There are a lot of people walking around with the weight of fear on their shoulders, fear of job security, financial insecurity, and what seems like a world in constant crisis. Even in the best of times, there seems to be a prevalence of fear, some people’s lives are ruled by fear, others it is based on circumstances. In contrast, Buddhism teaches about fearlessness. In this context, fearlessness does not suggest being without fear, but the idea is to actually open up to our fear and experience it fully.
Before I get deeper into fearlessness, I think it’s important to note that the human body reacts the same to a threat to the ego as it does to a physical threat. If a screeching car is coming towards you, or someone just stole your idea at work, the same parts of the nervous system are activated, albeit maybe to different degrees depending on the circumstances. Most people spend more time concerned with ego threats rather than potential physical threats, even though the former are often imagined.
When you feel fear in response to an ego threat, there are a number of common habitual responses; to resist it, go on the offense, entitlement, blame, gossip, and attack the other parties. Having tried many of these solutions myself, they tend to either prolong the feeling of fear, or lead to a whole slew of other undesirable experiences.
Recently, I was running late to an appointment to interview someone for this blog. As I was leaving I was already mildly stressed, as I knew his time was limited and didn’t want to lose this opportunity. Thoughts started to run through my mind about being late and him thinking I was a flake and unreliable, which would ruin my reputation. In my mind, the future success of my business was dependent on the blog, and the blog was dependent on this one interview. I had a really good story going in my head. As I headed out of my building there were no taxis on my corner, and my anxiety increased even more. Walking down Sixth Avenue against traffic towards my destination, I spotted an oncoming taxi in the center lane. I walked straight towards the cab as it stopped at a red light and pretended not to see the woman who was already hailing a cab on the corner. I thought she’ll is just have to understand, this was important, my whole future was dependent on it. The taxi door was locked, so I tapped on the door lightly and the driver ignored me. I double- checked to make sure that the “on duty” sign was lit, and realized the driver was on to me, and had no intention of participating in my hijack. I chuckled realized what I was doing and moved on. This was definitely not my most shining moment. I was rationalizing and justifying, because I was afraid of the repercussions. In this case not even real fear, because I was making up a story that just wasn’t grounded in reality.
The threat I felt here was minor to those many people feel in the business world. People see the world, especially their work environment as a constant threat and believe there is a potential landmine around any corner. Even if there were consequences to my being late, I basically lost consciousness, I was determined to commandeer that taxi . With a little assistance from the driver, I woke up in the middle of a dream. There was a time I would have acted with a greater sense of entitlement, knocked harder on the window and try to get in the taxi. What if I had just noticed my fear, both the fiction I was creating in my mind, and the physical sensations in my body. I certainly would not have continue to build the story that was causing me so much stress and anxiety.
As Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron teaches, you can actually get comfortable with fear, even become intimate with it. People tend to run away from all of their negative emotions and experiences and seek more of the positive ones. Fearlessness is about showing up for your life, your experience exactly as they are, good or bad. It is about staying present and being in acceptance of whatever comes up moment to moment.
The good news is that you don’ have to go and find fearlessness. It is already within you, can you can allow it to emerge by just supporting it and cultivating it.
The tools I have found most helpful are grounded in mindfulness meditation. A process whereby you train in being completely open to your experience, staying present to whatever comes up. You sit down and you use your breath as the object of meditation. You keep your awareness on your breath and when your mind wanders off – and it will – you just keep bringing your attention back to your breath. When the feelings and thoughts associated with fear arise, you can notice the thoughts and let them drop away. What are the physical sensations, where are they in the body. Learn to separate the physical sensations from the storyline you are creating.
It’s a myth that you are not supposed to have fears, anxiety, doubt, and other negative experiences. It takes far more courage to show up for your life as it is happening, than to try and check out of it. It is by showing up for it time and time again without judging yourself, or your experience that you cultivate fearlessness. By practicing meditation regularly, you are developing the muscle that gives you the stability and clarity to be present for your life as it unfolds.