Thursday, November 12, 2015

Exploring the Spectrum of Fear

In preparing to co-teach a Level II Shambhala Training program this last weekend, I did a lot of reading about, contemplating and meditating on fear. Trungpa Rinpoche says that fear is our main reason to build a cocoon, a wall of habits and tendencies that give us a protective sense of solid self.

But of course, fear is not just one thing.

I began my talk about fear by asking if anyone was experiencing it during meditation. At first, students couldn't relate to the word fear. But in my talk on the cocoon, I asked them if they were experiencing any anxiety while meditating? Not many responses. But then irritation? Some head nods. And finally, worry? Were any of them worrying? Everyone's heads nodded, total agreement across the board.

I delivered the news to them: bad and good - worry is fear.

Worry is fear in a minute form, a micro-fear.* 

If we say that terror is at one end of the spectrum - sheer terror, knife at back horror  - then stress, anxiety and worry are at the other. Don't get me wrong - I know that due to trauma and myriad other reasons, anxiety or panic can feel like total terror to the system, even if there is no threat present. I am not minimizing anxiety, nor do I think it needs to be. Rather, if we can understand that all of these are on a spectrum together, we can start working with them more carefully and gently.

Current anxieties often have deep roots to earlier traumas, like the mycelium connections between fungi we are just starting to understand. Even if not causally related - afraid to fly, aka phobia, because brother died in a plane - our susceptibility to anxiety and stress is definitely partially shaped by a presence of exposure to real fear/loss/trauma in our past.

I gave the example when I shared with a student about how for a long time I couldn't bear any exposure to any of my feelings - protecting them with a cocoon to help muffle any feelings at all - because I was afraid they would all lead back to my grief over my parents' deaths. At times that would happen - I would get turned down for a date and wind up in a black hole of endless loneliness, at least partially, physically tied to those huge early losses.

What has also happened over time is that I have developed resilience by practicing with "the small stuff" - those same stresses/anxieties can also help inoculate me to go back into the big stuff with more strength and core power. 

Even though we may not be thinking about the worst thing that has ever happened to us while meditating, very often the vulnerability of the posture - legs and arms open and resting - brings up anxiety, fear, stress. Being exposed to these in the lower doses - though, let's face it, normally we hope to not expose ourselves to them at all - helps us develop a tolerance for going deeper. 

Seeing stress as something that arises out of deeper fears - fears of death, fears of loss, fears of impermanence - can seem really overwhelming at first. Bit by bit, we work our way through these stresses, see that the core feeling of fear is the same for all of them. As we carefully, gently dismantle the cocoon that tries to keep us from feeling, because we fear that vulnerability means death, we start to really live.

It takes a long time and a lot of practice, but having freedom to explore the spectrum of fear gives us the flexibility we need to do more than survive: to thrive.

*More on the language and coding of how we talk about fear at this wonderful article by the author of Dance of Anger, Harriet Lerner.

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