This is an exploration of the spiritual underpinnings of Pascal’s writings on fear, which Jim introduced in this post: Three Kinds Of Fear And How To Be With Each Of Them. If you haven't read it yet, definitely start there.
As we have said, Pascal was a theologian who found theology to be both essential and foundational to the other disciplines. Some of you find spirituality to be foundational, essential and interwoven into all aspects of your life as well. Some of you don’t. In any case, I’d like to illustrate the three kinds of fear with a story from the gospels of the New Testament.
The story as told in the gospel of Mark goes like this:
“That day when evening came, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
In this story we see all three kinds of fear.
Valid fear is the natural, normal response to the perception of threat. It invites us to pay attention, to wake up, to be sober minded. This fear shows up in the first part of the story. It shows up in the face of a “furious squall.”
Now, by way of context, this is a story about a handful of ordinary people, called disciples (which means learner) who are on the journey of waking up, becoming conscious, being fully alive. They have chosen (and been chosen by) Jesus to be their mentor, teacher and guide.
They’re like many of us who have chosen to be learners and who have chosen various guides, mentors and teachers to support us on our journey.
One thing to know about these disciples is that four of the twelve were professional fisherman. They spent their lives on the water. This is important because what we can assume is that they were used to being in boats and encountering rough weather and turbulent seas. So, when they react with fear and have the thought “we’re going to drown,” it lets us know these were unique circumstances. This was out of the ordinary.
We all find ourselves in uncharted waters, unique circumstances. In the last several years, we have been in a wicked storm. A once in a lifetime (maybe and maybe not) pandemic, economic meltdown, social reckoning and political maelstrom. And the result is that at times many of us feel like we’re drowning as well.
And, just as there has been a furious squall in the collective (all of us are in this boat together whether we are willing to see that or not) there are individual and particular storms that blow through all of our lives; things that are out of the ordinary, beyond our understanding, knowing and expertise. Storms, violent storms, are part of the human condition.
When these unexpected storms come we get scared. And we should. It’s valid fear. Natural. Normal.
Valid fear is an invitation to pay attention, be awake, aware, face what is here. It is the body’s alarm system. I’m quite sure that the disciples were paying attention.
They were on hyper alert. They were paying attention to the current conditions and doing what they knew to do to survive.
That’s what we do when valid fear shows up. We pay attention and do what we know to do to survive.
But they were missing something. They were paying attention to the immediate circumstances, the content, and not to the context. What I mean is that they could feel the wind, see the waves, hear the water crashing over the bow, but they were not paying attention to something else, something deeper. The weather was inviting them to pay attention not just to the circumstances but to a deeper reality.
What they weren’t paying attention to was their teacher, both what he had said and what he was doing. They had lost sight of first principles.
If we return to the story, we learn that Jesus begins the adventure with the words, “Let’s go over to the other side.” What we see in this story is that Jesus, as the mentor of their faith, is more asserting a reality, “we are going to the other side” than he is making a suggestion. The mentor is seeing an outcome, the end result, where they were headed.
But it’s not only what the teacher said, it’s what he’s doing. He’s asleep in the back of the boat on a cushion. Come on. The storm is raging and their leader is so at ease, so peaceful, so present that he is napping. He’s at rest. This, my beloved friends, is conscious leadership. In the midst of the (shit) storm the leader is at rest, not triggered, not reactive, not in the grip of fear.
But how? How does he do this? He does this because he has basic trust. Deep abiding trust. We could say so much about how a leader cultivates this kind of trust, but for now what we can know is that Jesus is trusting this: the boat won’t sink and the storm won’t last forever. We’re going to get to the other side. He is trusting that there is another side, a destination that is certain and they will arrive. He is also trusting that the circumstances are there to teach, to train and to invite the disciples to learn, to grow, to see. He is so confident in this, not as a belief or some religious postulate that exists only in his head, but rather as a felt experience in his body that he is totally at rest.
If you have ever been in the presence of someone who has done their deep work and come to experience the reality that the boat won’t sink and the storm won’t last forever, that everything is here for our learning, growth and awakening, you have been in the presence of this deep, abiding basic trust. You have been in the presence of conscious leadership mastered.
The disciples, and many of us, are young learners. We’re new to the path. As a result they were in the grip of vicious fear just as we often are.
Their valid fear mutates into vicious fear. Vicious fear is captured in their reaction:
The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
We can learn several things about vicious fear from the disciples’ response.
First, vicious fear is fed by going into the future. At the time that the disciples are speaking, in the present moment, no one is drowning.
Vicious fear requires us to go into the imagined future (the future is always imagined) and to project memoried experiences and beliefs (the past is always just a memory) on to future imagination.
To be clear this is not a bad thing to do. It’s often wise to look for models from the past that can allow us to prepare for the future. This is actually part of good leadership. But we can do this preparation and planning from below the line or above the line. When we’re in the grip of vicious fear we are doing it from below the line; we are not in the present moment and available to new, previously unknown possibilities.
Second, the disciples assume that Jesus is not trustworthy, specifically that he doesn’t care. Again, vicious fear is always rooted in a lack of trust; a lack of confidence in the reliability of reality.
People in the grip of vicious fear lose touch with the deepest reality - the ship won’t sink and the storm won’t last forever, and that what is happening is for them and their learning and not against them.
Instead, they make up stories about the circumstances, others and themselves. The disciples make up the story that Jesus doesn’t care, despite overwhelming evidence based on the history of their relationship with him. They feel, what many of us feel when we are below the line in fear, that they aren’t really cared about; that they’re abandoned; on their own; alone. And they blame. One of the sure signs that vicious fear is present is that we’re blaming.
So Jesus wakes up and does what all great leaders do; he stills the wind and calms the waves. What the heck does that mean for modern day leaders? Are leaders supposed to be miracle workers? It is often true that a leader’s daily experience is that their followers want them to do miracles, take total responsibility for everyone’s wellbeing and give them an unshakable sense of security. But that is not the leader’s job.
And, it’s not what Jesus does. Leaving aside for now a discussion of miracles, what Jesus does, as a model of conscious leadership, is that, from a place of presence and calm equanimity, he brings his full creative capability to the need and opportunity of the moment. Another definition of conscious leadership is the ability to bring one’s full creative energy to the needs and opportunities of this now moment; to dance improvisationally with what life is offering.
From presence a leader assesses the situation and asks the question, “What needs to be done (if anything) and what is mine to do (if anything)?”
Jesus also models that a leader speaks succinctly with calm authority, “Quiet, be still.” One of my mentors, Gay Hendricks, has said that everything important can be said in one “out breath.” (Take a breath in and talk until that breath is exhaled; that’s one out breath). Many leaders use far too many words because they are not fully present and they are using words to do other things than communicate what is most necessary in the moment.
Next, a conscious leader seizes teachable moments by giving direct feedback.
“Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
Jesus points his disciples to two realities. First, they are in the grip of vicious fear and second, it is the result of losing basic trust. So simple. So direct. In the words of CLG he is saying, “It’s not about the content (the wind and the waves) it’s about context (you’re below the line and in the drama triangle). You’re in vicious fear because you outsourced safety and security to the wind, the waves and to the boat, to your history and experience. And you outsourced approval/care/love to how you imagined (story) you were being treated (not cared about). In other words, you lost presence.
They forgot, “the boat won’t sink and the storm won’t last forever.” Jesus brought them into the storm so that they could practice. Practice being with valid fear and seeing what they did with it. In this case they let it turn into vicious fear.
This is what happens to us as we’re growing in consciousness. Life invites us into the deep water, the turbulent seas, into the unknown, the unfamiliar, the great discomfort so we can practice.
And, like these first century learners, we lose sight and confidence in the reality that nothing that really matters is ever at threat, eg the boat won’t sink and the storm won’t last forever.”
I suggested above that the characteristics of Virtuous Fear include curiosity, wonder and awe. I want to further suggest that these three words describe levels of trust and surrender. Curiosity is primarily a mental openness to the possibility that the opposite of our story could be as true or truer than our original story. Wonder is a whole body openness to possibility. It has a sound, a vibration, a set of bodily sensations and a quality of playfulness. Awe is a spiritual (which of course includes the mind and body) sense of being undone, blown wide open, falling to our knees (actually and metaphorically). With awe we experience in every cell of our being who we really are and what love, life, spirit, god really is and we are undone in the most beautiful and terrifying sense of the word. Our identity and ego structure momentarily come apart and we meet Presence free from all filters.
This is what the disciples are pointing at in the last line of the story:
They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
Terrified! Now the transformation is complete, they have gone from valid fear through vicious fear to virtuous fear. Terrified = Virtuous Fear. Terrified = undone. In other words what they’re saying is, “We thought the wind and the waves, the possibility of dying and the experience of being fundamentally uncared for were something. But, whoa nelly, those things are nothing compared to meeting Presence in all of its unimpeded fullness.
Most of us have had an experience like this.
It could have been when we were at the birth of our child and for that moment the “stuff” of life (the wind and the waves) receded, stilled completely and we were undone by LIFE.
It might have been when we saw a sunset and even though we had seen many sunsets we SAW this one and all the things of life were suddenly in perspective with proportionality including who we are and what IT is. It was an instant, but for that instant we were in awe.
It might have been on a medicine journey when the ego, the little “I” dropped away and we met love unencumbered by our small self and we were truly undone.
It might have been when we had a spiritual experience, the kind that James Joyce talked about and described. Joyce was interested in epiphanies, manifestations of the divine. One of their characteristics is awe, being undone. Another is letting go and relaxing into the love that is always holding us.
So, virtuous fear begins with curiosity, moves to wonder and at times explodes in awe. Conscious leaders learn to welcome valid fear in the body and release it, accept vicious fear and surrender into virtuous fear. And they do this over and over again. Until they can rest more and more in the felt reality that the ship won’t sink and the storm won’t last forever.