The saying goes that when the Buddha was confronted with fear he invited it in for tea. Fear is something we all feel at one time or another; for some it can be crippling, for others it is subtle and pervasive, possessing different faces and disguises. On the one hand, fear is a natural response to physical danger, but it can also be self-created, such as the fear of failure, of the dark, of being out of control, of being different, or of being lonely. We fear loving because we fear being rejected, fear being generous because we fear that we will not have enough; we fear sharing our thoughts or feelings in case we appear wrong or stupid, and we cannot trust when self-doubt or insecurity dominate us.
We can find self-generated fear in its acronym FEAR: False Evidence Appearing Real (or Fuck Everything and Run!). It appears real, even though it may have no real substance, arising when we feel threatened or undermined, which makes us cling to the known and familiar. Such fear creates paranoia, worry, nervous disorders, and apprehension.
The immediate effect of fear is to shut us down, to contract our energy inward and, in particular, to shut off the heart. Just for a moment, let your body take the stance of feeling fearful. What is your posture? Most people hunch their shoulders forward, fold their arms across their chests, or assume a similarly contracted position to shield the heart, fear having triggered the need to be on the defensive. In this self-protective place, the heart goes out of reach and it’s impossible to feel love or even friendliness. Try saying “I love you” with real meaning while your arms are firmly folded across your heart.
Before Ed did yoga and meditation he was fearful of challenging sports, such as skydiving, bungee jumping, skiing, even scuba diving. “My body would get tense, contract, and refuse to move. Fear would arise unbidden, overcoming any rational logic. But after I trained, in India at the Bihar School of Yoga, I began to find a very different world opening to me, one where fear took a back step. My body stopped tensing, I was able to breathe more deeply, and any fear diminished in importance.” Now Ed is an expert skier, fearless bungee jumper, and a licensed scuba diver.
Last week Ed went skydiving. “It was exhilarating and enormously empowering to know that I could take fear by the hand and jump out of an airplane at 18,000 feet above sea level, letting everything just go as I fell at 122 miles per hour. From that moment on nothing else seems overwhelming or impossible in comparison, I’m able to dive into the unknown.”
Both yoga and meditation have an unraveling effect on the body and mind: unraveling tension, contraction, fear and anxiety. We get to recognize fear when it arises and can just be with it, rather than reacting to it. If fear is rising, we can use the breath to keep open, breathing consciously into our heart area while naming the fear as fear. Say it softly. Watch what happens to the body as fear tries to take hold. As long as we keep the body open and stay in a place of complete acceptance, it will be very hard for fear to establish itself. This is exactly what mindful awareness enables us to do.
The spiritual journey has taught us both to see through the limitations of the ego mind, or me-centered self, to the clarity and compassion necessary to not only skydive but to live sanely in our somewhat screwed up world.