Transforming Fear; 4 steps to stillness
Under any of our emotions, at the core, we will find fear. The sense that around the corner something will go wrong. This is our sense of fragility, of mortality.
Fear is a natural response in all of us. It is not only natural, it is necessary. Without it, humans would not be around today. It is what protects us from harm. Thanks to the sympathetic nervous system whose primary process is to stimulate the body’s fight-or-flight response, we are able to process threatening stimulus so that we may find safety. The sympathetic nervous system is put to perfect use if a car loses control and is coming toward you at full speed while you’re crossing the street, however the fight-or-flight response can be activated so easily over time due to a repetition of events or even a single traumatic event, so that over time it may feel like it is jammed to ON.
When fear takes over in this way, it is transformed into suffering. It oversteps its bounds, taking over so that we become identified to it. It grips us in a way that chains us to negative beliefs, reinforcing the Separate Self, resulting in devastating paradigms such as racism and bigotry.
In order to establish peacefulness within our community, society and humanity, we must first come into contact with an inner sense of peace. This is not possible if the sympathetic nervous system is getting triggered in ways that are not helpful or appropriate. Peace cannot prevail until we are able to place an awareness around our fears.
For this state of presence, we are required to first meet the fear body with a non-judging mind. We must be able to sit and stay with the fears as they arise. This is something that doesn’t feel comfortable to us at all because of our strong sense of identification. It is only with a still mind that we can allow the fears to rise, see them for what they are and practice mindfulness and non-identification around these fears. As long as unwarranted fears have a grip on us, we are not able to see that believing in them is a choice. We are not able to drop the story and step into openness and vulnerability.
Recognizing emotional impulses such as fear requires us to be in a state of awareness and with our busy-ness, this can be a very challenging thing to do. We must learn how to self-regulate, to cultivate awareness, to respond rather than react.
Fortunately, with the evolved brain, the frontal lobe has the capacity to do all of these things. It can recognize the fear response and allow us to relate to it through kindness and compassion rather than “flipping our lid” (by Dan Siegel) and triggering the fight-or-flight response. The more we activate this evolved brain, the more we can inform the more primitive brain as to appropriate stimuli and when it’s just a habit. We can start to know the difference. We can cultivate “embodied attending” and recognize that we are feeling fear and simply witness the fear rather than engage. We can watch the fear come and go likes waves on the shore and attend to it in a mindful manner rather than let it dictate our experiences.
A wonderful tool for this coined by Tara Brach is “Resourcing”: knowing how to call upon something larger and more powerful in times of need, to be able to call up the love, the strength and courage of your whole being. Brach explains resourcing as an ocean-like quality of coming into presence of being with the changing waves. When resourcing, we come into contact with the vastness of it all, the infinite potential that we have, so that we can be with the changing of the waves rather than against them.
Noticing or witnessing our fears can sometimes let us know that we are more than the fear body while other times when we feel caught in the middle of it and we are thrown off. In these moments, we need a pathway back to consciousness. Like when we are caught in the midst of a storm, we need to find rest in order to plan how we are going to move forward. It’s like ducking under an awning or a tree when we’re caught in a rain storm. This resting place allows us the chance to see how we are going to get to safety, to find our way home. When we have been hijacked and are about to get into a chain of reactivity, resourcing is a quick way to find solace and refuge. We can pause and reconnect with our highest intention, to an anchor, so that we can find our way out and back into full embodied presence.
Here are some ways that may be helpful to get back to the still spot, to attending and befriending, to the witnessing that helps you remember that you are more than the fear body, that you are an ocean that has room for the waves. You have a way home.
1. Grounding: Come into stillness and scan through your body. Feel the weight of your body on your seat along with the contact of your feet with the ground. You are feeling gravity. Grounding is helpful when in fight-or-flight response because it regains our sense of orientation, something you no longer have when the sympathetic nervous system is activated.
2. Breathing: Slowing down your breathing consciously is another way to come back into balance. Fill your body completely with a soft belly breath and then empty it completely. Wait until a new breath wants to arise before filling your belly again and continue breathing with full breaths in this manner. By slowing down your breath, you are deactivating the sympathetic nervous system.
3. Feeling: Placing your hands on your heart and on your navel area, the nexuses of nerves, and feeling the warm glow of your hands sends a message to the parasympathetic nervous system to activate. Continue to take full, deep breaths.
4. Sensing: Placing an awareness on your surroundings will bring you back into presence. Noticing the sounds around you, the visuals around you. Taking note of the space you are in, the smells around you. You are here and not in the place where bad things happen to you. Coming into the present moment.
By resourcing, we offer ourselves the opportunity to begin to break the habit of our fears and see clearly beyond the limiting beliefs we have of the world around us and find freedom in the midst of fear.Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking. Live in silence. Flow down and down in always widening rings of being.
How did the rose ever open it’s heart and give to this world all of its’ beauty? It felt the encouragement of light against its’ being. Otherwise, we all remain too frightened.
The poet Hafiz