Survival or Stagnation?
Look the word “fear” up in your lexicon of choice and you’ll likely find a definition such as:
“a basic survival mechanism occurring in response to a specific stimulus, such as pain or the threat of danger.“
Sounds useful doesn’t it? An instinctive mechanism for avoiding danger is no doubt a very practical thing in the animal kingdom and probably not something that we should be without. But that definition is so far removed from the typical experience of fear in humans that I feel it is a confusing, and even inaccurate portrayal.
I struggle to recall an occasion when I’ve ever experienced genuine terror: really been afraid for my life. None spring to mind. I’ve never found myself in the sights of a hungry lion, trapped in a burning building, or staring down the barrel of a gun. Yet I’ve been afraid plenty of times. Perhaps not for my life, but for my ego. Afraid to appear inadequate, naive or foolish.
For most inhabitants of the developed world, that’s probably the typical experience. Our modern, civilized nest is sufficiently feathered that most people never need to venture anywhere near the raw and ragged edge of the natural world. So if we do in fact still have these primordial survival instincts, most of us can only speculate as to what they might actually feel like. But I suggest that fear is not the best word given the other connotations that it carries.
Nowadays the word fear is more frequently used to describe an emotional reaction which has little if anything to do with our bodily survival and much more to do with imaginary threats than real ones. You’ve probably seen the oft’ quoted hierarchy of common fears which consistently ranks public speaking before death on the scale of most dreaded fates.
But there is another key difference as well. Survival requires that a potential threat is either evaded or eliminated; and this implies swift and decisive action. But the fear response enables nothing of the kind. Fear is a paralyzing emotion, not an activating one. It tends to inhibit our ability to take action rather than enabling it. The so called fight or flight response is perhaps more akin to “panic” or “rage” than “fear” since “fight or flight” invokes action and fear inhibits it. Indeed, fear is the quintessential immobilizer.
This paralytic state of mind is so at-odds with anything approaching an effective survival mechanism that we probably need a whole new word to separate these ideas. My definition of fear is more in this vein:
“Inhibition of one’s ability to think or act as desired by the imaginary threat of harm.”
Basically, the fearful thought prevents you from doing the thing you want to do, and, by extension prevents you from becoming the person you wish to become.
But in order to better understand fear, and how it can be overcome, I first want to examine the other half of that equation. The part that deals with desire.
Desire and Resistance
Desire gets a bad wrap. It’s a very misunderstood emotion. Many think that desires are selfish and that selfishness is bad. The word carries associations to lust, which some consider sinful, or at best base and undignified. The Buddhist doctrine teaches that desire is the source of all suffering and that the way to happiness is by releasing all attachment to it.
All this emotional baggage has stood in the way of us understanding what desire actually is. Desire is not something we should be the slightest bit ashamed of. Far from it. Desire—pure desire—is the basis of all being and essential to the expansion of life.
“Desire is the starting point of all achievement, not a hope, not a wish, but a keen pulsating desire which transcends everything.”
Desire is always about growth. We never desire to be less than we are; we always desire to be more. We never desire to have less than we presently do; we always desire to have more. This insatiable desire for more is not the gluttonous, wasteful thing that is sometimes portrayed. Rather it is the very basis of the life force. Life always seeks to expand, to be more than it was. That’s what life does.
When we find ourselves wanting less, it’s not because we are shrinking, rather the less is seen as a means to a a greater end.
We don’t really want less clutter,
We want greater clarity.
We don’t really want fewer cares,
We want deeper peace.
We don’t really want less work,
We want greater joy.
The only reason you’re even on this planet to begin with is because you had a burning, unstoppable desire to be more. And when you expand, the Universe expands.
Unfortunately, in the material realm, many people feel guilty about their desire for more, thinking, erroneously, that the only way they can have more is to deprive others of the same. Or perhaps they feel that they are not really deserving of the thing they desire and that it is little more than a foolish fantasy. When practiced habitually, these feelings of guilt and discouragement eventually become overwhelming, and at some level we decide that having such desires is just too painful an affair. So we resist our desires; we suppress them to save our egos and our hearts.
This is folly, as you are only resisting your own natural growth. You form the desire to be more or have more, but then you stop yourself from going there. Why? You believe you’re not capable. You believe you’re inadequate or undeserving. So you subconsciously precipitate patterns of thinking which prevent the realisation of your dream. You hold yourself apart from your inspired vision with persistent thoughts of fear, doubt and unworthiness.
Here, I drew a diagram to make it clearer:
DESIRE → ← RESISTANCE
Resistance knows many guises, but the unholy trinity are Fear, Doubt and Unworthiness.
We can define these patterns as follows:
- Fear—Resistance based on belief in potentially harmful consequences, beyond your control.
- Doubt—Resistance based on belief in the inadequacy of your own abilities or resources.
- Unworthiness—Resistance based on belief that one is not deserving of the good one seeks to create or enjoy.
All these patterns of thoughts act as powerful breaks which prevent your more positive thoughts from gaining enough traction to make consistent progress in your life. The scatter your energy, diffuse your focus, counteract your good intention.
Now we can see fear for what it really is. Not an instinctive mechanism for avoiding danger, but an learned pattern of negative thinking. Resistance to your own natural growth.
The disturbing and uncomfortable sensation of fear is an indication of this dissonance. Meditate on this idea a while, and you will come to know the truth of it. Where you you feel fear in your body? Is it the throat? The chest? The stomach? The visceral sensation of fear parallels its deeper meaning: It is restrictive and suffocating. It feels like being squeezed. Being restrained. Being crushed.
I find that all negative emotions like fear and anger have that quality. They feel like crushing pressure; and all positive emotions like appreciation, serenity and joy feel like release and expansion.
It’s this tension between desire and resistance which causes negative emotions—not desire itself. Don’t renounce your desire in the name of salvation. Rather, renounce your resistance.
Fear and Freedom
If fear is the inhibitor of growth and of desire, then freedom is its antithesis. That blissful state of infinite possibility. The ability to first contemplate, and then become anything of which you can conceive.
You cannot be fearful and be free at once. Fear is the anathema of freedom. Freedom is the absence of all fear.
Some champion the course of overcoming obstacles through sheer will and tenacity. I don’t deny the romance of the heroic battle. But the line between heroism and martyrdom is thin.
When you fight something, be it fear, foe or addiction, it gets stronger. When you focus instead on your desire—the newer, greater version of you—giving it the whole of your focus and releasing all opposing fear and doubt, it takes over your life, and the old nemesis withers and dies.
What you focus on expands. Period.
A large part of the inner work I do every day is about learning to see the world—even its less appealing aspects—not as something to be conquered or condemned but something to be embraced, accepted and re-created in a greater image.
Truly overcoming fear does not feel like vanquishing a powerful foe; it feels like waking up to who you really are. It feels like a great adventure.
So I encourage the path of least resistance.
When you experience fear, recognize it’s an indication that you’re running up against the edges of your present comfort zone, and there is an exhilarating adventure of expanding frontiers ahead. That is the way to find love in fear and hope in doubt.
Fear is resistance to growth. Resistance isn’t conquered by fighting it. That only creates greater resistance. Resistance is only overcome by letting it go. By allowing yourself to embrace the real you.
Don’t fight the fear… be bigger than it.
Create a new identity that is greater than the fear. Then embrace, wholeheartedly, that identity.
“What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.“