Fear is often experienced as a formidable foe.
In Buddhist psychology, there's an understanding that much of our orientation toward life is driven by desire and aversion which is accompanied by various shades of fear (e.g., worry, anxiety, panic). We grasp after things we want, fearful of losing a positive experience, and we push away or avoid things we don't want, fearful of encountering a negative experience.
“I want a loving relationship, a good job, a sense of purpose. I’m scared of losing what’s important to me — my health, my partner. I want to be liked. I’m afraid of failing.”
The genesis of fear, supported both by Buddhist psychology and modern neuroscience, is seen to be our experience of separation from “the world out there.”
There is a me that is moving through life, doing my best to get what I want, and there is the world out there that cooperates with me or not. The primary mood of this separate self is fear.
This separate sense of self is part of our evolutionary inheritance and hard-wiring. Our nervous system is programmed to be on the look out for danger, motivating us to take action to assure our survival. As tribal creatures, our physical survival is often dependent upon supportive others. Even though many of us don’t fear for our physical survival, we can relate to worrying about our ability to belong and connect with others.
It’s important to recognize that fear comes with the territory of being human. There's no way to avoid fear. Fear is not a mistake.
Fear becomes problematic when it takes over our lives: our thoughts, emotions, body, and behaviors. We may find ourselves organizing our lives around hypervigilance (“I’ve got to stay alert. I’ve got to plan, anticipate, figure this out.”) or avoidance (“This fear is too much, I’ve got to distract from it, escape it, numb it.” ) In one way or another our flight, fight, freeze, and collapse survival behaviors are at play.
What to do?
We need a new relationship to fear, to face our fear in a new way.
Facing our fear depends on three foundational principles.
1) Intention: It takes courage to face our fear, especially when we’re easily overwhelmed by fear and we’ve grown habits of hypervigilance and avoidance. I invite you to acknowledge the way fear holds you back and to claim what you really want. Perhaps it is to grow as a person, or to heal trauma wounds, or to be more loving, or to be available for service in the world.
There’s no right or wrong intention, only what’s most true for you. As we hold in mind our deepest aspiration we find our courage and willingness to persevere. For example, “I’m willing to face my fear of trusting others in service of deepening my capacity to love.”
2) Awareness: The most powerful capacity we have as human beings is our ability to reflect on ourselves from an observer perspective — to observe ourselves as if from the outside. Mindfulness practices are meant to grow this capacity.
To face our fear, we need to slow way down and explore what is actually happening in the experience of fear. The five building blocks that comprise our experience of the present moment include our thoughts, emotions, inner sensations, movement, and five senses (see here).
What’s happening in our thoughts, our emotions, and our bodies when we’re in fear? How are we moving through the world when we’re in fear (e.g., our posture, gestures, movement, voice tone, eye contact, etc.)? What are we orienting to in our environment (e.g., do we look for signs of danger or safety)?
It takes courage to turn toward our fear in this way, especially when we’re used to feeling flooded by fear or avoiding fear. Mindfully observing and labeling our experience of fear in the moment (especially our inner sensations) will help keep us in our window of tolerance (see here).
As we begin to understand the interplay between our thinking, emotional and somatic narratives we open up the possibility of change. For example, we can update ineffectual, habitual thinking patterns and nervous system arousal patterns that were useful in the past but don’t serve us now. This is the domain of much of psychotherapy.
3) Compassion: Self-compassion will strengthen our ability to be self-aware. An attitude of openness, curiosity, loving kindness, and non-judgment will help us see what’s really happening in a given moment. Many people are afraid to be self-compassionate. They judge themselves in an effort to control themselves into being a better person. In my experience, this just doesn’t work. As Carl Rogers said, “It wasn’t until I accepted myself — just as I was — that I was free to change.”
With intention, awareness, and compassion on our side, we can face our fear and respond skillfully. Therapeutic interventions that target the core building blocks of fear help us change the moment and/or create greater ease in the moment.
While learning coping skills and other interventions to resource ourselves is important, it’s not the final step on the journey to redefining our relationship with fear.
We’re invited to expand our sense of self.
The deeper invitation is to notice the self that is meeting yourself with compassionate awareness. Who or what is this observing aware self? As you turn the spotlight from the building blocks of fear to this kind-hearted awareness, you come to sense that awareness is what you are.
The locus of your identity shifts from being a separate self to being the open, spacious, loving awareness that is noticing experience.
This point is subtle and takes investigation. As we stick with the investigation, we realize our connection and belonging to something greater than ourselves. We come home to ourselves as tender, awake, loving awareness.
This is the realization of nondual spiritual traditions and current research in neuroscience. And it’s in this realization that fear especially begins to loosen its fierce grip.