Hello, Fear, my Friend.
When last we left each other, I said my yoga is about the heart. In the culture I grew up in, the heart was the place of emotions. I still say my heart hurts when I feel anything in an overwhelming way. In the tradition of yoga, things are slightly different. The second chakra (think hips) is where the emotions are. For the yogi, the heart is the center of compassion, love, forgiveness, and joy.
It's demon is fear.
I used to think that I wanted to have zero fear. I wanted to never know the experience again of being afraid. I don't think I am alone in that. In those formidable years when I tried to prove to fear that I was beyond it, I did some pretty incredible things. I traveled through Europe by myself. I found a random place to sublet in Prague for three months. I ran a half marathon on a sprained ankle (I highly suggest not doing that one). I pushed the boundaries of what I thought was possible. I moved to New York with only a job and no place to live. I filled so much of my time with experiences and obligations and projects that I had no time to register fear. I thought that made me fearless. I was actually just very good at avoiding it. Knowing what I know now, I find it funny that the thing I was attempting to prove I was better than was the very way I existed in the world. The amount of stress I put on myself to do and be was keeping me in my biological fear response. All of the running away is classic fight/flight/freeze.
I was trying to outrun a fear of being not enough. I was trying to outrun a fear of failure. I was trying to outrun a fear of stagnation. I was trying to outrun a fear of not being needed or wanted. I was trying to outrun a fear of intimacy and vulnerability.
I thought having fear made me weak.
Why though? Fear is the thing that makes sure when I run in the middle of the street, I look both ways so as to not get hit by a car. Fear is the thing that tells me hang gliding might not end well if I don't practice first. Fear has done a great of protecting me because I am all still alive. If we let it, fear can be a guiding light, a teacher. Fear let’s us know that the stakes are high. Something important is happening so the body responds in a way that makes us pay atttetnion. All of the things that made my day overflow made me feel like I was more awake. I filled my life up so much that I couldn't take a full breath. Running away gave me the sense though that I was choosing to engage with fear. What I was really doing was running away from the root source of my turmoil and uncomfortable. Nothing good ever happens when you ignore trouble. My relationships with others suffered. My relationship with my self suffered. My work suffered. All of these things that I care about so much felt like they were dissolving around me because I was trying to avoid fear instead of listening to the messages it was sending me. It makes sense though. Being in the midst of fear means asking the self to stay in the uncomfortable and the unknown.
So, I started the long process of reframing fear. What am I running away from? What is my biggest fear in relation to these circumstances? Fear is not innately a bad thing. It is just a little reminder to move more consciously, to stay awake and make sure the things you choose vibrate with your truth. But, if you consistently let fear act as a detterant from moving in the direction of your heart, of course, it starts to have negative implications. Verbalizing it, writing it down, takes away its overwhelming power. Sometimes fear can linger in the back of our hearts and minds and color everything that we do. When we choose to expose it, fear becomes less scary and more manageable. Fear becomes a clear message that there are things in our lives we need to take a closer look at. We need to weigh the pros and cons. We need to clarify what’s happenig. That can only happen when we move in the direction of fear. I’m definitely not saying that every time you come up against fear and choose to move boldly in its direction that you will leave unscathed. I have, on more than several occasions, moved through fear, saying the things that I am most deeply afraid of only to find out that they are the truth. But I learned. I learned that even the things that were my greatest fears were things that I would survive. Had I not chosen to move in the direction of fear, I would still be wondering today if my gut was right. Living in the what if’s is surely an existence more painful and limiting than knowing the truth.
The other response that often happens in the face of fear is defensive behavior. I find that happens the most for myself when I am afraid of being hurt. All of a sudden, the armor comes on and I attempt to protect myself by any means necessary. If we think of the heart center as the place of joy, compassion, forgiveness, empathy, connections to other people, it’s easy to see that when fear manifests in this defensive way that our own heart suffers the most. Defensive behavior only cuts us off from the people and communities that we sorely need. The answer is not to let people walk all over your feelings and your heart but rather to ask yourself if you are acting from your truth. If you need to leave to protect yourself, do it. But if you are leaving because you are afraid of intimacy then maybe it’s time to investigate that fear.
Whenever I feel stuck or stagnant, like I'm going through the motions of my life, I ask myself what I am afraid of. Freeze is the third fear response. When I'm immobile, that's a really good indication that something is happening underneath the stagnant surface. That is the moment that I ask myself in inch closer towards the thing that is causing me such fear. This happens all the time in my physical practice. I have a way I like to move. There is a certain quality and flow to the things that feel freeing to me. Things that are uncomfortable and challenging, I usually skip in my home practice because if I can do whatever I want, I will do the things that feel good. When I’m stuck, when I’m asking myself why I am not seeing progress in certain places, I ask myself if I have been doing the things that I am not good at. I am a normal human. I am afraid to fail. Even when the stakes are relatively low, I want to get the A. I want to be right. Stagnation is my cue that I am letting my fear of failure deter me from growing and evolving.
What are you afraid of? What are some small steps you can take to move in the direction of the things that scares you but you care about deeply? Make a pro and con list. Freewrite about why you are so afraid.. Freewrite the worst possible outcome Write down the best possible outcome in vivid detail. Write down a tolerable outcome somewhere in the middle. All of these things hep me discern how to move forward, especially if I’m doing something that scares me.
This is the year of courage moments. Having courage doesn’t mean we are fearless. It means that we see fear, we get to know it intimately, and we decide to keep moving in spite of it. If we let fear control us instead of teach us, we end up in a dulled experience of what it means to live. Fear gives us incite into the things that are important to us. Usually if there is some sort of fear it’s because you care about whatever is going on. When fear controls us we end in isolation. When fear teaches us, we grow in our capacity to connect and empathatize with others.