Mindfulness and Fear

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Ah, fear…my old friend. I mean, fear…my old nemesis. I mean…what?

Fear has been living with me for so long, it’s like a part of the family — that abrasive relative you never talk back to but who holds everyone in their grip. You might sidestep, placate, appease, even confront, but still, they never really back down. Sometimes they’re sweet and charming and you get lulled into a false security, then…wham! Knocked down once again.

If you’re like me, your fear masquerades in many disguises. It often takes the form of disinterest. For example, I’ve had many job opportunities where I’ve given a dynamic first interview and gotten close to a new challenge. Then somehow I’d decide I wasn’t so interested anymore. I’d give a weak second interview, and instead of being the one to make the decision, it was made for me, in the form of no offer. Of course I’d tell myself I didn’t really want it anyway, and maybe I really didn’t. Or, I’d imagine the job was really too hard for me and who knows, it might have been. It took a long time to learn that the important thing wasn’t whether or not I could have done it, but that I gave up my power, and usually way too soon.

Fear of failure is certainly common, but fear of success can be equally strong. Getting closer to experiencing your own power can be a scary thing if you’re used to keeping it in check. I see it happen all the time with yoga students who are making great progress in their physical practice and suddenly get sidelined by injury, or somehow their schedule changes and they can no longer make it to class. The first time it happened to me, I was attending classes consistently and practicing diligently. One day I was practicing a headstand at the wall and brought my legs straight down and held them in a half-staff position — this was something I thought I’d never be able to do and it was exhilarating. What happened next? I found reasons to stop going to class. Progress halted. Again, it took me a long time to understand what was actually going on.

Using mindfulness to deal with fear is both effective and challenging. It requires the patience to sit with the many different faces of fear until your awareness is keen enough to recognize each. There can be a process of decoding the language of your own relationship to fear. It often manifests as physical symptoms, hiding unconsciously in the body. Mine has been lodged in my lower back for years, a literal “holding back.” This is why it’s important to avoid aggressive yoga practice. You might be working with more than just a tight muscle, and the whole body-mind continuum needs to work together to release something deeper.

It takes fortitude to recognize, tolerate and accept the role fear has played in your life. Luckily, there’s courage. No one likes the idea of being afraid, but we love the idea of having courage — which, by definition, includes feeling our fear, so it’s a winning concept. Lately, I’ve been feeling fear directly in my gut, where I believe it’s supposed to be. I’m pleased about this shift. I’m not always sure what I’m afraid of but at least I know what I’m dealing with, which makes it a lot easier to decide what to do.

Eventually, we’ve got to tell our fear to move out. Sure, it can visit — sometimes we actually need it to let us know what real danger is all about. But when we determine that there’s no real threat, or that the threat is in the past, it’s time to show fear the door. Then it’s more like a distant relative you’re glad you got to know, but you’re relieved it’s gone back home. Next time, maybe it can just phone.

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Mindfulness and Healing

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When we cut ourselves deeply, we cover the wound with a bandage to protect it and let it heal. It can be painful for quite a while. Eventually, we need to uncover the wound and expose it to the air in order for it to heal fully. We might develop some scar tissue, which serves to remind us of the injury and its cause. We might hate our scars, and try to cover them up. We might feel quite neutral towards them. We might even wear them as a badge of honor.

The psychic healing process has some parallels, but is generally a little more complex. Depending on the severity of our wounds and the environment we’re in, we may choose — often unconsciously — not to expose them at all, but instead to cover them up in a variety of ways. Like scar tissue, a whole new identity might grow over them. We might even forget who we were and what we felt like before we were wounded. How we relate to our wounds becomes the basis of our life experience.

As the child of a trauma survivor, my journey has had a particular complexity. In our house, the trauma was never discussed. It wasn’t even known to me consciously until right after my mother’s death, when, while taking a long walk outside during the shiva week, my father revealed it to my brother and me abruptly, suddenly, like the gasp of air that comes when you’ve been underwater too long and finally break the surface.

My mother never dealt with her trauma; instead, she left a legacy of mental and emotional knots for me to inherit and unravel. This long and winding road has shaped me, informing my choices and governing my growth. It’s had everything to do with why I learned from an early age to hide and compartmentalize the different aspects of my life, so much so that it took years to fully realize the extent to which I did this and the impact that it had, and even more years to pull the pieces back together.

More than anything else, the practices of Yoga, meditation and mindfulness have been the most profound for me in penetrating the layers of identity and exposing these psychic wounds. In mindfulness we say that the important thing is not whether or not we experience difficult emotions, but rather how we relate to them. In my case, there’s been a lot of stop and go. Fully experiencing the pain was, many times, too threatening, and I’d back away from the edge. At the same time, tasting the freedom that lay just beyond was enticing, but evoked an equal threat. It’s been a frustrating and often paralyzing dynamic.

While we may like the idea of healing, it’s important to understand that it is a painful process. However if we turn away from it, our patterns simply repeat themselves.
I’ve watched myself, time and time again, sabotage opportunities, ruin relationships and thwart my own success. Many times I punished myself for this, which was like kicking my own legs out from under me just when I was trying to stand back up. I’ve harbored shame, guilt, and a haunting sense of unworthiness. It’s taken a good deal of self-compassion to face this fully, accept myself and truly let go of the past.

Listening to the pain takes patience, and learning to respect how much we can tolerate at any given time. As we do in our practice, we need to keep returning our attention to the present and relate to our energy in a new way. By letting the waves of anger, sadness, regret and loss move up and out of us, we make more space for calmness and joy. Experiencing that fully serves to build our faith; with more faith, we develop the strength to keep going. It makes me think of what happens in weight training — as the stress makes the muscles develop microscopic tears, it is scar tissue that heals them and rebuilds them even stronger than before. Instead of choosing to hide in shame, all of us who are healing would do well to think of ourselves as weight lifters, Olympic-style, going for the gold.

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