A Conversation with Fear
Updated: Aug 24, 2022
“Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold”
- Helen Keller
Last week we discussed the fear that the heatwave had generated. This week we want to explore the relationship we have with fear in more depth.
The last 2 years have been a time of great uncertainty and fear. Fear of exposing ourselves to Covid, putting our vulnerable loved ones at risk and losing income and security were all at the forefront of our minds. There was also the added fear of becoming embroiled in conflict with those with opposing but equally passionate views. It was a turbulent time for all of us and we needed resilience tools more than ever. It was during this period that this website was born and that we wrote our book ‘How to Rise’ in which we included all the tools that we had amassed for coping with this and any other situation which might threaten to put a dent in our wellbeing and that of our patients. There have been many more tools discovered since then.
This week wanted to address the subject of fear again in a fresh light.
We want to talk about some of the daily effects of fear that are not always immediately obvious in our lives.
When we are stuck and struggling to move forward – it is fear that lies at the heart of our suffering.
Much human pain has its roots in fear. Fear arises when we become aware that we may be about to lose something of importance to us. This might be possessions, status, reputation, skill, life, comfort, relationships or time. Buddhist law states that attachment is at the root of all suffering and It is our attachment to these things that creates fear when they are threatened.
Taken to its logical conclusion, we might suggest that we must aspire to foster detachment in order to alleviate suffering. However, in the modern world where not everyone is on a path towards enlightenment – when we do this – we look like prey. Even though detachment might be something to aspire to – the reality is that we often need these things to feel fulfilled and happy during the current phase of the journey.
Read more about this here: Understanding the Purpose of Ego
Read about detachment here: How to Let go
What is the purpose of fear?
Fear represents one of the primal parts of the human psyche which is responsible for the success and survival of the species.
Fear is also the reason that we personally have survived life so far. Without it we would die. It is like a pair of reins on us as we move forward in life which are ready to tighten and hold us back as soon as there is the slightest sense that we are in peril. Fear prevents us from physical harm by moving us away from steep cliffs or forcing us to check thoroughly before crossing the road. It also checks our actions when we interact with others, filtering out any reckless behaviour which may result in our losing our job or friendships – unless we consciously override it.
Put simply, fear is like a wise trusted friend who walks beside us and whose sole job it is to keep us safe.
How do we become paralysed by fear?
Fear can present as an unconscious sense that we are constantly at risk of some level of peril. As we have said, it is like a pair of reins that become tight at any time where there is a sense of danger to our wellbeing.
When we are anxious, stressed or habitually engage in distorted thinking, this sense of danger is heightened - and the reins are perpetually tight. We are stuck.
Read more about distorted thinking here: How to Challenge Distorted Thinking
When we are anxious or our perspective has become distorted, we can experience an underlying sense of constant peril. These are perfect conditions for the brakes to be applied. Fear stops us from moving forwards – but indiscriminately. This is how we become paralysed.
According to smithsonianmag.com, our predecessor Homo Erectus lived successfully on Earth for two million years. We have only, so far made it to one third of a million. Perhaps his sense of fear was primarily concerned with real physical danger. Perhaps he was not a distorted thinker. We can only muse on this. He certainly did not share the Homo Sapiens’ perspective on the world.
Do you ever feel that you are stuck? You know what you want to achieve but you keep having to remove obstacle after obstacle of your own making and the effort it takes is enough for you to give up?
Are there times when you even struggle to get started?
Do you find yourself holding external factors responsible for your inertia, such as a toxic environment or the behaviour of someone else?
As we have said, at the heart of your suffering, lies fear.
How then, do we address this practically within our lives?
We recognise it.
We learn the art of Observation of the Self. We learn to pick up the subtle body changes that occur when fear arises, we treat it as a trusted friend, and we say ‘Thank you. I’m listening.’
We can then consciously choose whether to let it run or not.
Find a comfortable seat and rest quietly with your spine straight and your feet flat on the floor.
Take your awareness to your breathing
Notice its tidal quality
As always, allow your breath to slow and deepen
And become conscious of the feeling of calm stillness
That settles over you
Imagine yourself at the start of a rickety bridge
It appears to be in very poor repair
And there is no other way across
But you have absolutely no choice but to reach the other side
It is the path that you must take
There is no turning back
Your survival depends on it
You step up to the bridge
And place your hands on the frayed ropes that attach to posts either side of you
You look down at the broken slats and holes in the floor
And you can see torrents of water
Gushing far below
But you must reach the other side
You know that others have crossed the bridge
You have seen them
Picking their way, skilfully over
You know that, with care, it is passable
And you must pass
As you hold firmly to the ropes
And consider placing your foot on the bridge
You know that you too can reach the other side
It is wholly possible
And you are ready
So you take your first step
But just as you begin to take a foothold
And propel yourself out onto the wooden slats
A hand catches hold of your arm
And holds you still
You can move neither forward
You are stuck
Then you notice sensations within your body
Perhaps your stomach is churning?
Maybe your chest feels tight?
Pressure in your head?
Tightness in the throat?
Picking on the skin?
These feel uncomfortable and so you push them away
And try to ignore them and propel yourself forward into the task
It has to be done anyway
The discomfort intensifies
And you are paralysed
You stand, for a moment
In contemplation of your predicament
You cannot go forward
You cannot go backwards
There is nothing to do but remain stuck
After a while you become idle
You begin to look at your surroundings
Among the sounds and scents of the outside
You are suddenly aware of the pressure on your arm
It is a hand
A hand must have and owner
You become curious in your idleness
“Why are you gripping my arm?”
“I do not want you to cross the bridge” “Why? I need to cross that bridge. My life is on the other side”
“I can sense danger on the slats and the ropes. It might not hold you. You might fall. You could hurt yourself. You could die! You must stay here where I know that you are safe. I showed you physical discomfort to make you stop.”
“I get that a lot”
“You wouldn’t listen, so I turned it up”
“I get that a lot too. I thought it best to ignore it and push on”
“The discomfort is there for a reason. You need to feel it. I need to know that you are listening”
“But I need to cross”
“That’s fine. I need to know that you are listening”
“I understand. Thank you for striving to keep me safe but I must cross. I understand that there is danger. I see the broken slats, the frayed ropes and the torrents of water below. But there is risk in all change. It is possible. I will be careful. I will move slowly and with caution. I will pause when I need to. I will equip for the task. But I must go. My life is on the other side”
“Go then. I will walk beside you. It is my sole purpose to keep you safe.