Everyone feels fear. From the fear of public speaking to anxiety over meeting new people and even the fear of heights, our fears are everywhere and can keep us from living a full life. Fear is uncomfortable, like “lying on an icy couch”, and our natural instinct is to move away from it.
Yet, there are some people who seem to be able to easily conquer their fears and do things we could never imagine. How do they do it?
They don’t. Instead of resisting, fighting, and conquering their fears, they accept them as a natural and even useful emotion.
The nature of fear and how to accept it is the subject of the seventh chapter of Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach (reading as part of my amplify goals this month). In this chapter, the author offers a description of what fear is, how fear constricts us, and the freedom available to those who can learn to accept their fear.
The root of fear
Fear is a natural instinct that serves a valuable survival function. Physical sensations of fear can come and go very quickly, but, when those feeling are combined with past memories, the emotion of fear can last as long as we perpetuate those thoughts.
The affect of fear that arises in response to our immediate experience combines with memories of associated past events and the affects they trigger. That’s why some of us are terrified of things that hold no sense of danger for others. While the affect of fear itself lasts but a few seconds, the emotion of fear persists for as long as the affect continues to be stimulated by fearful thoughts and memories.
Regardless of the external circumstances, my mind grows tight. When I pause and ask what is really bothering me, I realize that in each situation I am anticipating loss—loss of something I think is essential to my life and happiness.
Fear is the anticipation of future pain.
Fear of loss underlies all our fears like the fear of losing our safety, both physical and emotional. The ultimate loss for all of us being the loss of our lives.
This fear of separation from the life I love—the fear of death—lies beneath all other fears.
The trance of fear
Fear is the mind killerFrank Herbert, Dune
Getting caught up in the trance of fear happens when the emotion becomes an inseparable part of your identity. We’ve all felt the tunnel vision that fear can put us in.
Rather than a temporary reaction to danger, we develop a permanent suit of armor. We become, as Chogyam Trungpa puts it, “a bundle of tense muscles defending our existence.” We often don’t even recognize this armor because it feels like such a familiar part of who we are. But we can see it in others.
The trance of fear is sustained by our strategies to avoid feeling fear. We might learn to lie if it will shield us from someone’s anger, to lash out if it gives us a temporary surge of power and safety, to try harder to be good if it will protect us from rejection.
Feelings and stories of unworthiness and shame are perhaps the most binding element in the trance of fear. When we believe something is wrong with us, we are convinced we are in danger. Our shame fuels ongoing fear, and our fear fuels more shame.
Of course, you can be crippled by fear in one area of your life and not another. Because everything is connected, it can feel like there is no escape. This is where finding refuge, first with others and then within yourself, comes in.
Being comfortable with uncomfortableness
Rather than resist fear by drinking another beer to dull it, having an angry outburst to feel more in control of it, or withdrawing to avoid it, Radical Acceptance teaches us to examine fear more closely.
In a popular teaching story, a man being chased by a tiger leaps off a cliff in his attempt to get away. Fortunately, a tree growing on the side of the cliff breaks his fall. Dangling from it by one arm—tiger pacing above, jutting rocks hundreds of feet below—he yells out in desperation, “Help! Somebody help me!!” A voice responds, “Yes?” The man screams, “God, God, is that you?” Again, “Yes.” Terrified, the man says, “God, I’ll do anything, just please, please, help me.” God responds, “Okay then, just let go.” The man pauses for a moment, then calls out, “Is anyone else there?”
Letting go into fear, accepting it, may seem counterintuitive. Yet because fear is an intrinsic part of being alive, resisting it means resisting life.
letting go into fear may feel, as Charlotte Joko Beck puts it, like “lying down on an icy couch,” It can be extraordinarily difficult to let ourselves relax in that situation. We want to hold back because it feels as if we might die of the pain. Nevertheless, if we can let the hard edges of fear press into us, the sharpness stab us, the violence pull us apart, something amazing happens.
Our most contracted and painful sense of self is hitched to the feelings and stories of fear, to our ways of resisting fear. Yet this trance begins to lose its power over us as we meet the raw sensations of fear with Radical Acceptance. Such acceptance is profoundly freeing. As we learn to say yes to fear, we reconnect with the fullness of being—the heart and awareness that have been overshadowed by the contraction of fear.
Although the practice of letting go and going “into” fear may seem counterintuitive, there are many compelling examples provided in the chapter of people who have worked through deep-rooted fears via the methods of Radical Acceptance.
Using fear as a gateway
A mindfulness exercise included in this chapter is to use questions about your fears to “drop down” below the stories in your head and access the physical sensations at the root of your experience.
Now resting in this natural openness, bring to mind a situation that evokes fear. Ask yourself: “What is the worst part of this situation? What am I really afraid of?” While your inquiry may arouse a story, if you stay alert to the sensations that arise in your body, the story becomes a gateway to accessing your feelings more fully.
📖 This chapter builds on the previous, starting with the trance of unworthiness (Chapter 1), how Radical Acceptance can break that trance (Chapter 2), how pausing is the foundation of Radical Acceptance (Chapter 3), how to treat our experience with unconditional friendliness (Chapter 4), the importance of paying attention to physical sensations in the body (Chapter 5), and how desires can fool us by being substitutes for our unmet needs (Chapter 6).