“Confess your hidden faults.
Approach what you find repulsive.
Help those you think you cannot help.
Anything you are attached to, let it go.
Go to the places that scare you.
- advice from her teacher to the Tibetan Yogini Machik Labdron
In 2009, fresh off the heels of opening my own yoga studio (a scary experience of its own) I decided that facing fear was going to be a good thing, an alchemic process for me. So, my New Year’s Resolution was to do something scary every day. On January 1st, I imagined great and gutsy things to try: climbing half-dome and facing my fear of heights and mastering my handstand in the middle of the room with nobody to spot me.
Sitting with fear for a year was incredibly enlightening. No more than 10 minutes went by after I set that resolution before fear moved through my body. A distinct clenching of my belly and closing of the chest along with an emotional response of withdrawal. Interesting, I thought.
What I discovered that year was that my fear has very little to do with the big gutsy life-threatening adventures. I learned that if I paid attention internally, I didn’t have to leave my computer chair, my home, my car, the yoga classroom – to get a very real and tangible experience of fear. Hell, I didn’t even have to leave my meditation cushion and my own mind! My thoughts provided me with more than enough fear to keep me deeply focused on my New Year’s Resolution.
Why had I never noticed this fear before? Sure, I’d noticed it from time to time. I noticed it when I felt stressed, or anxious, or noticed my shoulders lifting up to my ears. But how interesting – to notice a tiny and distinct clench in my belly every time the phone rang. To notice that little thought that had not yet formed words in the back of my head, a thought in utero that I could sense but not hear. A sense that when offered words, barely whispered, “what have you done wrong now?”
It didn’t take too long before I noticed that many of my strong emotions of aversion, frustration, desire, and craving were the surface level responses, the flower if you will. The genesis of those emotions deep down, at the root – is fear. I noticed that fear seems to live in my belly, travel to my shoulders, and communicate to me through my breath. No mountain climbing and jumping out of airplanes for me. I seemed to have plenty of fear swimming through my body right now, thank you very much!
There are many ways we deal with these fears, and some are more skillful than others. I played (and continue to play) with my response to fear. I’ve found that the most skillful way for me to deal with fear is to notice it arise within my body, to notice the thoughts that create or feed the fear, and to stay incredibly present as I watch it move through me. I discovered that fear moves on, as long as it’s allowed to have its life. It’s the times when I avoid the root of fear that it stays with me, following like a shadow. When I attempt to banish the fear, it gets more powerful, as if it were rebounding off of my attempts to push it away. It gets rotten and stinky until I can’t ignore it, and grows into a much larger and more powerful entity. It feels overwhelming, as if “I just can’t go there.”
Boyd K Packer’s recent General Conference talk, “Cleansing the Inner Vessel” garnered a lot of chatter around the blogger-nacle. Many read it as I did, as a very hurtful message to gay LDS members. Interestingly though, it was this paragraph at the end of BK Packer’s talk that seemed to be the root of the issue, it’s what really concerned me:
“Strangely enough, it may be that the simplest and most powerful prevention and cure for pornography, or any unclean act, is to ignore and avoid it. Delete from the mind any unworthy thought that tries to take root. Once you have decided to remain clean, you are asserting your God-given agency. And then, as President Smith counseled, “Don’t look back.”
This approach to working with the mind, denying our fear and discomfort is the very formula of repression. It is a natural reaction for sure – when we’re attracted or repulsed by something we see as harmful, we instinctively want to avoid it, push it away or cling to it. Sadly, when we take any of these approaches, we feed fear and give it new, much stronger life. We give it a life of it’s own that has a tendency to run quickly out of our control.
I’m convinced that if we want to see humanity grow in maturity and wisdom, then we will have to embrace our fears – sit with them and befriend them. If we want to know why we embrace harmful behaviors, then we have to be willing to do more than ignore and avoid. We need to learn to become extremely comfortable with discomfort. We need to go to the places that scare us.
What are your personal “places that scare you?” When you get to those scary places, are they really as fearful as you imagined them to be? What have you found to be a skillful means in dealing with that fear?
PS – Yes, I’m borrowing the title from the book, “Places that Scare You”, by Pema Chodron – a book that’s on my top 20 list of Buddhist must reads!