Two fucked up things about fear
There are two fucked up things about fear. One is that fear creates the urgent sense that it—the fear itself—is actually keeping you safe. When fear’s really got you by the throat, you believe, way down in your hissing reptile brain, that if you let go of fear you will be more vulnerable to the “feared thing”—whatever that thing is for you. Fear always argues for itself. Kind of the opposite of the famous Churchill quote because, in this case, it’s more like, “We have nothing to fear but the absence of fear itself.”
Shortly after the election I ran into a friend of mine at a party, and he was jacked on Trump-fear. At some point I suggested that our responses to a Trump presidency might be more effective, wise, and creative if we can move out of fear and come from a different mindset entirely.
The dude freaked out. He was terrified and enraged by the very idea of not being in terror and rage. And, at some point in his rant (about his absolute certainty that we’re hurtling into a repeat of Nazi Germany, but at a massively accelerated rate due to the internet), he said something startling. He said that, at first, right after the election, he HAD been into a lot of fear, but that now he WASN’T! Now he was—and I quote—“in a really clear, centered space.” Gulp. That brings us to the second fucked up thing about fear: you can be virtually drowning in the stuff and not even know it.
One reason some people cling to their fear (and rage) is that they think a lack of fear (and rage) equals apathy or complacency—a minimization of the terrible potentials of a Trump administration. In other words: Fear keeps us safe,
A bunch more fucked up things about fear
Fear, however, does not keep us safe. I began this post saying that there were two fucked up things about fear, but let’s get real: there are a hell of a lot more than two. Fear—and the anger with which we often cover it up—makes us wildly inefficient, unclear, reactive, and knee-jerkily reflexive. Fear and anger create a tiny, narrow, static view of things—things that, in real life, are fluid, dynamic and complex. They create repetitive thought-loops as well as small thinking and predictable behaviors. They generate imprecise, compulsive, and non-proportional actions, because in fear and anger we lose wisdom, perspective, and potency.
Fear and anger also make us think, feel, look, speak and act in ways that increase fear and anger in our political opponents (so-called opponents). Compare this to Gandhi, who, in his fearlessness, was always making friends out of supposed “enemies,” and thereby winning the bigger games. As Zen teacher Cheri Huber simply puts it:
“…fear does not help us, does not protect us, does not take care of us.”
Dr. Stephen Porges writes extensively on the research showing that physiological feelings of safety are the prerequisite for bold, creative thought, innovation, and new ideas. On a You Tube video he said, “You perceive the world differently based on your physiological state.” In addition, fear and anger create atomization, splintering, schisms and separateness within a given group, undermining cooperation and sabotaging coalitions with those who should be our allies.
Fear and anger even destroy our body. The fear and anger hormones—cortisol, adrenalin, epinephrine, etc.—are massively inflammatory. They age us, tear our cells apart, create plaque in our brain, and destroy our endocrine system. Yes, for brief moments, fear and anger can be natural and appropriate mobilizing impulses. Beyond those brief moments, they vastly screw up everything.
Some cool comments from Adi Da Samraj about fear
In these quotes from a talk in the 1991 version of Easy Death, Adi Da Samraj speaks to the arbitrary and mechanical nature of fear.
“The mechanism of fear is a contraction, like the reflex that occurs when the hand touches fire. The mechanism of fear is as useful to the body-mind as the reflex that keeps you from getting burned. But it is an arbitrary mechanism, not deep in your consciousness somewhere, but just a superficial little mechanism at the peripheral levels of the nervous system to save you from being attacked by a wild lion…”
Then He moves into the intriguing idea that fear is not some profound and meaningful “message from the cosmos,” but is just an arbitrary “activity,” an emotional asana; something we ourselves actually do. And we can learn to do otherwise. His position here is a curious echo of Dr. Porges, in that he frames fear on the level of biological reflex rather than philosophical meaning.
“Fear is just an ordinary mechanism that you must master, an attitude of the body. It is something that you are doing. It has no ultimate philosophical significance. You can breathe and feel and relax beyond it. You need take nothing into account philosophically. Just breathe and feel and relax beyond it…”
That quote (above) contains another echo of Dr. Porges, in that Porges, too, speaks a lot about the importance of breath in shifting the body out of fear networks and loops. In the next chunk, Adi Da Samraj raises the provocative idea that we are addicted to fear, simply as a modus operandi, a chronic disposition—a really shitty habit, which He contrasts with a cat, who has no such “addiction.”
“Observe the cat, for instance, who uses fear to control threatening events. The cat is neither addicted to fear nor existing as fear, as you tend to be. In contrast to the cat—and almost all vital creatures, by the way—the human being is addicted to psychological fear. Human beings have transformed the mechanism of fear that is natural to the vital state of any animal into a chronic response of the physical being. The animal’s sudden moment of fearful excitement is stimulated chemically for a specific purpose. Fear is just a recoil, but you tend to prolong its effectiveness, as if waiting indefinitely to withdraw a finger from the flame.”
Next, Adi Da goes far beyond Dr. Porges, because He asserts that the reason fear is not our natural state is that our true identity is, “The Very Divine Being, the Eternally Living One,” which is not contracted by fear, ever, but is pure, boundless radiance.
“…In your natural state, you are like the cat, which, although it may become afraid and roll into a ball when it is attacked, is not at all chronically afraid. The Very Divine Being, the Eternally Living One, Which exists as the cat and as every conditionally manifested being, is not contracted by fear. And just as the cat has not accomplished any great, profound, philosophical cycle of investigations of the universe to be free of fear, so you need have no great knowledge to be liberated from your fear.”
Then Adi Da affirms that we can be free of fear immediately, and how doing so equips us to deal far more effectively with challenges. He also offers the exciting possibility that our entire world view—our “interpretation of existence”—comes from our contracted, chronically frightened state…the fear-goggles we’ve grown so used to looking through.
“You can be free of fear in this very moment, in any moment, even in a moment when some degree of fear seems conventionally appropriate. Fear collapses attention. Therefore, even when fear might seem appropriate, it is still better to be without fear, so that you may have complete attention in the moment to deal with the threat. Fear is plainly and simply inappropriate, except in the flash of comprehending imminent danger. But even then, in the very next moment, you are dealing with the danger rather than with the fear. Fear has only the most minute significance as a practical necessity in your life, and yet you are completely overwhelmed by it! You have made fear so chronic a mood that now you interpret your existence, even all existence, through the medium of that fear.”
The Sufi poet Hafiz has a poem that speaks to me about this fear dynamic, as I experience it.
Just Looking For Trouble
I once had a student
Who would sit alone in his house at night
Shivering with worries
And, come morning,
He would often look as though
He had been raped
By a ghost
Then one day my pity
Crafted for him a knife
From my own divine sword
I have become very proud
Of this student
For now, come night,
Not only has he lost all his fear,
Now he goes out
Just looking for Trouble.
Stuff to do
1) Meditate, pray, and/or chant. But, as I mentioned in this post, be wary not to use your meditation, prayer, or chant as a means to suppress, numb-out, or dissociate from your fearful (and/or rageful) emotions and (therefore) your body. Rather, try to—as Adi Da says—”feel through and beyond” the fear, sorrow or anger. Hold those emotions in the feeling-context of your practice. Neither “meditate on” the emotions nor try to avoid them.
2) Dr. Stephen Porges, who I mentioned above, frequently mentions how yogic breathing (and the breathing required to sing, chant, or play a wind instrument) encourages the brain, gut, and nervous system to shift into feelings of regulation, safety, comfort and well-being. The key is very long, slow exhalations.
3) Inner-child work. This is big. If the fear, grief, or rage feels bigger than you, if it feels overwhelming or paralyzing, if it persists as a chronic mood, if it generates in you feelings of dread, helplessness or willingness to hurt other beings, you are in a “trauma system” (also called a “memory network” or a “trauma vortex”).
That means that old, stored, painful emotions—usually from childhood—have been activated and you are swimming in them, while unknowingly projecting them out onto the world scene. You don’t think, “I am in a fear state,” rather, you think, “The situation out there actually IS this fearful, and my feelings are simply the only, natural, appropriate response.” Don’t buy it.
This is worth emphasizing: If you feel small, helpless, impotent, overwhelmed, future-fixated, and like the emotions will last forever, those are little kid emotions, and you are in a trauma system. And, though it makes grizzled, political activist-types want to reach for their revolvers, this means that the most potent sociopolitical action may require that we do some real inner-child work! Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says,
“The little boy or girl in you is still alive, and maybe still deeply wounded. That child is calling for your attention…We can…tell the suffering, wounded child inside us that she doesn’t have to suffer any more. We can take her hand and invite her to come into the present moment and to witness all the wonders of life that are available here and now: ‘Come with me, dear one. We have grown up. We no longer need to be afraid. We are no longer vulnerable. We are no longer fragile. We don’t have to be afraid anymore.’ You have to teach the child in you.”
—Thich Nhat Hanh, Fear: Essential Wisdom For Getting Through the Storm
This wisdom can seem confusing when there are real, inarguable threats “out there”—as now. But just because there are real threats doesn’t mean you’re not also swimming in a memory network that has been triggered or activated by the outer circumstances. (Just because they’re actually out to get you doesn’t mean you’re not paranoid.) There’s the actual threat, but then there’s the phantasmagorical hallucinations of our own unconscious, emotional memories. It is most excellent to separate the two.
And the more you work directly with the old trauma system, the more clarity you gain about what exactly is “old stuff,” and what is real, current threat. The difference is like night and day. For one thing, adult fear—“here-and-now” fear—switches, in moments, into strength, potency, clear energy and bold action.
When I snap out of the hypnotic trance-state of a trauma network, it’s like waking from a dream, and suddenly everything—even the garish nightmare of a Trump presidency—looks indescribably different. It’s not that I feel less motivated to act; in fact, I feel much more motivated. But it’s an unrecognizably altered circumstance. When I’ve snapped out of a childhood memory state, it’s as if my previous fear-projections were wildly irrational. No matter how rational they seemed, I might as well have been terrified of fresh fruit. Like John Cleese!
4) Consciously and deliberately bond and connect intimately with others. Human connection and intimacy heals. Even bonding and cuddling with animals—our dogs, cats, horses—heals. There is tons of research on this. But we knew this instinctively, even without the science, amiright?
5) Use mindfulness to explore fear. Again, Cheri Huber:
“…we have never examined the experience [of fear] itself, never taken a step toward it and looked to see exactly what it is, never considered that it might not mean what we think it means.”
To bodily explore emotions (and thereby move them through), my favorite book is the classic, Focusing, by Eugene Gendlin.
6) Invite gratitude into yourself. Again Dr. Porges: “When you’re in a state of gratitude, you are bathed in a sense of the cues of of a state of safety…”
7) Realize God. I’m being a little silly, but, from the books I’ve spent my life reading, it does seem to be the case that the only way to complete freedom from fear is God Realization. Divine Enlightenment. Absolute ego-death. Nirvana. The big enchilada. Because, as Adi Da says, the ego IS fear. Here’s a 15 minute clip of him speaking on this topic:
And lastly, as always, my shameless plugs, to wit: Maybe subscribing to this blog will liberate you from all fear forever! I mean, I guess it’s pretty unlikely, now that I think about it. But wouldn’t it be super weird if it did? Only one way to find out!
And if you’re looking for yet another action that could quite possibly benefit nobody but me, you could also send a link to this post to someone. Maybe someone who is scared? (Not me; I’ve already read it, and frankly, it’s way too long.)