Facing Our Fears

We all have fears.

We have universal human fears, like the fear of failure or the fear of misery.

Some people have phobia fears.  George Washington was afraid of being buried alive.  On his deathbed, he made his servants promise to leave his body out for two days, just in case.  Richard Nixon suffered from nosocomephobia: an excessive fear of hospitals.  After refusing to go to the hospital for a blood clot in 1974, he said, “If I go to a hospital, I’ll never come out alive.”  Oprah fears chewing gum.  Pretty much everything scares Woody Allen (panophobia).

We all know what fear is, but for the purposes of this post, it’s helpful to define it.  In this context, fear means: “a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid.”

If this were Aladdin, if I found the lamp, and if Robin Williams were my genie, I’d ask him to make me fearless.  But not fearless from the types of fears referenced above.

When someone mentions fear, we think of concrete, tangible fears.  We think of arachnophobia, aviophobia, or a fear of commitment.  But the kind of fear I refer to sort of resides in it’s own little world distinct from these fears.

So what am I talking about: I’m talking about a fear of ourselves.

Give this idea a chance for a second.

Staying true to Movember, I’ve been reading a lot about meditation, the mind, and the ways thoughts filter through it.

Pema Chodron is American Buddhist nun and a student of Chogyam Trungpa, the renowned meditation master.  I have been listening to her CD’s “Smile at Fear” on the way to work for a few days.  I am also reading her book, “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.”  She argues that to become courageous, to increase our capacity to love and care about other people, we need to face our fears of the unknown.  

It’s been scientifically proven that the human mind fears uncertainty more than it fears physical pain.  The human mind tells us that in order to move forward, it must know what is waiting there, because in that case, it can control the situation.  If it doesn’t know, it is not in control, and the mind freaks out.  It finds ways to cope.

Pema says, “[Fear of the unknown] is part of being alive, something we all share.  We react against the possibility of loneliness, of death, of not having anything to hold on to.  Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.”

She describes some of our coping methods: “When we’re afraid, we go inward.  We do that to protect ourselves from whatever we think is going to hurt us.  The fear sets off a chain reaction that makes us harder and harder, more set in our ways.”  She says we engage in the self-destructive behaviors we turn towards to cope: 1. We speed up: we do more, find more distractions.  2. Ironically, we do the opposite: we get more lazy.  We develop addictions, we watch more TV.  We escape.”

She says, “The way this uncertainty manifests, or perhaps the very basis of the uncertainty itself, is doubting ourselves: not trusting ourselves.  You could say not loving yourself, not trusting yourself, but feeling bad about yourself.” 

She argues that most people don’t want to face how they feel about themselves.  She says this is where we take the first step.

We touch into this fear, instead of avoiding it.  One develops an unconditional friendship with oneself.  This means doing the very scary thing of looking at yourself clearly, keeping your heart open to yourself even when it’s unpleasant.  Looking at yourself when it is difficult to look at what you see in yourself.  She calls this “cultivating bravery.”

The first step is looking at yourself with a feeling of gentleness and kindness.  She says it takes a lot of guts to do this because it means staying present when you begin to fear what you see.

What happens when we do what Pema says?  We become more genuine.  Our relationships with others improve, we become more passionate, we’re more effective at helping others.  We also experience life more richly.  Colors are more vivid, all that jazz.  

I think everyone has self-doubt, although it’s tough to admit that.  I know at least everyone has a little.  I see it in their Facebook posts.  I hear it in their voices.  With some friends, I never hear it, there’s no reason for me to suspect.  Except that I think we all have it.  We all have self-doubt.

Practice makes perfect.

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