The Practice of Dissolving Fear

There is no greater illusion than fear, no greater wrong than preparing to defend yourself, no greater misfortune than having an enemy. Whoever can see through all fear will always be safe.

Lao Tzu, Tao te Ching
Snake

If you look closely at the great spiritual and philosophical texts, you find a common prescription for dealing with fear. It’s the idea that fear is an illusion – that it arises from a misapprehension of reality.

You see this in Lao Tzu’s idea that “Whoever can see through all fear will always be safe.” It arises in Christianity: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” You see it in Buddha’s words “The whole secret of existence is to have no fear.” And it’s in Socrates’ reminder that “The fear of death is indeed the pretense of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being a pretense of knowing the unknown.”

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At the level of theory, all of this sounds fantastic.  Why not shift from fear to love? Why not drop all our worries and live like an enlightened saint?  Why not approach each problem and situation with infinite courage?

Here’s the problem.  The actual experience of moving beyond fear isn’t a theoretical act.  It’s not like solving a math equation or cutting a philosophical distinction.   You can’t just say to yourself, “Wow…it turns out that all fear is just an illusion.  From now on, I’m going to let go of all fear and live like Jesus, Buddha, or Socrates.”

That’s like saying, “It turns out that playing the piano is just a matter of hitting the keys in various patterns.  From now on, I’m going to play like Rachmaninoff or Glenn Gould.”

To play Bach like Glenn Gould isn’t an intellectual act.  Even if you spent years studying his art and learning music theory, you still wouldn’t be able to do it.  Playing like Glenn Gould requires practice.  It requires a relentless dedication to practicing the nuances of pitch, technique, and touch on the piano.

Dissolving fear is no different.   Sure, a handful of beings report experiences of instant enlightenment – a moment where all fear drops away.  But for the rest of us, dissolving fear is like learning to play the piano.  It requires practice and a moment-to-moment dedication to unwinding patterns of tension and resistance in the mind and body.

So for this week’s experiment, let’s explore the practice of dissolving fear.

How do you practice dissolving fear?  I like to think of fear as the spiritual equivalent of a tight hamstring.  It’s an internal contraction that can only be opened by moving into it and stretching yourself beyond your comfort zone.

So the best way to begin dissolving fear is to develop what I like to call a “yoga of fear.”  Here’s the practice:

Step 1 Identify a Fear – We each have an idiosyncratic collection of fears.  You might fear snakes, airplanes, public speaking, humiliation, or failure.  Choose the fear that you would most like to dissolve.

Step 2 Find Your Edge – If you want to lengthen your hamstring, you have to stretch into it.  You have to move deep into the tension of the muscle without going so deep that it begins to tear.  In yoga, we call this finding your edge – that point between no stretch and too much stretch. Fear is no different.  To expand beyond fear, you first need to move into it.  See if you can find your edge.  See if you can find that place at the very outskirts of your comfort zone – that place just short of complete overwhelm.

Step 3 Stay Present – When you hit your edge in a hamstring stretch, you need to breathe into it and stay present with the experience.  Likewise, when you go into your edge of fear, stay with the breath.  Our tendency is to turn away from fear.  When we feel fear, we stop breathing, we tense our muscles, and turn our awareness away from the experience.   To stay present with fear is to do the opposite.  Breathe fully into the experience from the depths of your belly and turn toward, rather than away from, the experience.

This yoga of fear is a practice.  Like playing the piano, it takes a lifetime to master fully.  But the more I practice this yoga of fear, the more I notice myself opening to new and more courageous acts.

I want to know what you think.  What is your experience of this yoga of fear?

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Update: Snakes and the Edge of Fear
posted August 18, 2011 by Nate

Nate visits a local pet store to move deeper into the edge of his fear of snakes.    It turns out that there’s no better way to work on letting go of fear than having a six-foot snake wrapped around your neck.  A special thanks to For Pet’s Sake in Thousand Oaks for providing the snake.

Responses

  1. Lea says:

    Here’s what I’ve learned, deal with any negativity as you would with quicksand. It seems counterintuitive, but if you fight quicksand you sink, if you relax and float on top, you get free..and maybe can even swim your way out or someone can reach you with a rope. Fear, or anger, etc. for me can be approached the same way. When I deliberately relax into them, I find I get free with little effort. Just my two cents…like this post btw.

    • Nate says:

      Lea,

      Thanks so much for the quicksand metaphor. It’s a perfect description of the dynamics of fear. The more you resist — the more the experience intensifies. The more you relax into it — the more it starts to dissolve. Great stuff!

  2. Ronnie says:

    Nate, I hate snakes too! Love Lea’s concept of relaxing into your fears. So, meaningful to me today.
    Ronnie

  3. Mark says:

    Like the posts. Also there is this idea/ visual of being with the fear by “leaning into it” as Pema Chodran speaks of regularly.

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