All of us live with fear. Whenever fear takes over, we’re caught in what I call the trance of fear. As we tense in anticipation of what may go wrong, our heart and mind contract. We forget that there are people who care about us, and about our own ability to feel spacious and openhearted. Trapped in the trance, we can experience life through the filter of fear, and when we do, the emotion becomes the core of our identity, constricting our capacity to live fully.
This trance usually begins in childhood, when we experience fear in relating to our significant others. Perhaps as an infant our crying late at night may have frustrated our exhausted mother. When we saw her frowning face and heard her shrill tone, suddenly we felt unsafe with the person we most counted on for safety. Our arms and fists tightened, our throat contracted, our heartbeat raced.
This physical reaction of fear in response to disapproval may have happened repeatedly through our early years. We might have tried out something new—putting on our clothes all by ourselves and gotten them backwards. We might have poured a cup of grape juice—but spilled it on the living room carpet. Each time our mother’s disapproving look and tone of frustration were directed at us, we felt the same chain reaction of fear in our body.
While the bodies of young children are usually relaxed and flexible, if experiences of fear are continuous over the years, chronic tightening happens. Our shoulders may become permanently knotted and raised, our head thrust forward, our back hunched, our chest sunken.
Rather than a temporary reaction to danger, we develop a permanent suit of armor. We become, as Chogyam Trungpa puts it, “a bundle of tense muscles defending our existence.” We often don’t even recognize this armor because it feels like such a familiar part of who we are. But we can see it in others. And when we are meditating, we can feel it in ourselves—the tightness, the areas where we feel nothing.
This trance of fear not only creates habitual contraction in our body. Our mind too becomes trapped in rigid patterns. The one-pointedness that served us in responding to real threats becomes obsession. Our mind, making associations with past experiences, produces endless stories reminding us of what bad things might happen and strategizing how to avoid them.
Through I-ing and My-ing, the self takes center stage in these stories: Something terrible is about to happen to me; I am powerless; I am alone; I need to do something to save myself. Our mind urgently seeks to control the situation by finding the cause of the problem, and we either point the finger at others or at ourselves.
Feelings and stories of unworthiness and shame are perhaps the most binding element in the trance of fear. When we believe something is wrong with us, we’re convinced that we’re somehow in danger. Our shame fuels ongoing fear, and our fear fuels more shame. The very fact that we feel fear seems to prove that we are broken or incapable. When we’re trapped in trance, being fearful and bad seem to define who we are. The anxiety in our body, the stories, the ways we make excuses, withdraw or lash out—these become to us the self that is most real.
Whenever we’re in this trance, the rest of the world fades into the background. Like the lens on a camera, our attention narrows to focus exclusively on the foreground of our fearful stories and our efforts to feel more secure.
The key to transforming this trance is by becoming aware of it—mindful of all our strategies, stories, physical reactions and bodily sensations—and allowing ourselves to be present to all of it without added constriction and judgment. If we can stay honestly and courageously awake to our fear, it can enable us to recognize and fully experience whatever is arising in the present moment, and keep us from falling into the trance.
Especially with intense or traumatic fear, a full mindful presence is often not advised or even possible as a first step. Rather, we need to take some time to cultivate inner resources of safety, strength and loving connection. In time, these inner strengths will allow us to stay present when fear arises, and meet the experience with interest and care.
For all of us, whether traumatized or not, there is deep conditioning to reflexively pull away from contacting the rawness of fear. Yet this avoidance is exactly what solidifies trance. As we cultivate our willingness, mindfulness and compassion, we can learn to face and transform our fear. We discover that we can awaken from the trance of fear even in the midst of the most challenging circumstances.
Whenever we can relate to fear rather than from fear, our sense of who we are begins to shift and enlarge. Instead of constructing a tense and embattled self, we can reconnect with our naturally spacious awareness. Instead of being trapped in and defined by our experiences, we can recognize them as a changing stream of thoughts and feelings. In these moments we have awakened from trance. We are inhabiting a wholeness of being that is peaceful and free.
Adapted from Radical Acceptance (2003)
Thanks for this article! I am battling some anxiety and fear. (Relating to life/death, purpose, and my lack of confidence that I am strong enough to weather life.) You say here that being open to that fear isn’t a first step. But what IS the first step? Do you have any suggestions for where to start when trying to free yourself from that deep seeded, long ingrained fear? Where do you start to build confidence and inner strength in order to be able to face this fear? Any resources or pointers are greatly appreciated! :)
Hello, firstly, thank you for this wonderful site!
I have similar questions to Julia’s. For a year I’ve been doing mindful breathing meditation (which I love). However I yet to see any effect on my anxiety. I don’t meditate in order to get less anxious (I know that this defeats the purpose of meditation), but I’m getting a bit frustrated because everywhere I keep reading about its wonderful effects on fear etc.
A few things come to mind. One is that it’s very difficult to subjectively evaluate our levels of anxiety, especially if change it taking place slowly. Many times I’ve heard from people who have said that they’ve been meditating and haven’t noticed much if any change — but oh yeah people say they’re different.
Another thing that comes to mind, though, is that it may be that you need to treat your anxiety as an object of attention. In the mindfulness of breathing we don’t necessarily just notice the breathing. In fact it’s rare that we do. So if anxiety is present, then notice that along with the breathing. Treat it simply as another sensation to notice.
Lastly, mindfulness of breathing isn’t enough. I always recommend that people do both mindfulness of breathing and metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness). Much of our fear comes from distrusting others and believing that they are judging us. When we learn to have a more positive view of others we’re less inclined to fear them. And our fear can come also from believing that there is something fundamentally unloveable about us, and when we cultivate self-metta we learn that that’s not the case. We are worthy of love.