Fear. Who among us hasn’t experienced it at some point in our lives? Fear is universal, and even the animal kingdom confronts it. For many of us, it is a feeling that is experienced on a regular basis. For the fortunate few, it is a momentary annoyance. Whether it is a common occurrence or a rarity, the crucial factor is how we respond to it. Do we shrink from it and allow it to guide our actions, and our lives, or do we take a deep breath, brace ourselves and look it in the eye, much like the underdog facing the reining champion? It all comes down to a question of control and courage. Do we allow it to control us or do we have the courage to refuse to cede control to the powerful emotion?
The question comes to mind as I confront a bout of depression. It is not a ‘dark night of the soul’ by any means. It is more like a physical, emotional and mental exhaustion that persists, in spite of what I do. I know that, as is always the case, it will pass, but I find it difficult to wait patiently for that to happen.
Many years ago, I was reading one of my many yoga magazines and I stumbled across a review about a book written by the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. Until that point, I hadn’t heard of her. I don’t even remember the name of the book being reviewed, but I was taken by the book’s summary and the positive review that it received. At first, I was reluctant to read the book, because having been raised as a Christian (Catholic), I was taught to view other religions with a huge degree of skepticism and disbelief. (Among other things, Buddhism differs from Christianity in that it eschews a belief in the existence of a god.) When I was younger, it was “us” versus “them.” Fortunately, with age came a curiosity about other faiths, their beliefs and practices, as well as faith in my unshakable beliefs.
Anyway, that first book became the first of many books and CD’s that I devoured by Chödrön. She teaches in an authentic, honest,. compassionate, and loving way, but she doesn’t shy away from the truth. The current book that I am re-reading is “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times,” which uses Buddhist wisdom and techniques, often mediation and mindfulness, to successfully deal with life’s difficulties. Regarding fear, she is direct and tells the following tale:
“Once there was a young warrior. Her teacher told her that she had to do battle with fear. She didn’t want to do that. It seemed too aggressive; it was scary; it seemed unfriendly. But the teacher said she had to do it and gave her the instructions for the battle. The day arrived. The student warrior stood on one side, and fear stood on the other. The warrior was feeling very small, and fear was looking big and wrathful. They both had their weapons. The young warrior roused herself and went toward fear, prostrated three times, and asked, “May I have permission to go into battle with you?” Fear said, “Thank you for showing me so much respect that you ask permission.” Then the young warrior said, “How can I defeat you?” Fear replied, “My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face. Then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me. But if you don’t do what I say, I have no power.” In that way, the student warrior learned how to defeat fear. ”
~ Pema Chödrön, “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times“
Whether true or fictional, the tale is instructive. As I mentioned earlier, the question of courage enters the equation. All too often, we allow our emotions to control our behavior, because we can’t muster the courage to overcome them. Thus, we act according to the emotion, be it guilt, shame or fear. In that respect, we allow the emotion to exert power over us. By acknowledging the fear, but overcoming the very powerful urge to act in accordance with it, we free ourselves of its hold over us. I do not claim that this is an easy feat. If I believed so, I would not have chosen “courage” as my word for 2014, as this earlier post indicates.
In my case, I’ve discovered that control is tied to the act of being vulnerable, which itself raises the specter of fear. As I wrote, there are times when I felt that:
[b]eing vulnerable meant admitting that I wasn’t perfect, that I don’t have it all together, that sometimes I feel lost, and that sometimes I need, among other things, love, help, support, a shoulder to cry on, to vent, that sometimes, I just don’t know, and need help finding the answers. I realize that I need the courage to be imperfect, thus, the courage to be vulnerable.
Granted, acknowledging my fears, opens myself to being viewed as weak, something that is frowned upon in our society. Nevertheless, failing to do so, brings with it a denial of my true self, and for me, sharing my journey of discovery demands openness and honesty, no matter how uncomfortable or vulnerable that may be. With that said, my goal is to face fear, and have the courage to triumph over it. As this year has passed, I’ve had many successes, but a few missteps. Yet, acknowledging my fears has become far easier, and I know that though I may fall, I will continue to pick myself up, and “begin again.”
What about you? How do you deal with fear? I’d love to hear your thoughts.