Everyone deals with difficulties in life. Sooner or later, something scares us. It may be the aging process, a snake, the fear of rejection, or a dwindling bank account.
Gone are the days when we have to worry about lions chasing us (unless, of course, you live in Kenya). Fear has become more subtle. In the words of Kristin Neff, PhD, author of Self-Compassion, now our fears arise not just from dark alleys or sounds that go bump in the night, but from “threats to our self-concept” – the idea of who we think we are. Yet, they end up causing similar levels of stress in the body as that lion chasing us. The fear that runs us, day in and day out, is the fear that we’re unlovable, of being bad, wrong, or a failure.
React or Respond
When we are faced with fear, we have two possible choices: react or respond. When we react, we allow fear to run us, to control our emotions, our actions, our words. But when we respond, we transform a moment of fear into a moment of empowerment.
What is a fear reaction? When we are exposed to a traumatic situation, there are three reactions that occur: fight, flight, and freeze (see Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine). The kind of fear I’m referring to, however, isn’t life or death situations, although learning how to respond rather than react in those is very helpful. In our day-to-day lives, it is the little fears – the perceived threats to our self-concept – that disempower us and cause us to react.
It is in these little fears that we have the opportunity to change our lives. And we see three similar reactions to those little fears: fight, flight, and freeze.
When we fight the fear, we attack as if it were a danger to us. This makes sense if it’s a lion after us, but most of the time our fears are subtle. We fear ridicule, failure, rejection, and when it’s that kind of fear, we often react by attacking ourselves. And if we’re not attacking ourselves, we’re attacking our partners, friends, or a stranger for things that often are imaginary affronts. In either case, we only defeat ourselves.
When we flee a fear, we do everything we can to run away and avoid it. This leaves us powerless in the face of anything that frightens us. It also can severely limit our freedom, for when we define our life by what we must avoid, it cuts off our choices.
I once knew an actor who had a reasonably successful career but had to turn down many of the best roles that came his way because he was afraid to fly to other locations. This fear not only limited his leisure time but his opportunities and prosperity.
When we freeze in the face of a fear, we become immobilized, feeling like we can’t take any action one way or the other. We may not even realize we’re afraid, but we become indecisive, unable to discern which way to go or what to do. We can lose relationships by our uncertainty about commitment or promotions by clinging to what is familiar and being unwilling to make any move.
The other path – respond
Fear reactions may be all too familiar to us, but how do we respond instead of react? This is actually two questions in one. First, we wonder how to gain the capacity to respond, how to develop those inner muscles to overcome the reaction. The question also begs what way do we respond, for there are choices of response, too.
We actually don’t have to worry about gaining the capacity to respond. We all have the capacity to respond, to overcome fear or any other negative reaction. It is part of the inner equipment we come with as human beings.
The problem is that we rarely use it. Sometimes we use that capacity so little we don’t even think we have it, or have no idea how to use if it we did. But it’s there.
Some discover it in a crisis situation, where we spontaneously jump into action and help someone pinned under a car or caught in a house on fire. Occasionally, mothers discover it during child birth, and still others become aware of this innate ability to override a fear reaction when we know it is important not to show it to our children lest they become scared. We become brave for their benefit.
Lifting the heavy weights
Like any other capacity, learning to respond rather than react requires practice to develop it. It’s like a muscle – we have biceps, but do we really use them? How strong are they? If you aren’t lifting some sort of weight, whether at the gym or carrying logs to the wood pile, they won’t get very strong.
So in order to become good at responding to fear rather than reacting, we must be willing to lift the heavy weights: to face our fears, investigate them, and find alternatives to reacting. Life gives us plenty of opportunities to practice.
Responding to fear rather than reacting means we have a choice about the way we behave. When we react, we are unconscious, like a knee-jerk reaction. We may feel we are conscious about it because we can actually observe ourselves in the process of it. We watch as we become speechless in front of a group. We are fully present to the fact that we have just consumed an entire box of cookies, because we can’t stand feeling alone. But these are unconscious reactions nevertheless.
Responding means we choose an action that is more helpful to ourselves and the situation, regardless of how uncomfortable it is. We take responsibility for our life and the situation, and therefore we affect how it affects us. Responsibility means the ability to respond.
What paths are there to take when we want to develop our responsibility in the face of fear, our ability to respond? There are three main responses (and possibly more) to fear that can truly transform your experience of the fearful situation: tolerance, courage, and fearlessness.
Tolerance is the ability to withstand something. We learn to accept what is when we are tolerant. Tolerance is a word used regarding cross-cultural relationships – to become fair towards and accepting of cultures and customs that are different than our own. It is also used to describe a person’s physical capacity to endure a substance such as alcohol or pain killers. A person with high tolerance can drink a lot of booze before showing signs of intoxication.
But tolerance also is defined as “the capacity to endure pain or hardship.” Rather than react, we can learn to endure what is. My eight year old daughter is learning this concept the hard way right now – with a flu bug and pink eye, she’s pretty uncomfortable and unhappy about it. But as we mature, we learn to accept that sometimes we get sick, it will pass, and we can tolerate it.
It’s the same with fears. They arise, they feel scary, but most of the time we can be with that fear and know it will pass. We can learn to tolerate the situation rather than run from it, and each time it gets a little better. This is one aspect of a traditional therapy for phobias, known as systematic desensitization. The patient is exposed to the fear-inducing situation a little bit at a time, and they slowly become desensitized – more tolerant – towards the phobia, until it no longer runs their life (or at least no longer severely limits them).
The second response to engage when faced with fear is courage. Courage is distinctively different from fearlessness. It is the act of being afraid and going ahead with the right action anyway.
We become courageous when we walk through the park instead of buying more stuff to feel better; when we take a deep breath instead of screaming at our child or partner; when we raise our hand and speak up at a meeting even though we are terrified of being judged; when we sit still in meditation even though something screams for us to fidget just once more. We do the right thing even though it’s uncomfortable or downright frightening.
As Lao Tzu, author of the ancient text, The Tao Te Ching, said, “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” One of the most powerful ways to build courage is to love, whether or not someone loves you. To love in the face of rejection or not getting what you want. To love when you don’t feel like it, or even when you think someone doesn’t deserve it. That includes loving yourself. When we love without limitations or conditions, we recognize that there isn’t anything anyone can say or do that will hurt our sense of self. Love is its own reward, and love overcomes fear.
Which leads me to the third response you can choose in the face of fear – fearlessness. To be truly free of fear is to be full of love. Obviously, this is not a beginner’s practice, and it’s not for the faint-hearted. In fact, this isn’t something you can make happen, but something that results from many years of spiritual practice – of lifting the heavy weights.
The greatest spiritual adepts, such as Jesus or Mahatma Gandhi, were masters of this kind of love, and it gave them the greatest inner strength there is. They could face down the most threatening, frightening, and painful of situations and meet them with grace and power.
We become without fear when we completely trust in something greater. In yoga philosophy, this practice is called Ishvara Pranidhana – surrender to the Divine. This is a powerful practice. It is letting go of our attempts to control what we fear and the acknowledgement that something beyond us, the Source of the cosmos and all life, is much better at running the show.
More importantly than that, we become fearless when we overcome Avidya – ignorance of our True Nature. When we realize that our true Self (not our limited self of the body, mind, or personality) is Divine and eternal, that has no beginning nor end, and is unchanging, not subject to conditions or experiences, then what is there to fear?
This is not something we can simply intellectually grasp, for if we could, most of us would be there. This is something that, in order to truly become fearless, we must become. This is enlightenment.
The next time you are faced with a fear, which path will you take? Will you notice your reaction? Will you consider how you could respond? Let yourself become more tolerant of the discomfort, while developing the courage to take right action even while feeling the fear. Practice connecting in your heart to the source of love and feel love and compassion for yourself and the other. As you walk down this path, you will someday know that your true Self cannot be touched by anything that you fear.
Copyright © 2013 by Rev. Connie L. Habash