Ever since I began teaching I’ve regularly returned to the subject of fear. Why? Because fear is what drives much of our behavior, and at the same time it is the one thing that we least want to feel. I remember when I first started my spiritual journey I had the strong expectation that practice would free me from anxiety and fear. I thought that if I studied and meditated, and struggled to change my behaviors, I could replace the undesirable parts of myself with a new, improved version of me—one that was free of anxiety.
So from the very beginning of my practice I decided to confront my fears directly whenever they arose, thereby hoping to amputate them. For example, I’d wear clothes that didn’t look good to confront my fear of disapproval. Or I’d force myself to speak publicly even though I had a strong fear of public humiliation.
After doing these tasks it got increasingly easier, and I actually thought I had overcome my fear. But in truth, it was like cutting off a weed; the fear was temporarily removed, but because I had not gone to the root, it eventually returned. These examples illustrate two of the classic misconceptions about dealing with anxiety and fear. The first is seeing fear as the enemy, a flaw, a weakness, within myself that I have to conquer. The second is believing that if I confront my fears and go against them, they’ll go away permanently.
It’s understandable that we would hold onto these misconceptions, because we have so much aversion to feeling the discomfort of fear, and we’ll do almost anything to avoid it and get rid of it. Yet, it’s also a fact that whenever we don’t address our fear, we make it more solid, and consequently, our life becomes smaller, more limited, more contracted. In a way, every time we give in to fear, we cease to live genuinely.
But there’s an alternative way to live—one that is no longer driven by fear. In fact, the essence of living authentically starts when we learn to relate to our fears in a new way. Instead of seeing fear as our enemy, we can begin to see fear as a wake-up, a signal. This makes each occurrence of fear an opportunity to see exactly where we’re stuck, where we’re holding ourselves back, where we can open to life. What we have to understand is that fear is the protective cocoon of ego telling us to stop. It tells us to not go beyond the outer edge of our cocoon. But the direction of our path is to move directly toward our fears, for only in this way can we go beyond fear’s cocoon. While we may not like it, fear can be our best indicator that we’re going in the right direction. In fact, whatever we can’t say Yes to is the exact direction of our path.
What does it actually mean to say Yes to our fear? It means we’re willing to open to it and embrace it as our path to freedom. Saying Yes doesn’t mean we like it—it simply means we’re willing to feel what it really is. Saying Yes to fear is the opposite of what we usually do, which is to run away from it. Yet, when we stop resisting what is, and over time develop the genuine curiosity to know what’s really going on, it’s possible to begin to see our experience of fear almost as an adventure instead of as a nightmare.
To know what fear really is, whenever it arises we ask the question, “What is this?” We’re not asking why we have it or analyzing it—we’re essentially asking, “What is this moment?” To answer, we simply have to look at two things: the fearful thoughts, and the physical sensations of fear. The practice is to pause, allow ourselves to observe the thoughts racing through the mind, and then feel the physical sensations throughout the body.
When we say Yes to fear, even though we may feel terror, we can begin to see there is no real physical danger. We no longer need to panic, or try to push it away. As we let it in, we’re giving up our fear of fear. We may think we can’t stand to feel it, but the truth is we just don’t want to. Saying Yes to fear is the countermeasure to this resistance; it’s the courage to willingly stay present with it.
A few weeks ago I received a call from my doctor telling me there were signs of a cancerous tumor in my kidney. After my initial shock, I thought of how many times I’ve said that we’re all just one doctor’s visit away from falling through the thin ice. And fall I did—right into the icy water! But fairly quickly I remembered to say Yes to the arising fears, even while my mind tried to weave the dark and grim story of “Me and My Cancer”—with the corresponding closing down in the body.
Saying Yes has allowed me to turn away from the story of doom, and instead turn toward the understanding that regardless of what might happen, this will be my path to living truly authentically. In a way, I actually look forward to being pushed to work with my deepest attachments—to comfort, to control, to my body, to my future. Saying Yes means that my aspiration to live my life authentically is more important than indulging the story of doom and fear. Remarkably, the episode of falling through the thin ice was very short. It isn’t that all the fear is gone; in truth, there is still anxiety about what will happen. But it doesn’t predominate, and I’m able to see it and relate to it as simply a conditioned response to perceived danger.
I mentioned that in my early years in practice I had the expectation that practice could free me of fear altogether. Now, many years later, it’s clear to me that spiritual practice is not so much about being totally free from anxiety and fear as it is about not having to be free from them. There is a subtle but crucial difference between these two understandings. We no longer see ourselves as flawed or weak because we have fear—we’re able to see it as simply our all-too-human conditioning. We begin to realize that even our most unwanted emotions are simply part of the human condition; and moreover, that they don’t have to dominate us. The more deeply we understand what it means to say Yes, the less we feel the need to push away fear when it arises. Instead, we can see it and use it as a catalyst on our path. When we’re willing to experience our life—whatever it is—and not hide in safety and complacency, this is the essence of living most genuinely.
edited from Living Authentically: Waking Up From Complacency and Fear