Yesterday I read an article during and after which I felt scared.
I imagine I’m not the only one who has had that experience recently, so I thought it might be helpful to share how I worked with the fear.
The first thing I did was notice. "I am scared." To me, that simple recognition that my body has gone into a heightened emotional state is a key to knowing when it’s time for inner work. The alternative seems to be running around the world trying haphazardly to avoid or change people and things so I don’t have to face what I’m feeling.
Next I moved myself from computer to couch, closed my eyes, and let the sensations of fear arise. I noticed my heart beating, my jaw was tight, my whole upper body was quietly vibrating. I could not help but notice my mind painting pictures of scary future scenarios and then jabbering away at plans to try to fix, control, or avoid those hypothetical outcomes.
As my mind whirred, I kept bringing my attention back down to the tremble in my animal body. All the way to my tail bone, to my toes. I kept slowing down my breath - not to calm myself - but actually to feel the sensations of fear even more fully.
It’s rare my terrified-button gets pressed so squarely, and if I’ve learned one thing in my journey of cultivating emotional maturity, it’s that emotions can blossom into some of life’s richest experiences, but when suppressed, life can become contracted, difficult, and small.
Then I did something I don’t recommend...apparently one of the thoughts took hold and before I knew it, I was back on my laptop researching solutions. Well, for better or worse, my fear button got pressed all over again. My breath stopped repeatedly in my chest, my vision was narrowing and fixating on the words I was using to scare myself. Finally, due more to overwhelm than mindfulness, I closed the laptop again, and went back to the couch, repeating the process above. Deep breath, allow the sensations of fear.
Then I added in a practice I’ve learned recently from Loch Kelly on the Waking Up app. Internally, I started repeating the words: "I am scared" and then let myself feel how true that felt. I did my best to stay out of the stories and just let myself feel the truest thing I was aware of: "I am scared."
Then, as Loch advised, I shifted my language a bit and with it, my perspective. I began repeating the words "I feel scared." (for the consciousness geeks: I added in a touch of a Byron Katie practice by adding in the question: "How is just as true or truer that ‘I feel scared’, rather than ‘I am scared’") As I repeated this investigation, how is it true that I feel scared? I started to gain a little distance from the fear itself, remembering that emotions occur in time in response to a stimulus. Though they sometimes lead to healing, growth, or clarity, they are not facts and they are not forever. "I feel scared." I said again.
When this felt true enough, I shifted my perspective again. "I am aware of feeling scared." I repeated this a number of times, looking for the truth of it, until I was no longer identified with the fear itself, nor the feeler of fear, but the awareness of fear being felt. This is the awareness that I call "Me" the awareness that has been present for my entire life. The one who has witnessed every wave of fear, sadness, anger, shame, pride, excitement, envy, etc., and survived them all. "I am aware of feeling scared." I repeated. As I did this, I kept deep steady breathing, continually inviting the mind away from fear-fantasies back to the body and the space around it.
And finally,* when i felt slightly more identified with the awareness than the feeler of fear, I started saying "fear is welcome." Imagine holding a tiny terrified chihuahua in your arms. It felt a little bit like that. I let the body, mind, and personality be scared while I, awareness, held it all in a gentle loving understanding.
Why is fear welcome? Well, for two reasons I’ve found. The first is that even though reading the article triggered my fear response, I know that that fear is in me already. It lives based on old data, repressed experiences, inherited stories, or childhood trauma (I had a very safe childhood, but babies and children can experience all sorts of things as trauma). I have no idea why I’m feeling scared, so who am I to say it’s not warranted? If I am feeling scared, then I deserve to be held, listened to and understood, not shamed, judged, or threatened into compulsive action, as I have historically treated myself when scared.
The second reason fear is welcome is because I’m feeling it anyway. Sometimes we think if we avoid our feelings they go away, but that has not been my experience. Avoiding feelings is like putting a paper bag over my head and then thinking no one can see me. Emotions are still right there controlling me, I just pretend otherwise. So when fear is happening, or any other emotion for that matter, I have learned (and am learning) to make space to feel them because that ends up being less work, less drama, and way more effective at yielding the relief I seek.
After welcoming the fear a few times, I had found enough balance to move into my day and my activities, though I did so with a heightened sense of self care. The scary future stories came back at times and the emotion resurfaced like aftershocks of an earthquake. Each time they did, I deepened my breath, welcomed the sensation, and reminded myself, fear is welcome."
Today, I feel less scared. I recognize the world is not a different one than it was before I read that article. However, my perceptions of the world have shifted slightly. Through feeling my fear and letting all the associated stories settle, I became aware of a hidden need I didn’t know I had. Today I began the process of meeting that need, but the action came from clarity, peace, and exploration, rather than unidentified panic.
Thank you all for reading, I hope you’ve found something helpful here. Thank you to Loch for introducing this gentle effective approach to stewarding emotional waves.
Note: Loch goes one step further in his meditation, which is to say "fear and awareness are not separate" I can’t remember if I did that or not, but for completeness, wanted to mention it.
This article was written by Leah Pearlman and originally published here. Leah is the illustrator for "The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership."