It’s not difficult to notice the amount of fear that is arising during these most unusual and challenging times. Fear can be a useful ally. It can focus us, keep us safe, even at times keep us alive. Fear of illness or injury can motivate us to stop smoking, to exercise, and to eat healthier food. In our communities, it can motivate us to make our air and water cleaner, our bridges and levees stronger, our workplaces safer.
Fear can also be an enormous hindrance. Fear can color our world so that a stick can appear as a dangerous snake or an offer of friendship can be perceived as an imposition or even an attack. We can fear not getting promoted or losing our jobs; fear what people think about us, or fear that people aren’t thinking at all about us. We can fear the loss of a loved one, fear getting older, fear dying. The list of possible fears is almost endless, so it is not surprising that, sometimes without being aware of it, our actions and decisions can become ruled by fear. Living with fear can become an accepted and habitual way of being, leading to thoughts and actions that create more fear in a difficult-to-stop chain reaction — in ourselves, in relationships, in businesses and organizations, and in the world.
When we are afraid, our first impulse is to tighten our bodies and shut down our minds. We become the opposite of receptive and playful, and this is an enormous hindrance to learning new skills in the workplace, to collaborating, and to making interpersonal connections. The impulse to tighten can become so deeply ingrained that we may not even be aware of the ways that we keep ourselves back, or of the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that we communicate our fears to others.
Reducing fear (and its physical manifestation, anxiety) and opening oneself to new possibilities — surprises, even — is the first step, I believe, toward a more lasting sense of meaning and equanimity. Reducing fear can be the first action that frees us to achieve a goal (even when, in losing our fear, our goal becomes something very different than previously imagined).
To reduce fear, however, it’s important to acknowledge and become aware of our fears. I’ve noticed that this process of increasing awareness of fear is strangely freeing. This can allow wholly new approaches or solutions to appear.
Fear is like the “gunk” or rust that clogs our minds and our bodies, the perfect and beautiful engines we were born with. In our current world of more-faster-better, it can be difficult to see and feel the pervasive influences of fear. Transforming fear is not a one-time thing, either; we must develop ongoing strategies and habits to continually lessen it.
Wouldn’t it be refreshing to take time at the beginning of each day to simply appreciate being alive — time with no expectations, time with absolutely nothing to accomplish, time outside of your judgments? Imagine just appreciating your breath and your body, being open and aware of the magnificence and mystery of your human existence. Imagine just observing and being curious about the thoughts, problems, emotions, and complex stories that make up your “I.” Isn’t this an experience of the opposite of fear?
Some practices that can help us transform fear:
Change the pace: Slow down. Structure a day, or part of a day, where the focus is on paying attention to yourself and your surroundings when you have nothing to accomplish. Leave your cell phone behind.
New perspective: If possible, go on a retreat away from your office space and home space. Be in a place that is less familiar and where you are less apt to feel the pull of everyday tasks and usual routines. Quiet and spaciousness are a beautiful thing.
Get to know your monkey mind: Don’t be surprised or discouraged if you notice how busy and noisy your mind is when you remove distractions. Use your meditation and mindfulness practices; come back to your breath and body.
Find your center: Notice that you are more than your stories. In the busyness of life, you can easily become fooled into believing that the stories you tell about yourself are you, and that they absolutely define you. As your mind becomes more quiet, you gain access to your still, undefinable center. You glimpse the ways you create these stories about yourself, about others, and about the world.
Refresh and renew: Allow yourself to step (or more accurately, drop) into a place of not knowing, of uncertainty, of joy and refreshment. See if you can just appreciate everything you are, even your doubts and discomfort; just appreciate being alive.
Blend the mundane and the sacred: See and appreciate the immensity and sacredness of all existence and at the same time see the mundane need to eat, wash the dishes, sweep the floors, and clean the counters.
Let go of expectations: Just stop. Sit. Let go of the routines and activities of your life. Don’t expect anything. Be curious. Be open. Let yourself be surprised. As with meditation, you can’t do a retreat “right” or “wrong.” Don’t get caught in comparing your experience to anyone else’s. Of course, you will judge; you will compare. Pay attention to this. “Ah, isn’t this judging and comparing interesting?”
A mind that has any form of fear cannot, obviously, have the quality of love, sympathy, tenderness. Fear is the destructive energy in man.J. Krishnamurti