When things upset us, we often think that something is wrong. Perhaps the one time this is truest is when we experience fear. In fact, as human beings, we expend a huge portion of our energy dealing with anxiety and fear. This has certainly been apparent in the present economic upheavals and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We live with an everyday reality that is tinged with personal and cultural anxiety. Our fears are not just the product of global events, however—they go to our very core. On a day-to-day level, fear often motivates how we act and react, and sometimes even how we dress or stand or talk. But fear makes our life narrow and dark. It is at the root of all conflict, underlying much of our sorrow. Fear also blocks intimacy and love and, more than anything, disconnects us from the lovingkindness that is our true nature.
Even considering how prevalent fear is in our lives, it nonetheless remains one of the murkiest areas to deal with, in daily life as well as in practice. This may sound bleak, but what is really the worst thing about fear? Though it is hard to admit, especially if we see ourselves as deeply spiritual, the main reason we have an aversion to fear is that it is physically and emotionally uncomfortable. Woody Allen put this quite well when he said, “I don’t like to be afraid—it scares me.” We simply don’t want to feel this discomfort and will do almost anything to avoid it. But whenever we give in to fear, we make it more solid, and our life becomes smaller, more limited, more contracted. In a way, every time we give in to fear, we cease to truly live.
We’re often not aware of the extent to which fear plays a part in our lives, which means that the first stage of practicing with fear requires acknowledging its presence. This can prove to be difficult, because many fears may not be readily apparent, such as the fear driving our ambition, the fear underlying our depression, or, perhaps most of all, the fear beneath our anger. But the fact is, once we look beyond our surface emotional reaction, we will see that almost every negative emotion, every drama, comes down to one or more of the three most basic fears: the fear of losing safety and control, the fear of aloneness and disconnection, and the fear of unworthiness.
The second basic fear is that of aloneness and disconnection, which we also can feel as the fear of abandonment, loss, or death. Our fundamental aloneness, which is a basic human experience, ultimately must be faced directly, or it will continue to dictate how we feel and live.The first most basic fear is that of losing safety. Because safety is fundamental to our survival, this fear will instinctually be triggered at the first sign of danger or insecurity; the old brain, or limbic system, is inherently wired that way. This particular fear will also be triggered when we experience pain or discomfort. But in most cases, there is no real danger to us; in fact, our fears are largely imaginary— that the plane will crash, that we will be criticized, that we’re doing it wrong. Yet until we see this dimension of fear with clarity, we will continue to live with a sense of constriction that can seem daunting.
A central component of spiritual life is recognizing that practice is not about ensuring that we feel secure or comfortable. It’s not that we won’t feel these things when we practice; rather, it’s that we are also bound to sometimes feel very uncomfortable and insecure, particularly when exploring and working with our darker emotions and unhealed pain. Still, there is also a deep security developed over the course of a practice life that isn’t likely to resemble the immediate comfort we usually crave. This fundamental security develops instead out of the willingness to stay with and truly experience our fears. Isn’t it ironic that the path to real security comes from residing in the fear of insecurity itself?
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