Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Oh! To Be Fierce and Afraid . . .

Fear visited again this morning. A big presence, that could not be ignored, and that kept sending butterflies into my stomach. In French, fear is 'la peur', a feminine emotion. La peur does feel like a sister to me, a long time companion that is very much a part of my story. My relationship to it has not always been smooth. I even landed in the ER once, after a panic attack. I was sure I was dying, of a faulty heart. Let's face it, I am not particularly crazy about la peur, and wishes I could rid myself from her. The Buddha promises a fear-free life, out of samsara. I want that. An existence, that does not get rippled by all the dangers, real and imagined, big and small, that are a part of the human condition.

Grateful for quiet house, I settled in my seat, ready for a face to face encounter with the fear. Tear, one single tear rolling down from corner of right eye, surprised me. And so did, soft, almost sad, heart. Belly breath was right there, easy to follow. Soon, I fell into its rhythm, sinking, deeper and deeper, into a place where I could hear the outside noises, still, but that was it. No irritation, no enchantment, just neutral hearing of clock ticking, and car driving by, and the crows. Liking the calm of just breath, noticing the uniqueness of each inhale, each exhale, and once in a while, deep sigh. After quite a while, thought, humm . . . fear is not there, anymore. Then, almost at once, a few butterflies in stomach. Breath, to go back to the breath, and massage away the butterflies. Breath, moving through, up and down, through now thick cloud of flying creatures. Relaxing into the breath, focusing. Breath, and fear.

I pulled out this passage from Gil Fronsdal, on fear:
By observing the thoughts or bodily sensations that might be present, we step outside of the domain of the fear, and our identification with it lessens. One of the primary ways to investigate fear is to feel it in the body. There might be sensations of butterflies, tightening or clenching in the stomach. There might be a sense of painful vulnerability. If the fear is quite strong, it can be difficult to be with the sensations directly. In that case, breathe with and through the discomfort, as though the breath were a massage. Breathing with the sensations can allow us to move through the fear without being caught by it. If we have enough stability in our meditation, focusing directly on the bodily sensations associated with the fear can be very helpful. Anchoring the attention on the strongest sensations that manifest the fear helps us to disengage from the ideas and stories which activate fear. Most of the time during meditation, these stories are irrelevant to what is happening in the present moment. Holding the bodily sensations of fear in awareness helps to make room for the experience, which allows the bodily sensations to move through us. Much of the tension, tightness and constriction will begin to unravel as they are held with gentle awareness. The fear that many people in our culture experience often has little to do with imminent danger. Instead it frequently results from an idea, an imagination of what will happen in the future. This imagination fuels the fear, worry or anxiety. We can use mindfulness practice to start learning to pay attention to the patterns of thought that relate to our fears, to see some of the common themes about what we are afraid of, and also to begin to see what triggers the fear. When we start to recognize the patterns around our fear and to see what triggers it, then we can start to ask ourselves if these suppositions are actually true. In my practice, seeing that my projections and fears about a situation were often far different from the actual outcome helped me to overcome some of my fears. For example, once I spent two days worrying about a meeting, and then the meeting was cancelled. As this sort of painful experience happened not once, but over and over again, I slowly began to realize what a waste of time worry is! As I learned that my imaginings of the future were usually not how things turned out, my belief in the accuracy of my imaginings decreased. Certain kinds of wisdom arise only through seeing something happen repeatedly. Often we have to become very familiar with something in order to be free of it. I found this to be the case with worry. Another way to practice with fear is to look at the beliefs that support it. Even if we know what we are afraid of, we often don’t clearly see the beliefs that contribute to the fear. For example, you might know that you chronically worry about what people think about you, but not see the belief that you need to be and act a certain way in order to be accepted by others. Or perhaps you don’t see the belief that we are only validated through the eyes of others. The act of looking for these beliefs and then questioning them can begin to take some of their power away. The Buddha also taught loving-kindness practice as an antidote to fear. If you have difficulty being mindfully present with fear, you might switch to loving-kindness meditation for a while as a way of finding some spaciousness and calm. Then go back and investigate the fear. In meditation and in mindfulness practice, we are learning to replace fear with trust, not as an ideal or abstraction, but as a sense of self-confidence that arises from coming to know fear well. Many people have a fear of fear, a tremendous aversion to it, and don’t allow themselves to enter into it fully. If we simply allow ourselves to fully experience our fear, eventually we learn that we can do so without being overwhelmed by it. Trust develops, not from willing ourselves to trust, but from discovering for ourselves that we can be present for our experience and not over- whelmed by it. Many of us have been convinced – by our society, by our own experiences in life, and by our own logic, that we cannot trust our own natural state of being. We turn away from ourselves and our experiences. In mindfulness practice we are learning not to destroy or control our feelings, but to discover them and be present with them. We begin to see how they work when we enter fully into them and give them room. We begin to see how we create our emotional lives and reactions. In this process, we learn to trust awareness and direct presence more and more deeply. As we explore the layers of our fear, our trust expands into wider and wider circles of who we are. The process of awakening can be understood as ever-widening circles of trust. Awakening occurs when trust becomes all pervasive. We can learn to trust awareness, to trust being alive, without props, crutches, views or opinions. In the Buddhist tradition, such people are known as dispellers of fear. They give the gift of fearlessness. Fearlessness is not necessarily the absence of fear. It is a positive quality that can exist side by side with fear, overcoming the limitations arising out of fear. Such fearlessness can be a profound gift to the people around us. In developing the capacity to be fearless, we do it not only for ourselves, but for others as well.
To not fear, or despise, or ignore the fear. But instead, to make it feel welcome, along with other helpful qualities of trust, insight, fearlessness, mindfulness, loving-kindness, and patience. I particularly appreciate the tension of fearlessness, co-existing with fear.

Be fierce! - Christian Siriano (Project Runway fashion prodigy)


  1. Thank you for this. I listen to Gil Fronsdal frequently. I've also found Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche and his book The Joy of Living very helpful. I feel a connection to him because he writes (and speaks of) panic attacks that he suffered himself. I'll be wishing la peur and the fear teachings will awaken both of us! Bows.

  2. Oh! good. Yes fear, and circumstances/people that awaken fear, are teachers to be welcomed, that I know for sure. Regarding panic attacks, It's been many years since I have had those. I remember exercise, breathing, yoga, self-talk, and also visualization to be very helpful. A good therapist can also go a long way. And I imagine meditation could have also helped me at the time . . . had I been into it then.

  3. thank you for introducing me to Gil Fronsdal. having recently traveled through another worrysome period of fear, i can see how denying, delaying or distrusting fear can be unhealthy.

    i finally embraced worry and calmly allowed for its own resolution, now i do know the path and breath.
    la peur: yes, a feminine emotion, language holds social keys to personal feelings.

    merci marguerite.

  4. Oh! Nadine, I am so glad. May you be happy, may you be well, may you be safe, may you be at peace . . .