Trying to Find Peace with Fear

A former wise colleague of mine often said, "I have my lessons planned, and then there's my day." I thought of her as I prepared today's post. I had planned to share a poem I recently wrote, but I'm sorry to say that poem suffered a massive hemorrhage this afternoon. My editing brain became a bit over zealous, which in turn caused significant harm to my poem. I am awaiting a surge of creativity to help me nurse the poem back to its healthy form, but that may take some time. The unfortunate turn of events, though, has created an opportunity for me to share what I've been sitting with the past couple days - fear.

There's the healthy fear that we very much need to help us remain alert and alive, but then there's the unhealthy fear that can lock us into a state of debilitating anxiety. For the past 48 hours I've been observing the merciless crusade of "what ifs" and "should haves," which are truly wreaking havoc on both my body and mind. Headlines aside, my fear reached a feverish point when I injured myself the other day. I immediately leaped into a heavy dose of self-blame and cursed myself for having pushed myself too hard. I replayed the situation over and over again as if replaying what happened could change the way I feel now. If anything that excruciating exercise made me feel even worse. This is a perfect story to introduce the Buddha's concept of second arrows. In the story, the Buddha describes how we are often unable to control what happens to us, which would be the first arrow. You get a call that someone is sick, you are belittled by a colleague at the office, you turn your ankle on the sidewalk, etc. We cannot control what just happened, but we can control our response to that first arrow. Now, if our response is to beat ourselves up or fling blame around, then we are shooting a second arrow at ourselves. So, instead of feeling the pain of just the initial arrow, we now feel the pain of two arrows. Thus, we have successfully multiplied our suffering. Unfortunately, I am quite adept at shooting second arrows at myself, and I exhibited my skills beautifully this week.

I will talk in my upcoming post about the brain and why it can be hard to think clearly when we are flooded by a challenging emotions, but it took quite a few rounds of journaling and even more rounds of RAIN to help me sit with fear. I thought of Jill Bolte Taylor's words, “Just like children, emotions heal when they are heard and validated.” I knew I had to tend to this fear like I would a crying child and the worse thing I could do was yell at it, which I was currently doing. Jill Bolte Taylor wrote My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey, and in that book she explains that the natural lifespan of an emotion is a mere 90 seconds! The reason an emotion often lasts longer than 90 seconds is because we keep it alive with excessive thinking. She writes:

“My favorite definition of fear is “False Expectations Appearing Real,” and when I allow myself to remember that all of my thoughts are merely fleeting physiology, I feel less moved when my story-teller goes haywire and my circuitry is triggered. At the same time, when I remember that I am at one with the universe, then the concept of fear loses its power. To help protect myself from having a trigger-happy anger or fear response, I take responsibility for what circuitry I purposely exercise and stimulate. In an attempt to diminish the power of my fear/anger response, I intentionally choose not to watch scary movies or hang out with people whose anger circuitry is easily set off. I consciously make choices that directly impact my circuitry. Since I like being joyful, I hang out with people who value my joy.”

When I came across that highlighted piece of text, I immediately recalled one of Sharon Salzberg's talks. In the podcast, she quoted the Buddha who said:

"The mind is by nature radiant. It’s shining. It is because of visiting forces that we suffer.”

We suffer because we fuel our "visiting forces" with excessive thinking. Often, there's a belief underneath that fear and in my case the belief was I screwed up and it's not going to get any better. I'm stuck and it's all my fault. This is where the RAIN practice can be incredibly helpful.

So, I apologize for not having my poem ready to share but perhaps it's better to have shared something that I am working with in real time as opposed to something crafted from the past. Have a wonderful weekend!