear is a presence I usually recognize when it shows up, but this time I saw the fear in a very different way. That new way of seeing fear has helped me. Maybe it will help you, too.
An important part of our practice, especially when things aren’t going well, is to do a little self-inquiry. A key question we ask ourselves is ‘How am I in relationship to this?’ I could see that I was relating to my experience with fear. But how am I in relationship with fear itself? In that moment I could see that the fear is not part of the fabric of my being, but is, instead, a lens or a filter through which I am looking at experience. The fear is not me, not even an aspect of me, though almost every aspect of who I perceive myself to be looks at the world through the distorting faulty filter of fear.
If fear is simply a filter or a lens, suddenly it is neutral and more manageable. It is neither friend nor foe. It is not the boss of me. I don’t have to go into battle with it. It is simply an increasingly transparent filter that when in place distorts my view of things. Just noticing this gives me tremendous power! Whenever I become aware of fear arising, I can recognize it as the filter it is, and I have options: I can continue in my habituated way to look through the filter, or I can open my senses in this moment to see a world teeming with beauty and life ever unfolding in cycles of energy and matter. I can feel how this body, this transient gift, is intrinsically interconnected to all beings. And in that moment, that filter of fear reveals itself to be myopic and unreliable.
‘Now wait a minute’, you may be thinking, ‘fear is important and useful. Where would we be without fear? Would we have even survived as a species?’
These are interesting questions. So let’s look at fear more closely.
Let’s look at a situation where some innate sense in our body perceives a danger. Perhaps hair stands up on the back of the neck, or some other physical sensation that lets us know we might want to steer clear. Not walking into a situation that might put us at risk is a biological imperative. It’s instinctive. Point taken.
But I wonder when we live so steeped in fear all the time, if we really pick up on the instinctive cues. Fortunately I have not had the opportunity to see for myself. But I do follow my neighborhood online community and there was an interesting discussion about a ‘colorful character’ in town who wears different costumes on our main street, including one of a Buddhist monk! Another outfit is a kilt. Those are the only two I’ve seen. Anyway, the online conversation ranged from concern for the fellow to concern for public safety. But only one person in the group had actually had a conversation with the man. He found him to be a very sweet, not altogether ‘there’ person, who was clearly not a threat to anyone. Yet his very calm presence in his various guises really rattled up a lot of fear in a number of people. The filter of fear is full of faulty assumptions.
There are those hopefully rare times when an adrenaline rush sparked by fear gives us extra strength and speed to, for example, get out of the way of a moving vehicle. Okay, life saved! Good job! But upon closer inspection, we might ask how did we get in that position? Could we have been more mindful? More in touch with all our senses so that we could see that car coming? Maybe if we weren’t distracted by our phone, our planning mind, etc. But, yes, let’s acknowledge that adrenaline is useful in very small doses on such occasions. It’s when adrenaline is pouring through the body constantly keeping us on high alert that it can cause all kinds of problems in our bodies and minds.
Everyone in class this week recognized the existence of fear in an ongoing way. some immediately, some after an autopilot declaration of ‘I’m not afraid of anything.’ After a few minutes of looking more closely, they could see that it was fear itself that was making that bold statement.
It may help to consider whether fear itself is disruptive, or if it is our blindness to it that causes us trouble. For example, I am afraid right now, anxious about whether the medical treatments for my brother will work. If I don’t acknowledge how this fear is impacting me, how my whole torso is tense as a direct result of my concern, then I won’t treat myself tenderly. I won’t make room for all that is arising. And as a result I will be, I guarantee it, unskillful in some way: anxious mindless eating, prickly in relationships, exhausted and grumpy, or some other of many possible totally useless and sometimes destructive ‘coping’ mechanisms. And making an enemy of fear causes even more upset that may play out badly.
Just now from the other room I heard my brother on the phone telling his friend he didn’t know why Stephanie wasn’t able to find those other pills in his bag. Opportunity to notice my reaction: Okay, yup, there it is: Hurt, fury, ‘after all I’ve done for you’ yada yada, worry about being seen as a lousy caregiver by whoever he was talking to. word spreads, elder abuse – oh my! Okay now a little revenge, plotting to give my brother the cold shoulder for his lack of appreciation, (even as I know I won’t do that, because after all he’s operating out of fear too, and he’s in a fight for his life). All this mental storm in a matter of thirty seconds! Wow. Fear in the house!
Acknowledging the fear, I allow myself the time, space and compassion needed to be skillful in my life, taking care of the needs of others more ably and lovingly because I continue to be present and compassionate with myself. If this sounds self-centered, remember the oxygen mask directions on an airplane. Put your own mask on first before helping someone else. Especially for many women, this is a necessary reminder. How much of our willingness to give ourselves away, to always put others first even to the detriment of our own health, has to do with fear? ALL of it, in one way or another.
So we recognize fear. We feel it in the tension in the body. We don’t try to talk ourselves out of it, because that is just an inner battle between — let’s nickname them — ‘logical mind’ and ‘scaredy cat’. There’s no kindness or respect there. It’s more skillful to simply listen, using the infinite inner wisdom that rises up when we take the time to listen in. Every little aspect of self except that infinite inner wisdom is terrified of something. And it’s useful to see the nature of that fear. There’s the fear of making a fool of ourselves, so that aspect keeps us from speaking. There’s the fear of getting hurt in love, so that aspect keeps us from exposing our vulnerability. With awareness and compassion, we can recognize the specific fear-based message of any fear we identify. It can also be helpful to investigate where that message came from. But all of this is done in a loving and respectful way. Not to change or get rid of anything.
Fear sets in when we let unexamined assumptions motivate us. Past experience perhaps has taught us to be cautious in certain situations or with certain people. People who were major influencers in our lives handed down their own fear-based views, and we accepted them without question, too. So here we are, full of fear. But it’s just a lens distorting reality. And we have our tools of skillful questions: Is this true? How do I know this is true? Is the man wearing a kilt one day and a monk’s robe the next a threat?
For some fears, we don’t need to go on an inner journey. We just have to recognize what we are surrounding ourselves with in our daily lives. If the news is churning out endless images, headlines and opinions that are contrived to activate a fear-based addiction, is it any surprise we feel overwhelmed with fear?
When we don’t take the time to question the veracity of our beliefs and assumptions, then fear holds the reins of our lives, causing us to behave in ways that are destructive to ourselves, those around us and, since we’re all a part of the same living system, ultimately all life on down through generations.
‘Now wait a minute’, you may say again, ‘where would we be without fear? It’s a great motivator to do the right thing. Without the fear of negative consequences, wouldn’t we all just run around doing all kinds of damage?’ I don’t know the answer to that. Certainly people are motivated by fear to do the right thing: Fear of going to hell. Fear of a spanking. Fear of losing our job. Fear of getting a ticket. Fear of getting fat. Fear of being seen as less than admirable. Fear is a powerful motivator, no doubt about it. But the results of acting out of fear quite naturally fail.
Let’s take the example of the fear of getting a ticket. That’s a pretty common fear, one that all drivers tend to have. But we could drive with mindfulness and compassion, aware of the fact that we are driving a potential weapon of death, maintaining safe speeds, watching for pedestrians and other vehicles, sharing the road with kindness and consideration, and we would be skillful drivers. The fear of getting a ticket could make us think that as long as there isn’t a police car in the vicinity we could pretty much run rampant and ‘get away with it’. What are we getting away with? While not all laws are perfect, the majority of laws were made up to keep us safe. The laws are based in common sense, and if we use common sense, awareness and compassion, we don’t have to be afraid of getting a ticket.
For me now, the direction of this exploration takes a fearful turn. Because of the advent of videos capturing incidents of police violence against unarmed black men, there is a heightened awareness and what feels like a very reasonable fear. Because the majority of the men in my family are black, my chest tightens with fear when I think about it. When it comes to this particular fear, I am currently unable to talk myself down from the ledge. But I will keep looking at it, and that’s all any of us can do: Just keep practicing, and keep exploring. I have noticed that I am less fearful when I am able to actively do something, so that might be something to also explore.
Our practice is to notice what is arising. Noticing fear is not always comfortable. But finding a way to be present with fear, without pushing it away or making it the enemy, really does help us to come into more skillful relationship with all that arises in our experience.
See for yourself if you are looking at your experience or the world through a faulty filter. And please let me know what you discover!