This practice of sitting mindfully with fear is inspired by the work of psychologist and Buddhist meditation teacher, Tara Brach. She teaches that fear is the root of all negative emotion, including those that manifest in ways that do not seem or feel fearful, such as anger, addiction, compulsiveness, and the need for control. If you drill down into any one of these, the root answer will always be fear. My grandmother provides a great example of how fear is the deep-rooted emotion behind most others. I’d never seen her more upset with me than when I came home hours later than I promised. (I didn’t think to call because I got caught up working on a school project.) Beneath her anger, of course, was the fear for my safety. (And beneath that was the love that she was unable to express verbally for most of her life–love tamped down by fear of vulnerability.)
Fear, you’ve surely heard, causes a physiological reaction in our bodies, regardless of how “real” the threat may be. Brach points out that most things that make us anxious are actually not imminent dangers, but either memories of past traumas or imagined future threats. This is why mindfulness—attuning ourselves to what is going on within us and around us in the present moment—is such an effective way of moving through fear. Neural plasticity enables us to interrupt our natural instincts (fight, flight, or freeze) and rewire our brains so we can create more effective ways of being in he world.
The best way of moving through fear, Brach argues, is by going against our natural instincts to turn away from it. When we mindfully make space for fear, we experience ourselves as bigger than the fear, and then we can start to become curious about it, get to know it more intimately, and see how it shifts and changes in the body. We also gain the opportunity to give comfort to ourselves, to reassure ourselves that we are, ultimately, safe. She maintains that more often than not, fear is real but not true. In other words, unless we are about to be eaten by some wild animal, our bodies experience a perceived threat as real, even if it has nothing to do with our actual physical safety. What is true is that in this moment we are safe. What is true is that we are bigger than our fears.
She recommends that we practice the following exercise with a present, but not traumatic, fear. (For major traumas, she strongly suggests working with a professional.)
- Turn inward and bring up a current worry.
- Notice your habits of mind around this worry. How do you fixate on this fear? (Do you go into planning mode? Rehearsing? Do you hear a critical voice? Whose voice is it and what does it say? Does the worry draw up images or memories? etc.)
- Bring yourself down below your neck and into your body. Where do you feel the most vulnerable? How does that spot in your body feel? (Does the fear feel like tightness, heat, pain, etc.?)
- Ask yourself, “What am I unwilling to feel?”
- Begin to breathe deeply into that fear. Comfort yourself with loving thoughts, or by placing a hand on your heart. Remind yourself that fear is real but not true.
- Notice what’s changed in your mind, heart, and body.
- Lastly, ask yourself, “Who would I be if I didn’t believe that something was wrong with me?”
- Take a few more breaths, and when you’re ready, come back to the room.
With practice, we cultivate a fearless heart!
As encouragement, Brach reassures us that fear often appears as a comic figure when we face it head on. And that sets us up for the next exercise: the Monster Celebration!