Practices to Keep Fear From Controlling Our Lives

If you prefer to listen

Fear is our built-in alarm system; it turns on when our survival is threatened. Whether we fear pain, losing connection with loved ones, or not being good enough; the alarm goes off in the brain’s amygdala. It triggers an automatic response. Instead of pausing to think before responding; we feel vulnerable and react. Here are some tips for accepting our vulnerability so we can live with an undefended heart.

  1. Increasing Tolerance for Discomfort

Many of you may not have to learn to be with discomfort, but I definitely did. I needed to practice being uncomfortable. When I first began meditating, I thought that sitting through discomfort was just plain stupid.  Why would anyone not take care of a discomfort, like scratching an itch or moving position. Listening to years dharma talks and sitting regularly allowed me to see my aversion to discomfort. I spent the first 50 years of my life brushing anything unpleasant under the carpet. I did not want to experience uneasiness.  So, I reacted by giving in to the urge to scratch the itch, instead of experiencing the itch. When I finally allowed myself to experience the itch, I found it arose, was there for a while and passed away.  Without me having to do anything.  I could just be with it. Then I moved on to sitting with small pains.  And I could be with that too. Slowly I am expanding my window of tolerance for discomfort, and increasing my confidence that I can be with it.

2. Practice Vulnerability

By practicing vulnerability, we become aware when the fear is in us. When we are in the middle of an interaction, we don’t have time to feel our vulnerability.  So, we practice outside of those interactions. Periodically throughout the day, just stop to look at what is actually going on inside you.  Keep breathing, check your throat, your chest, your belly, just notice whether there is any tightness, knots, or fear.  Notice if vulnerability is living in your body.  Ask yourself if you can just be with the vulnerability.

By practicing holding vulnerability when you are not hooked, you become less identified with the vulnerability.  Thus, you are less likely to jump on the hamster wheel of reactivity.

The key in beginning is to loosen the identification with the vulnerability by bringing a gentle, curious, forgiving attention. Simply open your eyes and your heart to the fearful mind and gently name it, “fear, fear, fear.” When we see that the energy of fear moves through us, that it doesn’t stay forever, the whole sense of fear will shift.  Pretty soon we will be strong enough to say: “Oh, fear, here you are again. I know you.”

3. Learn what Vulnerability Feels Like in Your Body

Jonathon Faust says, “The issues are in your tissues.”  By learning what vulnerability feels like in your body, you will be able to recognize it before it hooks you. If we feel the tightening before we jump on the hamster wheel, there is a chance that we won’t let our habit energies take over.

Reflection: Think about a time you recently felt a little vulnerable…  Notice what you feel in your body as you relive that experience… Scan through your body to see where you might feel contraction or tension…It may be in your forehead, your jaw, your shoulders, your chest, your belly or even your hands.  Get to know that sensation…  That will be your mindfulness bell.

By feeling the sensation of vulnerability in your body, you will be aware of it before it would normally register in your brain.  This gives you a second to choose to pause and respond, rather than react.

4. Practice on the Cushion

We can’t stop our habit energies when we are in the midst of fear if we have not practiced.  The best place to start practice off the cushion is on the cushion.  Pema Chodron says, “Sitting practice teaches us how to open and relax to whatever arises, without picking and choosing. It teaches us to experience the uneasiness and the urge fully, and to interrupt the momentum that usually follows. We do this by not following after the thoughts and learning to come back to the present moment. We learn to stay with the uneasiness, the tightening, the itch of shenpa (shenpa is an urge, hook, or trigger). We train in sitting still with our desire to scratch. This is how we learn to stop the chain reaction of habitual patterns that otherwise will rule our lives. This is how we weaken the patterns that keep us hooked into discomfort that we mistake as comfort. We label the spinoff “thinking” and return to the present moment.”

Instead of beating ourselves up when we get hooked by vulnerability, there is something we can do. We can sit on the meditation cushion and re-run the story without getting lost in the content. Maybe we remember the hooked feeling and get in touch with that. We observe the underlying quality—the clinging, the desire, the attachment. By training on the cushion, where it’s somewhat easier, we can prepare ourselves to stay when we get hooked. We create an intention not to run away from fear, but to practice staying with the vulnerability without acting upon it.

5. Recognize Habitual Ways of Hiding Vulnerability

Three common ways we hide vulnerability are: being busy, chronic judging, and putting on a mask.

Being busy is always being on our way somewhere else. We always have a job to do, we are tumbling into the next moment.  Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Our blocks of pain, sorrow, anger, and despair always want to come up into our mind consciousness, into our living room, because they’ve grown big and need our attention. They want to emerge, but we don’t want these uninvited guests to come up because they’re painful to look at. So, we try to block their way. We want them to stay asleep down in the basement. We don’t want to face them, so our habit is to fill the living room with other guests. Whenever we have 10 or 15 minutes of free-time we do anything we can to keep our living room occupied. We hope that if the living room is occupied, these unpleasant mental formations will not come up.”

Chronic judging covers up the deep fear that I will never get what I want, or be the person I want. I try to elevate myself by putting others down. Our judge does help us feel more powerful and strong.  But it suppresses our natural curiosity. When there is judging, we are seeing part of the picture, not the whole picture. We mistake the part for the whole, which influences our words and actions. It keeps us separate. We think I am doomed and I have to tense against what can go wrong. This limits your capacity to be fully alive in the present moment.

Sometimes we put on a mask to get approval.  We lock into a persona that covers over who is really here. It may have served us well in the past, but it may not be so useful now. What masks do you use? The clown, the know-it-all, the controller, the helper?.  We put on the mask because we are afraid to be seen as a fool, or not good enough.

6. Get to Know Your Fear

Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Invite your fear into consciousness, and smile through it; every time you smile through your fear, it will lose some of its strength. If you try to run away from your pain, there is no way out. Only by looking deeply into the nature of your fear can you find the way out.”

With mindfulness, I have learned to recognize the presence of the fear in me. When we are mindful, we generate energy that will be able to take care of the fear. With that energy I have learned to hold fear lightly instead of sweeping it under the carpet.  I just recognize and embrace the painful feeling. “Hello, my fear. I know you are there. I’m going to take good care of you.”

Every time the fear manifests, we have to let it manifest. It may manifest as anger, depression or shame.  Our automatic reaction is to try to suppress it. Instead of pushing it away, we can sit with it. We have to let it come and take good care of it. We simply breathe in and recognize the presence of fear in us. Then we can look deeply into the nature of that fear. The more we practice, the more gentle we are with our fear. 

We don’t want to ignore our fear, it is an important alarm system. We want to hear the message it is giving us, and then consciously choose how we want to respond. When we hide our vulnerability, we put up our defenses and react. When we accept our vulnerability, we can live with an undefended heart.

May you have the courage to be vulnerable and live with an undefended heart.

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