The Art of Working With – Not Against – Fear and Anxiety

anxiety mindfulness Feb 14, 2020

Many of the traditions see autumn as the time of year when fear and anxiety reach their apotheosis.  Halloween.  Elections.  Falling leaves.  Wind.  Grey skies.  Which is why now might just be the perfect time to talk about the nature of fear. 

Throughout my life, fear and anxiety have been constant companions.

In fact, I think it’s fair to say that much of my motivation for mindfulness practice springs from an almost primal urge to placate fear and anxiety.

When I was a young boy, I feared leaving my parents.  I feared that someone might break into our house.  I feared embarrassing myself in front of others.  And I feared death.

As I entered adulthood, these fears matured but never left.  Sitting in the background of my mind, they shaped just about every aspect of self – my career choices, diet, exercise, travel plans, and on and on.

11 years or so ago, I started working intensively with fear and anxiety.   My motivation?  I reached a point where the near constant experience of fear moved from the background to the front stage of my mind.  For the first time, I felt almost crippled by the intensity of fear.   And I had no idea what to do.

A decade or so later, I can report that the fear and anxiety isn’t gone.  But after years of constant experimentation, I’ve landed on a few powerful tools that helped me radically alter the experience of fear.  I share them because I remember the feeling of helplessness that arose from simply not knowing what to do in the face of fear.

This is a series that explores these powerful tools.  In this post, I’ll explore the nature of fear and the first antidote:  acceptance.  In the second, I’ll explore opening – the second antidote.  And in the final post, I’ll explore letting go:  perhaps the most powerful strategy for transforming fear.

 

The Nature of Fear & Anxiety 

It’s easy to make this complicated.  So let’s keep it simple:  fear and anxiety represent a closing of the mind.

This elegant definition comes by courtesy of Pema Chodron – one of the great teachers of our time. Her point is that there are really only three modes of being:  ordinary mind, closing, and opening. 

When you feel a ripple of queasy sensations run through your body before a big presentation or a difficult conversation, the mind and body instinctively close.  The mind closes by fixating on this threat, losing the bigger picture. The body mirrors this response: muscles tighten, posture collapses, and the breath shortens.

Fear represents the immediate experience of closure.  Anxiety, on the other hand, is more anticipatory.  We’re closing in anticipation of something unpleasant or uncomfortable: feeling shame, failure, embarrassment, or fear itself.

The important point is this. Fear is closure.  Anxiety is closure.  They both involve a full-scale contraction of the mind and body, which is why they can be so uncomfortable and even all consuming.

 

Acceptance:  The First Antidote

So how can we stop closing down in the face of fear?  In my twenties, I used a crude method that never actually worked:  getting rid of it.  When confronted with the edginess of fear, I would try to get rid of it by either distracting myself (watching TV, working, etc.) or trying to master fear by facing it head on.  If I felt afraid of flying, I would try to fly as much as possible.  If I felt afraid of snakes, I would go to a pet store and wrap a couple around my neck.

These strategies all failed because I was working against, not with the fear.  Sitting beneath these counter-phobic efforts was a deep-rooted belief that fear and anxiety are bad – that I needed to get rid of them.

The biggest shift came when I dug deeper into the teachings on fear that come out of the mindfulness tradition.  The strategy offered by Chodron and other contemporary teachers like Joseph Goldstein and Lama Surya Das advocated investigation rather than avoidance.  

That was the problem. I had been trying to escape fear.  These teachings helped me see that the only way to dissolve fear is to let go of the desire to get rid of it.  And that’s the first antidote:  acceptance.

In a masterful podcast on the topic that I highly recommend, Goldstein talks about his discovery of this powerful antidote:

One of the big mistakes I made in my practice was confusing recognition of fear with being mindful of it.  We can be recognizing something and be with it through the filter of aversion…And that’s what I was doing with this fear over years…I would be watching it in order for it to go away. 
At one point, I was doing walking meditation and the fear was coming up very strongly and something shifted in my mind.  And the shift was expressed in the statement: “if this fear is here for the rest of my life, it’s OK.” And that was the first moment of genuine acceptance. So “it’s OK” became my mantra and, in that moment of acceptance, that block of fear washed through.

 

This is what true acceptance of fear and anxiety looks like.   It’s rare and often very difficult to do.  But I think it’s worthy of our best efforts.  It’s as simple as relaxing into the fear or anxiety and thinking, “it’s OK.”

So here’s the challenge for the next week.  When fear or anxiety arises at work or at home, Notice the fear.  Then Shift by using this simple phrase, “it’s OK.”  Finally, Rewire by staying with the experience from this place of acceptance.

This move may feel like driving a car in thick fog or launching off a cliff with no view of the ground below.  But see what happens when you make a conscious effort to shift from the ordinary habit of aversion to acceptance.  

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