Embracing Fear with Mindfulness and Bravery By: Sarah Frank Jarvis, LMFT, ATR-BC, CGP

“That mind of fearfulness should be put in the cradle of loving-kindness and suckled with the profound and brilliant milk of eternal doubtlessness. In the cool shade of fearlessness, fan it with the fan of joy and happiness.”

-Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Fear is basically an emotional response to real or perceived danger. It causes us to pause, for the sake of self-preservation, and assess whether or not it benefits us and our survival to move towards or flee from a mortal threat. According to Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk and spiritual leader, fear is an energy that can be harnessed and used to our benefit. He likens this energy to that of electricity or gas, which can both be incredibly powerful and beneficial when used with the understanding of how they work to bring light or heat. But, without knowledge and understanding of how they work, they can also be destructive and dangerous. 

Hanh explains the concept of a flower being made up of “non-flower parts”; sun, rain, compost, the gardener who tends to it, and so on. He describes how meditation is the mindful consideration of the flower and these non-flower parts. Like the flower, the self is also formed from non-self parts such as the mother, father, human ancestors, animal ancestors, food, water, and dedication. Fear, he says, is also born from non-fear parts including illusion and misperception. Through the practice mindfulness, we are able to understand the nature of our fear, what it consists of, and how we may transform it’s energy into something beneficial. 

Pema Chödrön, an American Tibetan Buddhist nun and disciple of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, says that knowing the nature of fear is at the heart of fearlessness. In a talk she gave on fear and fearlessness, Pema shared an example of beginning a talk with one word, just as a painter places the first dot of paint on a blank canvas. The talk unfolds just as the painting takes form by a process of expansion from that one word or dot of paint. She goes on to explain how one embarks on a journey of bravery and courage through meditation to become intimate with fear. Pema states that meditation is training in staying present to whatever might arise in the mindful exploration of fear. She shares about how her teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche, explained that meditation is about touching what comes up and then letting it go so as not to become overwhelmed by it. Pema shares how Rinpoche’s approach of “loving kindness” contributes to being a whole, sane, and open person by acknowledging all of your self and what you are comprised of, including fear.

If we take these teachings into consideration in our own lives we may have an easier time managing fear, whether it be about financial security, confrontation, illness, death, or failure. Through mindfulness meditation practices we can intentionally approach fear from a place of curiosity and compassion, possibly furthering our understanding of where it comes from and how we might be able to redirect its energy in a positive direction. 

A wonderful example of this is Caleb Meakins (@CalebMeakins, @MY40DAYS), who bravely decided to try an experiment for forty days of taking on challenges proposed to him under the auspices of “what would you do if you could not fail?”. This speaks to the power of stepping outside of one’s comfort zone for the purposes of learning and growth. Meakins shared in a TEDx Talk (www.youtube.com/watch?v=odcLP7gOGW8) about several of the challenges he undertook over 40 days, proposed by his FaceBook followers, including singing loudly in the London Underground Tube, trying to get a fast food restaurant to cook a whole raw chicken for him, and giving an impromptu lecture at a prestigious college, making everything up on the spot. Meakins sheds light on the tremendous benefits of walking through fear and letting go of our attachments to a desired outcome. He also gives us a beautiful demonstration of courage and bravery, taking huge leaps of faith to prove his hypothesis that much is to be gained through facing fear.

Elana Clark-Faler
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