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Fear is my ally

eagleFearlessness isn’t the absence of fear, but the ability stay with one’s fear and use its energy wisely. Sunada explains how working with (as opposed to fighting against) our fears can point us toward our own place of freedom.

We tend to think of fear as a bad thing. Something that gets in our way. After all, one of the enlightened qualities of a Buddha is fearlessness. Doesn’t that mean we should work toward eliminating fear from our experience?

Not so fast!

Let’s think about what fear is. On one level, it’s the instinct that propels us to run when we’re in danger. Think caveman running away from tigers and bears. Heart-pounding adrenaline.

 if we tone down the intensity of fearful energy and strip away our idea that it’s “bad”, we find underneath it an intrinsic motivator for actively and intelligently engaging with our world.  

Now let’s dial down the intensity to normal everyday levels and remove that dreaded bite. It might help to imagine that same caveman walking through the woods without being chased, but still needing to be vigilant. What are the basic qualities at play here? I imagine he’d be mentally alert, with all his senses open and fully receptive. He’s physically alert as well -– nimble and ready to respond immediately and appropriately to any new sights and sounds. His mind would be clear and engaged. He’s in the present, and ready to deploy any of the skills and knowledge in his mental quiver. It’s his instinct and intuition that’s engaged. He’s in a state of readiness –- not to the point of hyper-anxiety –- but a clear, focused alertness that can respond intelligently to whatever comes his way.

Those qualities, I would argue, are the gifts that fear gives us. If that caveman had nothing to fear, he’d feel no motivation to be so keenly engaged. He’d just blunder through the woods, self-absorbed and doing whatever. So if we tone down the intensity of fearful energy and strip away our idea that it’s “bad”, we find underneath it an intrinsic motivator for actively and intelligently engaging with our world. It also has the potential to draw out our inner resources that we may not even be aware of. It’s a force that can move us forward.

 …what we’re really afraid of are our uncomfortable feelings about the fear, not the object of the fear itself.  

In our present society, fear isn’t so much about physical danger. Most of us don’t encounter bodily threats regularly like that caveman did. For us, fears are mostly of the psychological kind –- like risking a leap into a new job or relationship, or a fear of loneliness or a lack of money. But fundamentally, all fear is the same.

I think we’ve so oversold ourselves on our collective belief that fear is “bad” that it’s become a hindrance. Sure, we all encounter fear from time to time, and yes, it’s very unpleasant. But I sense that what we’re really afraid of are our uncomfortable feelings about the fear, not the object of the fear itself. We hate that gnawing in our gut so much that we try to run away from it –- an instinctive reaction from our caveman days. But we can’t run away from ourselves. Not only is it futile, it’s also self-defeating.

 If we have a particular fear that comes up repeatedly for us, I think it means we’re up against a self-created wall that we know is limiting us.  

If we have a particular fear that comes up repeatedly for us, I think it means we’re up against a self-created wall that we know is limiting us. We’re at a boundary and know there’s freedom on the other side. That emotional charge wouldn’t be there if that thing on the other side weren’t so important to us. But it doesn’t feel safe to go there. And the more we try to fight our fear, the more it engulfs us. It fills our minds and dictates our thoughts. We’re left immobilized, and boxed in the same old limited place. There’s an adage that goes something like “what we put our attention to is what grows.” So this is another illustration of that principle.

Rather than fighting our fear, what if we used it intelligently, like that caveman walking through the woods? When we feel fear, we’re not in any real danger in that moment, are we? So stop, take a breath, and be with the fear. When we feel that emotional charge, recognize it for what it really is –- our wish for freedom. It’s something to be welcomed, nurtured, and cherished. Let’s use it wisely.

 When I listen to [my fear], it points me in no uncertain terms toward where I need to go.  

So when the fear temperature rises, stay with it. But don’t fight it or indulge it. Recognize any doomsday thoughts that come up for what they are — just thoughts. In that moment, with your heightened awareness, look for what’s really calling for your attention. What’s one step we can take to move forward? As we sit, mindfully listening to our fear, we gradually loosen its hold on us. And slowly, we build our confidence to really step through to the other side, in an intelligent and grounded way.

I’ve grown to see fear as my ally. When I listen to it, it points me in no uncertain terms toward where I need to go. It’s not just any helpful direction, but the exact place where I’m most in need of breaking through. The flip side of the same coin of fear is courage, or the fearlessness of the Buddha. Ironically the more I embrace my fear, the more strongly I connect with those little wisps of courage I can find within me.

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About Sunada Takagi

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Sunada Takagi is on a mission to help people open their hearts and minds through mindfulness. Her work includes leading classes in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in the Boston area, and coaching individual clients through life transitions -- from anywhere in the world via phone and Skype. Read more at her site, Mindful Purpose Life Coaching.

Sunada also teaches and leads retreats at Boston Triratna Buddhist Community and Aryaloka Buddhist Center. Sunada was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in 2004. This is where she received her name, which means "beautiful, excellent sound."

You can follow her at her Mindful Living Blog as well as on Facebook and Twitter. Read more articles by .

Comments

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Comment from Elizabeth
Time: October 26, 2009, 5:56 pm

Sunada – this is such a helpful post. I’d been pondering the idea about not fighting the fear, but then wondering what to do with it after that. Thank you for writing this! I’m going to print it out and keep it with me. Metta ~

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Comment from patricia
Time: October 26, 2009, 7:24 pm

all emotions are good and teach us so well – if only we would listen

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Comment from Sanjana
Time: October 27, 2009, 8:38 am

fantastic reading and insightful..

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Comment from Sunada
Time: October 27, 2009, 9:38 am

Thanks, Elizabeth, Patricia and Sanjana. I’m working on seeing everything (negative emotions and all) as simply no-nonsense, helpful parts of our experience. It makes life a lot less of a struggle!

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Comment from Frey
Time: October 27, 2009, 9:33 pm

Thank you Sunada, great article.

I was just thinking, most of this would also go for anger, wouldn’t it? Anger could just be seen as the “fight” component of the fight or flight response. It also involves heightened, unpleasant emotion and a sense of urgency, as well as distorted, exaggerated thinking. Also sitting with it, not expressing it but not denying or suppressing it, can be helpful and very instructive… Would you have any comments on that?

BTW, I think it takes far more than a “little wisp of courage” to share your journey & reflections with the wider public… so again, thank you :-)

With Metta

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Comment from Sunada
Time: October 27, 2009, 10:13 pm

Hi Frey,
Thank you, you’re very kind! Yes, I think this approach would apply for anger as well. In fact, I posted something in my other blog about that exactly. See here: http://tinyurl.com/yhh6c78

metta,
Sunada
http://www.mindfulpurpose.com

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Comment from Cynthia Dell
Time: November 16, 2009, 11:52 am

Wishing you the best! To master the attitudes and responsiblities…to be the observer.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: November 16, 2009, 12:26 pm

Thank you, Padraig O’Morain, for honoring me with this reply in your blog. http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/health/2009/1110/1224258467006.html

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Comment from Durga Ma
Time: December 15, 2009, 3:05 pm

Horray! Finally, someone who sees the value in fear. I think fearlessness is only possible when we see that fear has a valid function and is natural to the body.

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Comment from Lesley
Time: December 21, 2009, 2:13 pm

Great piece, Sunada! This was just what I needed today. Thank you.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: December 21, 2009, 2:37 pm

Thank you, Durga Ma and Lesley, for your kind comments!

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Comment from Mohan Paudel
Time: December 25, 2009, 7:02 am

Dear Sundana,
thank you very much for insightful idea of fear. I truely believe that unless we operate fear, hate and hurt, we have only seeming love.
. The feeling of insecurity, fear and sadness doesn´t easily fade away. When we get dissolved into it and know its nooks and corners then one day it goes its way naturally. I am practising it now. Thank you, I feel strenght with this community of yours.

Mohan

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Comment from Robert
Time: March 18, 2011, 4:02 pm

Emotional judo through mindfulness! Very little energy expended.
Thank you for this insight.

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