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Learning from Our Fears

By John Earle

We can start working with fear by becoming aware of the thousands of tiny fears we live with each day. We fear peer opinion. We fear the voices in our heads, which say, "You should do this" and, "You must do that." We fear financial troubles; we fear encounters with certain people; we fear authority; we fear the future and the past. We fear for our lives and we fear death. We fear pain. We even fear quiet. We fear that we will never have enough. We fear the judgment of strangers; friends and spouses. We fear loneliness and anger. And the list goes on. For each of our fears we have developed one or more strategies, of avoidance, indulgence, smothering or denial. In addition, many of our most unskillful behaviors come from fear.

Many of our goals are fear-based. Fear can even masquerade as worthy action, such as compassion, when we are afraid for ourselves and project our own fear into helping others. (Helping others is noble but helping is much more effective when done out of love rather than fear). We might take up martial arts because we don't feel safe or because we fear attack or feel helpless. Fear is at work when we don't feel safe to be who we are in our relationships. Sometimes, when we encounter a disaster or a big negative event in our lives, the very things that we have feared the most become our reality and create even more fear.

One way to become acquainted with our fear is through awareness of what is going on in our bodies. If we are out of touch with our emotions this is a good way to notice that they are occurring. For instance, when we feel tight sensations in the throat, chest or stomach area, fear may be present. When we become aware this is happening we need to breathe. The mind has a habit of traveling out of the present, following fearful stories, tales of the past and fantasies of a bleak future. When we become aware this is happening we need to come back into the present moment. One method of bringing ourselves into the present, in addition to using the breath, is to access gratitude, to focus on all the positive things in our lives, and on beauty rather than fearful imagery.

Reading the above, one might think that fear makes the world go around, and, unfortunately, it does. Our entire culture is based on fear, the fear of not enough, the fear of peer opinion and the fear of change. One could logically say that, because fear motivates so much of our lives, it must be OK, but this is not really so. Most of us would prefer lives based on love and understanding, but fear can become a surprise gift when we understand its real function, and to do this we have to start paying attention to it. Fear cannot serve its function when we ignore it; pretend it doesn't exist, or numb it out in a thousand ways; when as an individual or a nation we continue to act out of fear rather than acknowledging the part it plays in our judgment, opinions and actions. We need to understand the real function of fear. And it is here that the notion of fear as an ally comes in.

Fear and pain have something in common. They are both messengers. Their job is to let us know that something is not functioning properly, is hurt or broken. Physical pain tells us that there is a problem in the physical body. If we ignore the pain it may increase to get our attention more fully. It has been found that when we stop resisting pain it often diminishes in intensity. I have experimented with this. Sitting in meditation sometimes my hip will send pain messages. When I focus on my hip and breathe into the pain, it diminishes or even disappears completely. Like pain, fear is also a messenger, but from our psycho-emotional body. It too is warning us that something is wrong, or not quite right. If we ignore it, the fear can also grow bigger and, most importantly, there will be no healing for the unacknowledged part of us that is sending the message. Avoiding fear and pain can cause them to grow stronger. The trick with fear is to go with it, to let it do its work. Once fear has put us in touch with our inner issue it can diminish. In fact, simply acknowledging fear seems to lessen it.

An example: A client of mine was having financial difficulties. She had a great deal of fear about not having enough money. Before she acknowledged this fear, she reacted to it by indulging herself in terrible fantasies about what was going to happen in the future, about fiscal disasters, about not being able to feed her family and other dreadful imaginings. This was paralyzing. We decided this would be good opportunity for some awareness practice. As her awareness grew, when fear about money arose, she began to acknowledge it, witnessing it, she told herself, "Look, there is fear about money." She learned to avoid the stories of a grim and hopeless future and to stay with her fear. Letting it be present. At first this was uncomfortable. This fear was used to hanging out just under the surface for days without abating. As she began to practice awareness, to acknowledge a specific fear, she noticed that its duration diminished. Over time, her fear and terror about money reduced its presence from days to less than an hour and finally to a time span not much greater than the acknowledgment. She saw that she had been feeding her fear. However, there is no way we can force fear to diminish. It is another paradox that, although acknowledging fear reduces its length and strength, if we consciously seek to reduce fear through some technique or strategy, we will become diverted by the attempt and the fear will maintain its force. It is more beneficial to trust the process of pure awareness and "go with the flow." Awareness is not a technique as much as it is a state.

Verbal acknowledgement of fear is very powerful. When a client of mine had a business failure and was in fear about money, his wife was also in fear, but rather than express this, both of them acted out, blaming each other for spending too much, complaining about errors in the check book and criticizing each other about not being more organized around money. This failed to address their fear, the "elephant in the room." Finally, one night my client said this simple and truthful phrase to his wife, "I'm really afraid about our financial situation." And she replied, "So am I." It seemed such a simple exchange, and yet, suddenly they noticed a real energetic shift that allowed them to become allies in working with their fear about money. It was a powerful moment in their relationship. Later in this book we will explore the power of vulnerability, but, for now, this example demonstrates how much release can be gained from acknowledging fear instead of trying to pretend it does not exist.

When we become aware of fear and stay present with it, rather than trying to avoid it, it begins to reveal its sources. Fear shows us the beliefs from which we operate that no longer serve us. Since our life is forged out of our beliefs, this is why fear is a very powerful ally. Once we are able to see the beliefs that are not serving us, we can begin to question them fully. Our fear shines a light on the areas where we are not whole, the places where we are incomplete, the places where we have stopped growing and the places where we don't trust God, the plan, the universe, what Rumi calls "the elegant patterning."

John Earle is the author of Waking Up, Learning What Your Life is Trying to Teach You (from which the above article is an excerpt) and runs the site Waking Up Online. He is a spiritual teacher and counselor specializing in relationship and interpersonal communication. His clients include individuals, couples and institutions. He has produced and led numerous workshops and retreats. His personal experience of a great variety of teachers has given him a broad and inclusive spiritual perspective. A hospice volunteer for over 30 years, he and his wife Babbie recently started a hospice in Central America.

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