A Buddhist Technique to Help us Handle Fear with Care
Via Jess DiNiscoon Mar 23, 2016
Many psychologists, yogis and Buddhists would agree with the following quote:
“There are only two emotions: love and fear. From love flows happiness, contentment, peace, and joy. From fear comes anger, hate, anxiety and guilt. It’s true that there are only two primary emotions, love and fear. But it’s more accurate to say that there is only love or fear, for we cannot feel these two emotions together, at exactly the same time. They’re opposites. If we’re in fear, we are not in a place of love. When we’re in a place of love, we cannot be in a place of fear.” ~ Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Most painful experiences are driven by fear and to no surprise, fear has gotten a pretty rotten rap. The idea of being “fearless” and “not living in fear” is frequently glorified. We, as humans, want less pain. Really, we want nothing to do with fear or anything it may show us.
Paradoxically, fear in and of itself has been, evolutionally speaking, a life-saver. In fact, without fear, we would have been eaten by tigers, destroyed by changes in climate and starved to death. Fear has been a friend for many years, signaling us to prepare, innovate and collect wisdom. Fear has kept our species alive, acting as the shaky, mentally alerting emotion telling us to wake up and tune our antennas.
Our environment is adapting at a phenomenal rate. We have access to food, shelter and many safety concerns are alleviated. Our fear does not need to function for us in the unconsciously badass way it did millennia before this time.
Today, we need much less physical, unconscious protection. Instead our unconscious fears go to work for us mentally and emotionally. Our triggers aren’t changes in the weather or the howl of an animal. Rather, they come in the form of inter and intra relations.
Regardless of the change in our circumstances as a species, fear continues to unconsciously do its job it so marvelously has done: warn us to prepare for danger. The triggers are different, yet the fight, flight and freeze reaction of fear remains the same.
1. Fight: Defensive, angry, mistrusting self and others, judgmental and controlling. 2. Flight: Withdrawing, depressed, numbing, doubting and not caring. 3. Freeze: Shutting down, passivity, indecision and despairing.
A system that has been incredibly beneficial for millennia is currently contributing to much harm: war, all the “isms,” abuse, the destruction of our environment, physical and mental illnesses, blocking creativity, trampling on our closest relationships, and preventing us from intimately connecting with community of all kinds.
It’s no wonder we are at war with fear. No wonder we shame fear. Minimize fear. Deny fear. Judge fear in others. Project fear. Numb fear. Blame fear. Rationalize fear. Fight fear.
We are afraid of fear.
Optimistically though, our consciousness is shifting. Yes, we’re moving toward light and I have faith in our ability to use fear to work for us rather than us working for fear. I’m going to share a technique learned from Buddhist teacher and PhD, Tara Brach.
R: Recognize. If a flaming house is on fire and I walk down the street only to walk by the house, maybe smell the smoke but are unable to see the fire, the house is sure to burn.
Essentially, we can never change a painful pattern or painful emotional response if we don’t first acknowledge its presence. In my explorations of this first step, my mom, closest friends, mentor and therapist all help me to see if I’m missing something. So often our blind spots are just that: blind spots.
What we can recognize: body sensations, emotions, ruminating thoughts, assumptions, behaviors outside our value system, feeling disconnected and the list goes on.
Recognizing’s Opposite: Denial.
A. Acceptance. So, I see the fire and once I acknowledge the flames, I stand with my arms crossed. “Who the heck made houses flammable?!” “Who did this and why in the world is this happening?!” “Gosh, this is the worst, I may as well just sit here and watch it burn.” “I just know some cruel person set this house on fire. Dang humans, they can’t be trusted for anything.” These are all ways we can resist accepting a situation. The fire is sure to burn the house to ash if we resist.
Some tips I’ve learned about acceptance along the way include:
1. Acknowledging that what we experience is uncomfortable and it is okay if we don’t like it. However, it is already here and fighting it only adds more flames. 2. It is natural for us to resist pain. Can we be okay and accept our resistance as well? 3. Reminding our hearts that, “Yes, I can do this. I know my heart can be with whatever arises.” 4. In my experience, acceptance is not accepting the triggering event. We do not need to accept disrespect of our innocence, kindness, trust or boundaries. We do need to accept how our bodies, minds, hearts and souls have been impacted. We accept our pain so we can heal, move on and live with more authentic tenderness rather than heated resentment. Even if it seems incredibly unfair. 5. Acceptance can get tricky. If we accept with the underlying intention to get rid of this experience as fast as possible, then our expectations can worsen matters. Instead, we accept with the understanding that whatever is occurring will need its own time. Patience is a virtue for a reason.
Acceptance’s Opposite: Resistance.
I. Investigate. The firefighters make it to the scene and they begin to attentively investigate the situation. The key to investigating is to do this with the most loving-kindness available. Four of the most useful questions and some examples:
1. What am I believing about myself? I’m not safe, I’m not good enough or lovable, I always fail, I can’t be vulnerable, I can’t trust myself, If I’m seen for me no one will love me, Something is wrong with me, I’m smarter than everyone, Nothing will ever get better for me 2. What do I need? A walk, Discipline, A bath, Laughter, Movement, Rest, Communication, Loving-kindness meditation, Time/space, Getting professional help, Encouragement, Support 3. How has this belief served me in the past? Growing up, it was safer to not have needs. I never was accepted for my authenticity so I covered up my truth. I had to care for my caretaker and had to always know best. I’ve made bad decisions in the past and have been hurt so I can’t trust my own self. Whenever I was real with people I would get shamed. 4. How or am I contributing to this? Be easy with this. These deeply held beliefs and unmet needs have been there for a while and have served us. Less self- criticism and more the patient, attentive, loving observing.
N. Non–Identification. Just as the house isn’t the fire, we aren’t our behaviors, emotions, thoughts or feelings. In non- identification we take the identification of a loving and warm friend. This piece is especially important with old wounds or intensely emotional experiences. In this process, I’ve found tears of release, relaxation and great surrender with this process. We are our own greatest love and support saying, “I see you. This is challenging. You aren’t alone. I love you. We can do this.”
Mettameditation is incredibly healing. “May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be safe. May I be free. May he/she be happy. May he/she be healthy. May he/she be safe. May he/she be free.”
Non-Identification’s Opposite: Over-identification with anything other than loving-kindness.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross says fear and love cannot exist together. In our evolution as a species, let’s learn and practice to love our fear. Let’s thank our fear for doing its job to protect us. And remind ourselves that fear is completely human. Mostly, let’s rest in the wisdom that when we shed some love on even our deepest terrors, they too will soften.