I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
“The Litany Against Fear,” From Frank Herbert’s Dune
It happened again. I was faced with the wall and doing one of those poses that brings up fear for me – Handstand. It’s been a long-standing problem over the years. I’ve had periods of time where I thought I conquered it, and I could kick up easily. Those were usually times when I was practicing it every day. Then, after giving birth, it was back again. I had a psychological barrier to the pose that rose as firm and seemingly solid as the wall in front of me.
We all have places where fear arises. For me, I notice it every time my daughter runs towards the street, when I’m the passenger in a vehicle and the driver is going faster than I’m comfortable with, during turbulence on an airplane, or when I’m worried that I’ll fall down from Handstand and hurt myself. The flavor of each of these fears is different, but the root is the same – the fear of death.
When fear arises, it can seem like one big wall between us and what we want, or between us and feeling at ease. The fear can appear quite solid and immovable. Yet fear is an emotion, and with proper observation and practice, it can be overcome.
Most fears can be whittled down to the fear of death, which in Sanskrit is called Abhinivesha. Abhinivesha is one of the 5 Kleshas, or causes-of-affliction, in yoga philosophy. The Kleshas are the primary obstacles on the spiritual path, and according to the author of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali, they must be eradicated in order to experience Yoga, or union – onenness with the Infinite.
Well, I’m an ordinary person and I have fears – a long way off from total oneness. Abhinivesha is one’s clinging to life. No doubt that since the birth of my daughter, I’ve clung even more strongly to life, to be there for her. So I have doubly clung onto to this existence, both for myself and for her. Swami Shyam, a yogic sage from northern India, reminds me that I’m not alone. “Every person and every being is afraid of death. Abhinivesha… is not found only in the stupid. The most intelligent men on earth are riddled by Abhinivesha… it saturates to the very depths of man’s existence.”
Beginning to look at the fear
As I sat on the floor after a couple unsuccessful attempts at kicking up against the wall, I thought about my fear. It wasn’t terribly strong, and it wasn’t logical. Considering that I have plenty of arm strength and suppleness, it would take a very bad and very precise fall out of Handstand at the wall to cause serious damage. Probably more likely that I’ll get struck by lightning. When the fear arises, however, it shuts down my body. Just last week I was able to do it, yet there I was, frozen at the wall, frustrated and embarrassed.
I decided that I could either let this get to me, or I could look at it differently. In a way, it’s a good thing that I care about living and not wanting to suffer. A more subtle aspect of the fear of death is fear of suffering. Even if one is OK with dying, most of us are very adverse to the idea of physical, mental, or emotional suffering. Of course I want to avoid that. And it’s good that I want to stay healthy and not get injured. So my fear is a barometer of my desire to be happy and healthy, too. It protects me and keeps me safe from risk.
Safe but stunted
The down side to this is that the fear also simultaneously prevents me from being as healthy and happy as I could be. Avoiding unnecessary and extreme risk is one thing – avoiding risk altogether shuts down life and stunts growth. No child would ever grow up without the willingness to risk – whether it’s learning to run or expressing themselves with those first words. They’re going to make mistakes, and they’re going to occasionally fall down and skin their knee. But the reward of success is far greater than the risk of suffering.
Even if there is no possibility of attaining oneness and transcendence in this lifetime, it’s a worthy endeavor to overcome Abhinivesha, for it is the root of all fear of risk. For example, we may fear expressing ourselves – whether speaking up to someone we love or learning to talk in front of a group. The fear stems from a concern that if we make a mistake, look foolish, or don’t do it well, we’ll be devastated: a sort of mental death, if you will. We fear losing face, losing our minds, losing control, and if we follow the root back, it comes from Abhinivesha. Yet it is our fear itself, and not the act we fear, that causes us to lose our life force. It is the “little death that causes total obliteration”, as the passage from Dune asserts.
Dune and Patanjali
That litany, from a book that was a big influence in my life in my early 20’s, has stayed with me many years. It is the only thing from the book that I remember by heart, so I sensed its potency. Little did I suspect that it would later reflect the essence of yogic philosophy.
The Sutras state that it is by meditation that we can eliminate the Kleshas, such as Abhinvesha, the fear of death. Meditation itself can’t destroy them, but that through meditation “you can see and understand them well and gain control over whether or not they should manifest in action. You can trace them back into their subtle form and see directly that the ego is the basis for all these obstructing thoughts.” (The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Swami Satchidananda)
Frank Herbert must have been influenced by eastern thought, for in most of the eastern spiritual traditions, this practice of observing the thought without attachment to it, and then following the path of thought (fear being just one kind) to its source, is an essential component of meditation. This is how Kleshas as well as Samskaras, or mental impressions, are rooted out of the consciousness. It’s not an easy process, but there are many meditators who are testaments to its value.
Observe the source
In a similar way, as a fear arises in the moment, we can pause and observe it. Without getting caught up in emotions about it or letting it carry us off into a train of thought, we can watch it arise again and again and be curious about what it arises from.
I took a break from writing my article and decided to put this into practice. I went in the other room to a convenient vacant wall, and while doing warm-ups I considered my strategy. Pause and observe the fear; watch what it does, and then trace it backwards – what did it arise out of? What is the source? There’s nothing. Before the fear began, there wasn’t anything and then when I put my attention on it, there was the fear.
Where you put your attention
I assumed that if I did not put my attention on it, it wouldn’t arise, or wouldn’t arise significantly. So I put my attention on what I was doing and what was going to happen. Downward dog, walk in close, swing with one leg, kick with the other, hips over the head. I heard the fear a bit in the background, but put my attention on the actions. After 3 swings, I was up. No worries. I’m there, it’s fine, I know this. There are no physical blocks to doing this pose. I came down, one leg at a time and rested.
Again. I set up, placed my hands, watched the fear arise – “you can’t do this“. A fear of being incapable. Interesting. Not really of being hurt, but of incompetence. Where did it come from? Nothing. The mind is very interesting in that if you really pay attention and try to trace the fear backwards, without expectation, it tends to go silent. This is very different than following a fear forwards, which could lead you to all kinds of increasingly horrifying conclusions. Tracing it back goes to nothingness, the source out of which all thoughts, and all existence, arise.
I walked in, kicked up, again after 3 or so swings. There was a hesitancy in those swings – what is that about? I worried about that moment of abandon; the moment between when you push off and when the feet make contact with the wall. The moment of moving through the air, trusting that you’ll arrive. Interesting. So there’s a fear of trust in the process.
Trace that back – mind gets more quiet. Put my attention on the pose – this time, I determined that I will only make one swinging motion. It was a motion of determination, focus, and trust: I can rise up easily without hesitancy. And I did. I stayed, I breathed, and noticed that it was easy. And I repeated it once more, just to be sure.
Expansion and confidence
OK, I was successful at Handstand today. So what? Is that going to get me closer to enlightenment? No. I’ve always known this – that doing or not doing Handstand wasn’t the issue with my spiritual growth. But the process by which I overcame the fear in practicing the pose, yes, that was significant. Once we uproot these fears, there is an abundance of new vitality and energy that emerges, for fear drains us of joy and confidence. We feel our energy expand and a greater connection to Source when we are free of fear.
Sure, overcoming a fear in a yoga pose doesn’t seem significant compared to our greatest fears. What is a significant, however, is that in working through these “little deaths”, we develop the ability to transform the bigger ones. From success in facing down and moving past the fear of Handstand, I can apply the same principles to any aspect of my life. Confidence in oneself and skill in dealing with psychological barriers gets built through the yoga practice. Then the wall of fear dissolves, and instead I see the wall of support in front of me, allowing me to kick up against it.
Meditate. Observe without attachment. Follow the path of the thoughts to the unmanifest source, the place from which everything arises. See that the fear is not real, but only one of a myriad of manifestations that come and go in our consciousness. What we put our attention on is what creates the effect. If we change our focus, the effect is transformed. Seems straightforward, but it takes practice. As the Yoga Sutras say, it is only through constant practice (Abhyasa) and non-attachment (Vairagya) that the fluctuations of consciousness cease.
So, I’d better go back to the wall and do it again.
© 2007 Constance L. Habash