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How to Use Fear as an Ally (Not an Enemy)

2 Feb

For many of us, when we feel afraid we immediately associate fearful sensations as messengers to “get the hell out!”, or “run the hell away!”. I am here, dear reader, to encourage you to change your relationship with fear from one of well, fear, to one of deep appreciation and respect. Because you see, fear does not necessarily signal that something bad is happening or is about to happen. In fact, fear can be the catalyst you need to make the decisions and take the chances that will lead you to your most authentic, fulfilling and deeply lived life.

On the last day of my yoga teacher training we all sat in a huge circle and were asked to say one word that summed up what we wished to cultivate as we moved forward in our life’s journey. When it came my turn, I blurted out “fearlessness!”. I was at a point in my life when I was almost paralyzed by fear and anxiety, and I spent almost every waking moment trying to escape from those fearful thoughts and sensations. Overeating, excessive internet-ing, five hours of asana practice a day. It was exhausting! Looking back though, I was terrified because my life and my psyche were undergoing a huge overhaul while I was in the thick of a major life transition. I was looking over the edge of a cliff  into the abyss of the unknown while desperately clinging to my old life and sense of self. What lay ahead was a blank canvas that scared the living shit out of me, but what scared me more was staying in my old life with my old habits, relationships, and ways of being in the world. So as painful and disconcerting as the fear was, I am eternally grateful that it came along and kicked my butt into gear and off the sidelines of a partial existence.

Fear is not a bad thing or something to be abolished. I no longer wish to be fearless; in fact, I wish for quite the opposite. Fear means that I am alive, that I am a human being and just like every other human being I experience a full and deep range of emotions and sensations, none of which are better or worse than the other. When I identify fear bubbling up within me, rather than distract myself or spiral down that all too familiar obsessive thought-sensation staircase, I pause and check in with my fear. I make friends with it, invite it in for tea and see what it is trying to tell me. I greet my fear like it is a confused tourist, lost in my psyche without a roadmap and needing directions to it’s next destination. And if I ignore or fight it off then, like the old adage goes, “What you resist, persists.”

Fear is NOT telling you to run away from that which scares you. Fear is just a conditioned response to a challenge or to change, but it not an indicator that you are going the wrong direction. Every time I have found myself terrified of something and done it anyway, the payoff has been exhilarating. I always ask myself, “why the hell didn’t I do that sooner?!” We have myriad fear-based excuses that we use for never taking the leap into the unknown or the abyss: fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of shame or humiliation, and even fear of success. We fear loss, we fear pain, and we fear the shadowy, not-so-pretty aspects of ourselves. Can we instead see the fear we feel towards these things as indicators to move towards them rather than away? What would life look like? What would you accomplish if you know you could not fail?

I often find myself pondering the meaning of life. I know, I am soooo deep, right? But honestly, I am frequently revisiting the same questions I have had since I was five years old, when I first took pause and self-consciously wondered, “Who am I? Why am I here?” I still have no clue, but the fear and uncertainty that originally fueled those questions has now transfered to awe and wonder. I don’t run in fear from those questions, I use them to explore myself and my life more deeply now, and one of the themes that has surfaced over and over for me is this: We are here to befriend and embrace our fears. We are here to stop making excuses about living our one, precious life based on bullshit fears that if we allow, can ruin our chances of living our lives with truth, dignity and authenticity. Like Rainer Maria Rilke says in one of my favorite quotes of all time:

“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” 

So get out there. Get scared. Freak out. Cry a little, I don’t care…do whatever it is you do when you get terrified. But no matter what  you do, for God’s sake, get out there and live