Pema Chödrön in When Things Fall Apart narrates an interesting incident about her master Trungpa Rinpoche — a bold and controversial but transparent and truthful teacher. A young boy once asked him if he was ever afraid. Rinpoche answered that part of his monastic training involved going to places like cremation grounds that scared him and to contemplate on things he didn’t like. The narrative continues:
Then he told a story about traveling with his attendants to a monastery he’d never seen before. As they neared the gates, he saw a large guard dog with huge teeth and red eyes. It was growling ferociously and struggling to get free from the chain that held it. The dog seemed desperate to attack them. As Rinpoche got closer, he could see its bluish tongue and spittle spraying from its mouth. They walked past the dog, keeping their distance, and entered the gate. Suddenly the chain broke and the dog rushed at them. The attendants screamed and froze in terror. Rinpoche turned and ran as fast as he could—straight at the dog. The dog was so surprised that he put his tail between his legs and ran away.
When I read this, I was reminded of something similar I had done with a pack of stray dogs in the Himalayan woods. They had been let go by their masters because they were no longer tamed nor protected their sheep. Woods though was not the place for dogs to source food, so they were constantly hungry and as a result, irritated. On my way, many villagers warned me about those dogs and almost always they moved in packs like seasoned predators. My personal experience with those dogs was quite different though. When I saw them barking, I walked towards them. Resolutely sending out vibes of love and compassion, I’d made up my mind that no matter what I would not hurt or scare away those dogs. In that sense, this was a slightly different approach to Trungpa Rinpoche’s. But, it worked. The dogs immediately became quiet as I went very close to them. I had no food on me otherwise I would have fed them too. Nevertheless, it was a liberating experience that I extended to a whole multitude of wild animals later on with similar results.
The same can be done about any fear. Often, it is said that face your fear but what does facing your fear really mean? And whatever it may mean, how to go about it? To begin with, personify your fear. Whatever is your fear, personify it and go for intense visualization. Imagine your fear is actually a person and you are facing it. Talk to your fear, send it vibes of love and compassion, befriend it. The same energy that was fueling your fear will become your strength instead. Try it.
By fear, I don’t mean our primal fear of death and so on. Instead, I’m referring to conditioned fears we create or harbor due to our upbringing and other social norms.
Viktor Frankl in propounding Logotherapy once wrote about a certain man who used to sweat a lot in public. Every time, he had to speak on the stage or address a group, he would start sweating profusely, a condition he found rather embarrassing. The anxiety that surrounded in anticipation of his perspiration would make him sweat even more.
“Announce your anxiety,” Viktor advised him. “If you don’t know the audience well enough, just announce it to yourself.”
A week later the man returned to report that whenever he met anyone who triggered his anticipatory anxiety, he said to himself, “I only sweated out a quart before, but now I’m going to pour at least ten quarts!”
The result was that after suffering for four years, with this single self-prompt, he was cured of it permanently within that one week.
Dr. Frankl called it hyper-intention: an excessive intention to be, act or feel a certain way. Whether that be two partners feeling anxious in intimacy, a student appearing for an exam or a speaker addressing an audience, hyper-intention severely limits your ability to perform to your potential. Personifying your fear and sending it waves of love and compassion is a good way to handle your fears and phobias. Breathe deeply. Secondly, exposing your phobia, fear or cause of anxiety helps you calm down. Announce your anxiety or its cause right at the outset rather than trying to cover it. Any attempt of hiding it will either make it more obvious or you won’t be able to focus 100% on the task at hand because you are so conscious about your anxiety, it’ll only make you more nervous. Your own mind (and many others) will respect you for your courage, for being upfront and honest. By telling beforehand, you have informed others what to expect from you. This approach often works because it goes straight to the source of your fear.
And, what is the source of our fears, you ask?
In my view, our expectations are the primary source of our fears, phobias and anxieties (saving mental disorders). The ones we have from ourselves and others. Each one of us experiences the burden of expectations in our daily lives. If you are any different from what’s considered “normal”, there’s this constant pressure that you have to either become like the rest or prove the value of your exception. Millions of children experience the pressure of being good, for example. It’s when parents keep using motivational terms to tell their children how proud they are of them, and children in return feel pressured to live up to those words. It’s not easy. It makes them feel even more anxious.
One of the two things happen in the face of such anxiety and fears. Either we start resisting what creates fear in us (be that a person, an expectation, a situation or anything else) or we give up completely (that I don’t care anymore). Both approaches are pernicious to our spiritual and emotional progress. Ideally, what’s required is to dispel our ignorance that sits at the root of our expectations, at the base of our fears. At some point in time, we have to learn to absorb our resistance, to turn our carelessness into mindfulness.
Going back to where I began, here’s a beautiful passage by Pema Chödrön again:
The way to dissolve our resistance to life is to meet it face to face. When we feel resentment because the room is too hot, we could meet the heat and feel its fieriness and its heaviness. When we feel resentment because the room is too cold, we could meet the cold and feel its iciness and its bite. When we want to complain about the rain, we could feel its wetness instead. When we worry because the wind is shaking our windows, we could meet the wind and hear its sound. Cutting our expectations for a cure is a gift we can give ourselves. There is no cure for hot and cold. They will go on forever. After we have died, the ebb and flow will still continue. Like the tides of the sea, like day and night — this is the nature of things. Being able to appreciate, being able to look closely, being able to open our minds — this is the core.
A degree of courage, certain resolve, a sort of commitment is needed to face our fears. Until we face them, we won’t understand them. And unless we understand our fears, how can we possibly ever rise above them? At any rate, developing an attitude of loving-kindness, abiding in mindfulness are absolutely critical to dissipate our ignorance and eliminate our fears. This prepares us in facing our weaknesses.
Mulla Nasrudin curled in his seat and tossed and jumped every time a lion roared in the movie he was watching with his friend in a movie theater. He would cover his face and scream and clasp his friend.
“What’s wrong with you?” his friend chided him. “It’s only a movie.”
“I’m not a fool!” Mulla replied. “I know it’s just a movie, but does the lion know that?”
So it is with our fears. We watch our fears and we get uncomfortable. We resist, avoid, run away. Our fears, like the lion, are just going about their business. It needn’t be this way. The moment we commit to preparing ourselves better by being more forgiving, loving and mindful, we become stronger than our fears. When you examine the kind of expectations you have (from yourself and others) arising out of a sense of entitlement or ignorance, you go to the source of your fears automatically. Once you get to the bottom, it becomes easier to uproot your fears. Besides, fear is not always bad. Sometimes, it helps us to plan and prepare, to exercise restraint, to consider the consequences before we put a plan of action in motion.
Vedic texts say that to transcend our fears we need four things.
1. Dakshata, a degree of competence for it means preparedness.
2. Udasinata, dispassion, a synonym of vairagya or detachment.
3. Samarpana, surrender, the understanding that I can’t control everything that goes around me.
4. Kripa, grace — that unshakeable faith that the divinity that is running through this infinite creation is coursing through my life too.
Primal fears will still come and haunt you every now and then, but baseless ones will go away if you work towards developing the virtues above. The light of wisdom within will annihilate the darkness of your fears. And remember, light is our natural dharma. You can walk into a dark room with a small lamp hiding in your palms. The moment you open your palms, the entire room will be lit. You can’t do the same with darkness. You can’t hide darkness or make a well-lit room dark following the same principle. We are beings of light, all we’ve got to do is not hide ourselves.
Light up your consciousness so that no room for darkness is left in your heart. Become bigger than your fears to go beyond them. Any day, it’s worth it.