Monday, March 18, 2013

Day 18: Fears

I do not like being afraid. Actually, I don't like being scared, either. What's the difference? Well, when I've been scared, some outside force has acted on me and has triggered my fight-or-flight response (it's usually "fight") and caused my adrenaline level to go sky high. I do not like how this makes me feel physically or emotionally and so I avoid situations where it might happen. When I was younger, most people knew not to lie in wait around dark corners for me. In one instance, someone learned not to do that at the expense of a black eye. I felt sorry about that. It took practice (see below), but I'm actually much better able to control that instinct now.

Being afraid is something completely different from being scared. Being afraid (anxious is a better word) is deeper, more personal. It is still the result of some outside stimulus, but in a much more subtle way. If being scared involves something I can sense, being afraid involves something I can't sense clearly.

Buddhist scholars say that fear (either version above, but especially being anxious) is essentially a consequence of our ignorance of the nature of reality, our holding on to something illusory. That sounds strange at first, but consider the kinds of things that cause that kind of fear--death, failure, the crumbling of our reality, being alone, ending up being nothing or nobody, just to name a very few. Although they may represent very real concepts, simply thinking about them does not mean they're real in that moment. Really, they're just distractions. I want things to be a certain kind of way, and all these possibilities I can't control are getting in the way of that.

When I allow fear to distract me, it can make things very uncomfortable. Have you ever experienced that underlying sense of not being settled, of not being secure? It's an almost existential feeling of uncertainty and instability, and it makes me, at least, more than a little anxious. I still find it ironic, but I've learned that I can't remove the distractions by creating distractions. Doing that does not actually relieve the feeling. In fact, it does the opposite and I've learned why.

See, when I do things to try to make myself unafraid, what I'm really doing is establishing my own sense of identity. I'm separating myself from what makes me afraid and, in doing that, I actually make it harder for me to examine it. Yet, if I'm going to move beyond it, I have to examine it—and me.

I learned some time ago that there is a process by which I could examine things that made me afraid. It involves a 3-step process:

Step 1: Develop a habit of self-observation. Examine my fear and dissect it into its components. Where does it start? What is the sensation when I feel afraid? What kind of thoughts race through my mind when I'm afraid or anxious? Is there a particular pattern to my actions? The point is to try to understand the experience, try to break it down into pieces.

Step 2: Practice recognizing triggers. When I can connect what it is that makes me feel a certain way, I can begin to deal with it. For example, when something keeps coming up in my world, it's a sign (and sometimes a not-so-subtle one) that I need to deal with it. I need to process it thoroughly and directly, to feel it and experience it, so I can let it go and go back to normal life.

Step 3: Practice seeing things before they come to pass. It's a lot harder to overcome being afraid when a situation is full-blown and I'm caught up in it. In my imagination, though, I can slow things down, and this allows me to practice reacting at my own pace. I can interrupt the match before it gets tossed into the proverbial pile of leaves. I can say, “I don't need to go there. I can see what’s coming.”

When I'm good at practicing this process, I can come to the point where I and my fear are not two independent things. It becomes "I and my fear" together. That way of looking at it gives me a feeling of empowerment, of real choice. It gives me a lot of room to move around in.

I practiced this a lot around the matter of being surprised and it helped a lot to quash the tendency to lash out reflexively. I'm actually rarely surprised any longer. It's taken longer to get to the place where roaches don't skeeve me out--and I'm not yet comfortable letting one rest on me. If I lived in a place where they were common, I'd spend more time on that one.

What's fear like for you?

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