|Sent on:||Saturday, May 5, 2012 4:48 PM|
Lessons on Fear: Unraveling the Mystery
By Aaron E. Fried
Fear has become a billion dollar industry in our world. Hollywood continues to produce new movies founded on fear each day. The subject of 2012 has become not just a curiosity but an obsession. Billboard ads cry out desperately for our attention, claiming “a third wave of H1N1 may be coming (my italics)…Get Vaccinated!” We receive alerts from reporters and “preparedness experts” alike, who, with the very best of intentions, not only share helpful information with us but also seem to prophesize the future in ways that are, well…less than hopeful. The fact is the sheer intention and magnitude of information available today can be overwhelming even for the most virtuous people. Why are we so drawn to fear?
Indeed fear is a mysterious and powerful obstacle on our spiritual path – a true force to be reckoned with. Fortunately, it is one that can be alleviated over time, provided that one has the courage, resilience, and determination to examine it closely with a clear mind and open heart. According to Swami Rama in his book Living with the Himalayan Masters, “Fearlessness is an essential pre-requisite for attaining enlightenment.” While going beyond fear is one of many aims of yoga, it is nonetheless important. “To be completely free from all fears”, Swami Rama adds, “is one step on the path of enlightenment.”
Fear wears many masks, and they are often difficult to discern. But by simply becoming aware of these masks we can begin to soften it and ultimately do away with it for good. A key point to doing away fear is to not try, for one consequence of the philosophy of Karma Yoga is that in trying to drive away fear, we inadvertently attach ourselves to the fruits of our actions, and this can only bring about more fear. This subtle irony shows just how elusive, delicate, and intricate fear really is: one cannot drive away fear, anymore than one can drive away darkness – one needs only to turn on a light. In chapter ten, verse eleven of the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna says, “Out of compassion I destroy the darkness of their ignorance. From within them, I light the lamp of wisdom and dispel all darkness from their lives.” In practical terms, to overcome fear, it is enough to cultivate wisdom and understanding of this divine mystery.
How are we to approach fear then? Jiddu Krishnamurti, the great twentieth century philosopher, offers a solution. For him, examining fear is like holding a precious jewel:
You look at it. You don’t condemn it. You don’t say ‘how beautiful!’ and run away with words. You are watching it, you are looking at it. You turn it around, look at the various sides – the back, and the front, and the side – and you never let it go. You have the feeling of beauty, the feeling of the intricate pattern, and the sparkle, the brightness of the jewel.
In his book On Fear, he asks an interesting question that is as practical as it is illuminating:
Can we deal with the fact of fear and look at it that way, and not escape, not say, 'Well I don't like fear', get nervous, apprehensive, and suppress or control or deny it…?
To do away with fear, we need to look at it with fresh eyes, a sense of humility, and even curiosity, asking ourselves, “Is it possibly that I don’t know all there is to know about fear?” and “Is it possible that I have been ‘fooled’ by fear all along?” When we ask ourselves these questions, we begin to find exhilaration not in overcoming fear, but in moving through it. After all, was there really anything to overcome? We are comfortable experiencing fear, knowing that even it has a place in life. We realize that fear was never really worth our attention and we become courageous; with all our weaknesses and imperfections, we become spiritual warriors.
Krishnamurti offers another interesting insight. “When there is comparison of any kind”, he says, “there is the breeding of fear.” In this statement he is referring to “the comparison of what you are with what you think you should be”, however, his idea can be applied equally well to the idea of comparing oneself with others. When we compare ourselves with others there are two possibilities – either we raise ourselves up and lower others, or we raise others up and lower ourselves. Either way we are separating ourselves from others not to mention reality. Such comparisons are founded on ego (asmitā, in Sanskrit), which is a primary source of fear. Thus, it is important that we strive to keep ourselves even-minded and to not judge ourselves or others under any circumstance, for as the Bhagavad Gita points out, “Yoga is evenness of mind (II.48).”
In his book The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living: Volume 2, the great spiritual teacher, Sri Eknath Easwaran, shares a charming and insightful story that clearly illustrates the subtle workings of fear:
“Many years ago, I stayed at the home of an hospitable woman in the Bay Area who happened to believe in ghosts. Her home had a beautiful view which took in a cemetery nearby, and though she was very fond of me, nothing I could say could convince her that ghosts from that cemetery did not pay her visits at unlikely times. So one day I announced casually that I was going for a walk in the cemetery to meet one of the ghosts myself. When I returned she was wringing her hands. “Did you see any ghosts?” she asked anxiously.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “Three.”
“What did you do?”
“I told them you were too nice a woman to be living in fear all the time, and that they should go away and leave you alone.”
“And what did they say?”
“They said, ‘We can’t. As long as she believes in us, we have to stay.’”
She stared at me for a second and then laughed out loud. Because of her affection for me those simple words had gone in deeply, and after that she was never afraid of ghosts again.”
“Whenever we worry about something in the past or the future,” Easwaran adds, “what we are doing is setting up our own little haunted house and peopling it with out own special ghosts – Aunt Agatha, looking the way she did when she scolded us at the dinner table twenty-five years ago, or our little boy disguised as Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. To banish these ghosts, all we need to do is stop thinking about them. They will never bother us again, because they were never there at all.”
Yoga teacher and President of the Himalayan Institute, Rolf Sovik, once put this idea rather simply. According to him, “Fear lives in the imagination.” While most of us would not disagree, few of us realize just how treacherous the imagination can be. We go on imagining how events will unfold, how we will respond to our friend’s hurtful remark, the ideal vacation, the perfect romance, what the future will bring, events that happened in the past – all the while we remove ourselves from the present moment, which is full of peace. We are usually not afraid of the circumstances of our lives so much as we are afraid of our own reactions to them. It is in trying to know the unknown that we choose uncertainty over security, doubt over faith, worry over hope and optimism. By giving our imaginations free reign we invite fear into our lives with open arms. While I admit this may sound a tad bleak, the consequences of this can be liberating. When we realize just how dangerous it can be to allow the mind to roam free and think whatever thoughts it likes – no matter how far removed from reality – we discover a previously unimagined way to pull the plug on fear: to rest in the present moment. In the words of Easwaran:
As we learn to disentangle ourselves from past and future and bring our consciousness to rest in the present, we enter into eternity…Every moment is unique and discreet. When our concentration is complete, we rest like a king in the present, not concerned with what happened in the past, not anxious over what might happen in the future. Completely absorbed in the present, we are able to give our best concentration to everyone we deal with and everything we do.
Perhaps this is what the Buddha was trying to tell us when he said, “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future. Concentrate the mind on the present moment.” As we come to rest in the present moment more often, we realize that nothing is inherently frightful; to continue Easwaran’s example, Aunt Agatha is not frightful, it is our distorted perception of her that is. We realize that Aunt Agatha is wonderful just as she is. We begin to see that I am not afraid…this fear exists within me – at least right now – and so does the love in my heart. We come to dis-identify with fear, realizing that perhaps what we are feeling is the collective heart. This in turn awakens our compassion, for fear is a powerful force that requires the most gentle, loving touch. Thus, we have a choice in every moment: concentrate our mind on fear and become fear, or concentrate our mind on the present moment, as the great Buddha prescribes, and “rest like a king.” The choice is always there, and to do away with fear we need only to remember.
Physiologically, fear often manifests itself is as a disruption in breathing, prompting us to take action. This is the so-called “fight or flight” response. Although this response can be purposeful if the action is wise, we need to cultivate the ability to discriminate when our actions are right, when they are for the benefit of all. When we find ourselves experiencing fear, it is often helpful to check in with our breathing; chances are it is shallow, uneven and hurried in that moment. Thus, one particularly effective strategy for dealing with fear is to attend to the physiological response by consciously controlling our breathing – even a few deep breaths can be calming and bring about a deep sense of renewal.
A fearful mind is usually a confused and hurried mind. Our society moves at such a fast pace that we naturally find ourselves matching its tempo. We may be accomplishing a great deal, but at what cost? Not only do we find ourselves speeding up, we find our minds speeding up too. When we operate at such lightning speeds it is difficult to see life clearly. And so, lacking the clarity of vision necessary to see through fear’s many ugly guises, we come to experience fear. Thus, if we want to alleviate fear, one of the most practical ways is simply to slow down. There is a reason why all the great spiritual teachers suggest practicing some form of meditation – it helps to slow down and quiet the mind. In his eight-point program of Passage Meditation, Sri Eknath Easwaran’s first point is meditation, his second is mantra, and his third is slowing down. For Easwaran, slowing down is vital. Repeating one’s mantra throughout the day is also an effective tool for directing one’s attention. This is noteworthy because fear is essentially a problem of attention getting stuck on the object of which one is afraid. Therefore, by practicing meditation, repeating one’s mantra whenever possible, and making a concerted effort to slow down, one has immense, powerful tools at one’s disposal to help address some of the common causes of fear.
While it is certainly of personal benefit to become aware of the great mystery that is fear, it is also imperative for our future as a planet. As we approach December 2012, more people are treading the spiritual path, and more are consciously choosing to evolve spiritually. Our evolution as a planet requires that we let go of outmoded, fear-based attitudes and belief systems and make a sincere and determined effort to transition to ones that are based on the highest, most noble of virtues: compassion, courage, resilience, strength, patience, selflessness, love. The movement from fear to love is what 2012 is really about. As soon as we make the shift in our own hearts the future is that much brighter for all.