Fear is something we live with every day. It can be the small doubt about yourself that arises in a conversation. It can be the dread that sinks into you as you face your boss. It can be the nervous anxiety that rattles you when someone is walking towards you on a dark street.
One approach to fear is to get angry. Fear and anger exist on opposite sides of a coin. We are hardwired with nature’s fight-or-flight instinct, and its emotional expression is anger (fight) and fear (flight). In nature, fight or flight is a binary switch that simplifies things in a survival situation. With only two options, an animal has a better chance of making it through danger. In a similar situation, people are confronted with an emotional component that shapes and defines dangerous situations with more complexity. Fear can paralyze you, leaving you lying still as an opossum playing dead when action is what would save your life. One approach that is very effective for eliminating fear as a response is to get angry. By getting angry, fear is pushed aside and a more aggressive range of choices (as opposed to freezing) become possible. In a life or death moment, this is a strategy that can save you.
But this is a strategy that keeps you in that original fight-or-flight mode. It is very primitive and can have unforeseen consequences, because it does not allow for clarity of mind. A survival mechanism designed to simplify reactions to danger can over-simplify nuanced situations that require rational thought and analysis. After 9/11, we all experienced fear. As a nation, the choice was made to convert that fear into anger. Whether or not you agree with the consequences of that anger, most people agree that there was little clarity in the choices that were made. On an individual level, it is very common to over-react to events in personal relationships due to fear or anger. How many times have you withdrawn or blown up at someone before understanding the full picture, only to regret it later?
Fight-or-flight is a fear-based model that keeps people in a lowered state of awareness. When you are afraid, you don’t want to know more about what’s going on; you just want not to be afraid anymore. When you are angry, the complexity of a situation is not important, you just want to eliminate the catalyst for your anger. You make leaps in judgment based in your internal discomfort, rather than on an understanding of what would be harmonious and resolution to the situation. The fear-based model is a primitive one that undermines enlightened understanding.
This is a powerful tool in politics that has become increasingly commonplace. Emphasizing things that make people angry or afraid makes it more likely that that will act and act in your favor. We see less and less nuanced discussion in public discourse and more emphasize on the scary and enraging.
So what is the alternative? Love. Fear-based thought and activity are ultimately destructive. Love-based thought and activity are ultimately creative. Love is what brings you out of that inner turmoil of fear and connects you with others. Through loving intention, you can see the bigger picture.
Love allows you to be more empathetic with others, to see their side of things. If your boss gets angry with you, a fear-based reaction can lead to a destructive response. Perhaps you let the fear overwhelm you, so you shut down and disengage. Now you are no longer part of the conversation and are offering nothing to resolve the conflict. Or perhaps you convert that fear into anger and lash out at your boss. Even if he is cowed by your outburst, you haven’t actually solved anything on a fundamental level — you’ve simply shifted the imbalance.
But if you approach your boss with love, you can hear his perspective. It doesn’t mean that you have to share it or agree with it. But love-based empathy allows you to view the disagreement through her eyes. This larger perspective can lead to a deeper understanding of your boss, and perhaps point the way to resolution.
So how do we move to a love-based approach to life and away from a fear-based approach? Do we convert it like anger?
The answer is simple, yet very difficult. Embrace fear and cultivate love.
Let’s begin with how to embrace fear. To do this, we have to stop, turn around and look directly at it. Seems simple enough, but it is actually quite difficult at first. We’ve built our lives around hiding from our fears by creating protective shells made of distractions and addictive behaviors. These patterns of evasion and denial are very difficult to change. So, applying our minds to stopping and to experiencing our fears can be quite difficult, especially at first.
Start with small things to increase your awareness. Like building muscle, use exercises that can gradually increase your strength and capacity. You can begin by listening. Listen to the radio or TV. Listen to conversations around you. Listen to the things that you say to yourself and others. Are the words, descriptions and topics you hear rooted in fear or love? Fear will describe a view of the world being full of danger and suffering, and not having enough good to go around. Fear speaks to lack, never abundance.
This exercise will give you an awareness of how much fear-based thinking and communication there actually is. Be mindful though; for many, it can be very overwhelming to discover how much fear there is around and within all of us.
The next step is to actually experience the fear itself. This is much more difficult and uncomfortable. This can be done by using Mindfulness to disrupt patterns of addiction or distraction. Often, we reach for the remote, a drink or the phone without much thought. We are uncomfortable and are looking to fill our time with something that will distract us from that discomfort. So Mindfulness, the process of fully experiencing the moment and making choices from that space, is a powerful tool for interrupting the pattern of concealing fear and discomfort from yourself.
What happens if, when you feel the impulse towards distraction, you wait and do nothing for five minutes but fully experience yourself? What do you feel emotionally? Anxiety? Restlessness? What do you feel physically? Do you feel tightness in your body somewhere? Do you feel nervous energy that makes you fidgety?
Over time, you can increase the delay, and by doing so, expose and familiarize yourself with the difficult emotions that you’ve been ignoring. Empowerment in the face of fear comes from confronting it and developing the courage to do nothing. Much of the struggle we have with fear is in the struggle itself. We struggle to escape it, to ignore it, or to change the circumstances that make it exist in the first place. We expend so much energy in this struggle, we have little left for other things like joy, love and compassion.
By sitting with the fear, and doing nothing, we learn to respond to events and feelings with more clarity, rather than simply reacting. This is a very powerful way to live, but a difficult choice to make for oneself, requiring great commitment and follow-through. Confronting and sitting with fear requires practice. It is a practice approached daily over a life time.
Now that we’ve looked at some of the basics around how to approach fear, we will look at how to cultivate love.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow established through his work a description of how we process the immediateness of our needs and establish our priorities around motivations and behaviors. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is shaped like a pyramid with basic survival needs such as shelter, food and physical safety as the base, and needs like social connections, self-awareness and actualization of human potential being towards the top. If the needs that are lower in the hierarchy are not met, those higher needs become less important, and the focus of your motivations–conscious and unconscious–adjusts accordingly. If you can’t breathe, you are not likely to be worried about where your next meal will come from. If you are about to be run over by a car, you probably will not be worrying about whether or not your life has meaning and purpose.
Similarly, when people are consumed by fear, it is difficult for them to attend to higher activities and needs such as compassion, interconnectedness with others and unconditional love. Being afraid shifts mental and emotional energy towards dealing with that fear. If someone is mean to us, we will often lash out or withdraw (fight or flight) before we are even aware of what we are doing and certainly before we take the time to think, “Boy, I wonder if he is just having a bad day…”
But you can make the choice to violate this needs hierarchy. Many people have had epiphanous moments while on the verge of death or trauma. Rather than being consumed by the demands of survival, their remaining energy was focused into deeper understanding of life. While imprisoned in a concentration camp, Viktor Frankl chose to shift his focus away from the horrors of his surrounding and instead concentrated on learning from the emotional and spiritual consequences of the experience on himself, his fellow prisoners and even the guards. In doing so, he gained greater insight into the human condition and went on to establish a school of psychology based on his findings.
There is a moment between stimulus and your reaction to stimulus when you have a choice. You can choose to react from a place of fear, or you can choose to respond towards a place of love. This requires a great deal of discipline, introspection and self-honesty. Our reaction to fear is to shut down the “higher” emotional and spiritual functions of ourselves and concentrate on the experience of fear. By choosing to stay engaged and open, even when it’s uncomfortable, we create space for more compassionate responses.
Concentrating on that space when fear arises is very important. Another approach is to practice compassion and unconditional love. By concentrating on these higher motivations and feelings, we force the focus away from fear. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Concentrate not on the eradication of evil, but on the cultivation of virtue. Evil is not driven out, but crowded out.” People put immense amount of energy into managing their fear and the source of that fear. It is more effective, and frankly more empowering, to concentrate on cultivating compassion, unconditional love and empathy.
I’m not talking about the feelings of compassion, unconditional love and empathy. I’m talking about practicing the actions and behaviors associated with the feelings. In doing so, you create the space for the feelings to grow and be nurtured.
One exercise you can work on is practiced when talking with others. You can create empathy by putting effort towards understanding their position, experience and feelings. Do this by setting your own desires aside for a moment and trying to connect with the needs of the other. We often go into interactions with agendas, often based on our own desires to be understood, heard or recognized (do you see the fear-based motivation in this?). By engaging the practice of putting the other person first, you displace your own discomfort and motivations and acknowledge the needs of others. Often keeping your mouth shut and carefully listening to what they have to say before getting to your own needs is all that is necessary. You may find that what you have to say changes as you learn about their perspective. You may even find that their needs are actually more important than yours and set your agenda on the back burner altogether. Either way, you are then able to choose responses that are in harmony with your new understanding of the dynamic between you and the other person.
With this simple strategy, you can begin to cultivate empathy. Next, I want to focus on how to cultivate unconditional love. For that, we will need to learn more about opening our hearts.
Over the course of life, we learn to be more protective of our hearts. As experience teaches us how vulnerable we are to being hurt, we begin to erect barriers between our hearts and the world around us. A great deal of our reaction to this vulnerability is rooted in the fear responses that I discussed earlier. As we learn to sit with the fear and not react to it, a protective fortress around our hearts becomes less necessary.
But if we already have the walls built, how do we dismantle them? Opening your heart will not come from attacking and trying to destroy these fortifications from within. Opening your heart will come from filling it with beauty until the walls burst open.
The old adage states that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” My feeling is that it would be more accurate to say “beauty is in the heart of the beholder.” The more closed a person’s heart is, the less beauty they seem to see in the world. The people who are the most withdrawn and closed-up often can’t find anything in the world that they like. A very powerful exercise is to seek out beauty anywhere you can. You can start with easy things like a piece of music, a sunset or work of art. Puppies and kittens are amazing for this exercise. It takes a rare person not to feel more open when they see a baby animal playing. As you incorporate this practice more and more into your life, start applying effort to seeing beauty in things that are more difficult.
One of my teachers taught me this exercise as a Qigong practice. He said it was a powerful way to gather fresh, clean energy from the environment and harmonize murkiness in the heart. My own experience has been that as I work on this, I always feel more open and energized and find that fear and anger are less present for me.
Another practice is that of gratitude, especially when you are afraid or feeling hurt. Another teacher of mine once told me that the only piece of real magic he had ever seen came from gratitude. He said that when you hit bottom and things look their darkest, you should go to a quiet place and offer sincere, profound thanks for what you are experiencing. When you do this, everything begins to change for you and things start to brighten.
I have used this myself through some very difficult experiences and have found it to be very powerful for opening to the potential of the moment and avoiding shutting down and becoming guarded.
Through beauty and gratitude, you can open your heart to the people you meet and to the world as a whole. When this happens, you will find yourself capable of accessing a deeper capacity for compassion, empathy and unconditional love.
And though you can never live a life free of fear, fear (and anger) does not have to limit your experience. It may seem like a strange thing, but by embracing your fear, you can live a life with more room for joy!