When the public discourse becomes a toxic swamp and the level of anger is off the charts and confidence in our leaders and institutions is at an all time low, it's easy to feel discouraged, anxious and fearful. Here are five ways to begin practicing with fear so that it doesn't consume and dominate your daily experience.
1. Acknowledge your Fear
Fear is one of the most difficult emotions to work with. You may try to forget it or try running away from it, but these strategies only make the fear bigger and more entrenched. Begin by acknowledging the fear. There is some intelligence in the fear. It's important to have a proper relationship with your emotions. You need to touch the raw quality of the emotion before you can move through it. Can you be with the fear with more gentleness? Can you sense how it resides in your body? Can you watch the story you tell about the fear?
2. Break Fear into Smaller Pieces
Fear can be overwhelming. The panic and paranoia that often accompany fear trigger a flight-fight response in your brain. This magnifies and exaggerates the perceived danger. It can be helpful to break the fear down into smaller steps. So for instance, if you're afraid of speaking in public, you might try giving your talk to a friend. Taking the small step is a victory. As we teach in our Primer mindfulness classes, you can begin to expand your window of tolerance for fear. This means you can be with the fear without running away. And this is how you begin to manage and reduce fear.
3. Let Go of Catastrophic Thinking
There are certain cognitive distortions that magnify our emotions. One such distortion is catastrophic thinking. There is a lawyers voice in all of us which can easily imagine the worst case scenario. Mindfulness can help you develop a meta-awareness of these voices within yourself. You acknowledge the voice, but at the same time, you are able to watch it. This is a way of putting the voice in a new perspective. By not completely identifying with the voice, you don't solidify it in the same way and it becomes more workable.
4. Reframe your Fear
When you watch your experience with mindfulness, you create some distance that allows you to begin reframing that voice in new and more positive ways. You discover your thoughts and emotions are not nearly as solid as you imagined. You can begin to work through fear in this way, and with courage and strength you can go beyond fear. It's possible with mindfulness meditation practice to be fearless and brave. When you can lift yourself up through your spiritual practice, you find a new dignity and courage within yourself. You are more resilient to the challenges life brings your way.
This might sound too simple, but actually it's very powerful. Awareness of your breath can help you be embodied in the present moment. Each moment comes and goes, and your awareness of this concrete moment can help you ground yourself in your embodied awareness. Fear often arises because you are out of sync with your body, mind and heart. Meditation and awareness of your breath, can help you integrate yourself in such a way that you are much less susceptible to reactive responses to challenging situations. And this is how you begin to practice with fear. It's possible, through living a Zen-inspired life to be fearless. But first, you must be with your fear.
Roshi Robert Althouse