By Marguerite Theophil
A woman dreams every night that she is being chased through an old haunted house by a huge, hideous monster. Night after night, it endlessly chases her, coming so close that she feels its icy breath on the nape of her neck.
Then one night, though she runs madly, the monster corners the terrified woman. Just as it reaches out to tear her apart, she turns around, finds her voice and screams, “What are you? Why do you chase me? What will you do to me?”
At that, the monster stops, straightens up, and with a puzzled expression, shrugs and says, “How should i know? It’s your dream.”
The Tibetan Buddhist teachings of Chogyam Trungpa state plainly that in order to experience fearlessness, it is necessary to face our fear; in fact, “the essence of cowardice is not acknowledging the reality of fear.” In his Shambhala teachings, he holds that discovering fearlessness comes, paradoxically, from “working with the softness of the human heart”.
We open ourselves vulnerably to what we are afraid of, and learn from the challenges and lessons it brings.
Fear has many names like dread, worry, panic, anxiety, and it manifests itself in varied ways as in avoidance, procrastination, perfectionism, judgement, control, agitation and violence. Fear usually prevents us from living up to our true potential. Whether we are afraid of the dark, of being abandoned, failure, commitment, flying or public speaking, fear can affect nearly every decision we make.
In ‘Embracing Fear’, psychotherapist Thom Rutledge tells us that sometimes fear is part of the problem, sometimes fear is the problem – but when we are really paying attention, fear is usually part of the solution.
We easily forget that fear is an essential part of our nature; an alarm system, there to get our attention, to push us out of harm’s way. So we need to learn to distinguish between unhealthy or neurotic fear that holds us back, and healthy fear that helps us to move on. Unhealthy fear is persistent, exaggerating and even inventing potential dangers; healthy fear stands guard responsibly, informing us immediately of real danger. While unhealthy fear nags us endlessly about everything that could possibly go wrong now, tomorrow, the day, week, month or year after, or years later even, healthy fear inspires us to do what can be done in the present.
It is only through facing, exploring, accepting and responding to fear that we free ourselves from its paralysing grip. If befriending or embracing our fear seems too much, then as a first step, one can simply acknowledge it: Yes, i feel fear. I recognise it, but i do not have to be led by it. We can also work with our fear by recognising it as a sign of the inner work we need to do. What is this fear waking me up to? What am i being asked to develop in myself? What old habits and reactions must i abandon or transform?
What scares or threatens us can easily cause us to become aggressive and selfish, to react in violent ways, to step off the Path. Most spiritual traditions teach us that fear is to be ‘met’ if we are to understand it in any measure and work with it to grow in understanding. On the way to achieving compassion or equanimity or peace or fearlessness, we are called upon to face and get to know that which is disturbing, threatening, disagreeable or fearful; only then can we reach and experience what those end states really are.