By Lalitha Sridhar
What is the cause of fear? And how do we vanquish it when it crowds around us with its insidious what-ifs, stoking caution, paranoia and doubt? Here, an exploration into the nature of fear and prescriptions on how to cope with it.
There’s no better time to write about fear than a month when one has endured days of grief in hospital vigils. An average day’s routine included the rise of anxiety, a dread in the pit of the stomach, perhaps a sinking of the spirit, and soon, emotional seesaws became a familiar experience. I recently had to watch a parental figure in an impersonal hospital bed, growing frailer by the day, multiple organ failures weakening the physical body, even though, on a good day, the spirit rose with optimism and moments of surprising cheer. I learned to look at my own fear at close quarters in the humid corridors, in the faces of impassive professionals who had to temper cold facts with kindness. Within a week, the sum of it all contributed to the unmaking of presumptions of eternal health and happiness, and took me on a journey to unchartered internal crossroads – one to the truth of mortality, the other to acceptance.
The Buddha said there is no family untouched by disease, death or old age. The essence of this one can grasp, but to apply it to circumstance is another task altogether. The Instinct asks, ‘Can’t you postpone this by a few years? The time is not of my choosing.’ But Time answers that these moments are never born of mindful choice, but of the soul-need. It is not so difficult to distance oneself from an abstract notion (under which term you might like to slot the reality of death and disease), keep it out in the cold and view it with fleeting interest. But any experience which requires understanding or resolution can first give rise to anxious fretfulness, furious denial and charge the atmosphere with negativity. Then, wisdom appears as a flickering light at the end of a deep, deep tunnel.
Origin of Fears
Where do fears come from? Why do they arise? Spiritual masters assert that the root cause of fear is our separation from the Source. It follows that only submergence in the Source through enlightenment brings about the final dissolution of fear. Says Swami Sivananda, founder of the Divine Life Society, Rishikesh: ‘A sage beholds only the Immortal Self everywhere so there is no fear in him. There is fear only when there is duality, when there is a perception of an object or a person other than oneself.’
Adds the venerable Francis of Assissi: ‘What do you have to fear? Nothing. Whom do you have to fear? No one. Why? Because whoever has joined forces with God obtains three great privileges: omnipotence without power, intoxication without wine, and life without death…’
Because fear embodies separation and love unity, sages affirm that there are only two primary emotions, fear and love. Both are mutually exclusive. Where there is fear there is no love and where there is love there is no fear. A quick test of your spiritual quotient is the level of fear within you. The less there is, the closer to God you are. Indeed, the spiritual journey could well be said to be the movement from fear to love. Writes thinker Gerald Jampolsky: ‘Fear and love can never be experienced at the same time. It is always our choice as to which of these emotions we want…’
Jampolsky may use the word choice and in the ultimate sense he is right, but to get to the stage where we can have mastery over our fears enough to be able to choose having them or not, is not easy. Only deep and rigorous self-knowledge can help us reach this stage, but that finally is the road each traveler must go if he wishes to outpace fear.
Types of Fear
Within the blanket insecurity caused by detachment from the Self, there are other broad categories of fear. Chief among these is the fear of the unknown, of which the primary one is the fear of death. Says the Peace Pilgrim, who walked through the length and breadth of the US to create awareness of peace: ‘Almost all fear is fear of the unknown. Therefore, what’s the remedy? To become acquainted with the thing you fear.’
This is wisdom and is easily the best way to dissolve individual fears that come in the way of effective living. Says an animator and film-maker: ‘I always feared having and bringing up children, because I feared it would make me lose my individuality, but ultimately I overcame this fear, through love for my children.’
Equally crucial is the role of desire in stoking fear. As long as man is in the grip of desire, he will never escape fear for he either fears his inability to obtain the object of desire or having obtained it, his ability to retain it. The wily goddess Maya’s gossamer veil is chiefly constituted of these two components. Says J. Krishnamurti: ‘Fear is not to be put away by appeasement and candles; it ends with the cessation of the desire to become.’
Both these categories are finally rooted in lack of faith in oneself and in God. The more faith we develop in ourselves to cope with life and triumph over its manifold terrors, the less we fear the unknown. The more confident we are of our ability to withstand temptation, the more feeble is the hold of desire.
And as our faith and trust in God increases, it pervades the dank and dingy places of fear with its genial sunshine and causes it to disappear.
The annals of saints and sages all over the world are rife with wondrous tales of courage and valor, endured out of sheer love of God. Here, for instance, is the tale of one anonymous martyr persecuted as a Huguenot under Louis XIV, quoted by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience. A group of six women undressed her and rained blows upon her with a ‘bunch of willow rods as thick as the hand could hold, and a yard long.’ In vain the women cried, ‘We must double our blows; she does not feel them, for she neither speaks nor cries. ‘ This was the worthy woman’s response to her torture: ‘And how should I have cried, since I was swooning with happiness within?’
Perfect faith gives perfect security. The knowledge that all that happens is for the best can put to rout all fears of the unknown. It is this surrender that supported the great prophets of the world even in the face of death. Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi and others were led to perform their mighty acts despite the threat of death because they were secure in their surrender.
For us lesser mortals, it may not be quite so easy to sashay straight off into surrender, but a belief in God is the beginning of faith and faith is the final frontier. A strong philosophy that works for all seasons is a great shield against the onslaught of fear.
Says Ashish Virmani, assistant editor at Mansworld magazine, ‘The most important thing to combat fear is to have a sound philosophy in life – a philosophy for life and for death. I think in many ways Buddhism has helped me overcome many of my fears. For example, I used to fear, as a teenager, that people would laugh at me or talk about me behind my back. Now I realise that it doesn’t really matter what people say or think because it is their privilege to think what they are thinking, and it is my privilege to carry on with my life regardless and achieve my goals.’
Go Beyond the Comfort Zone
There’s much to be said in praise of tribulation, although the realization will come only in hindsight. Take a moment to survey the soul-journey and the physical stop-over, which has been scheduled only to study unlearned lessons. So then why fear anything? ‘Fear is illusory; it cannot live. Courage is eternal, it will not die,’ said Swami Sivananda, founder of the Divine Life Society, Rishikesh. So why do we let the temporary moment shadow the glory of the divine self? It requires a conscious effort to move beyond the circumstance and watch our own actions and words with a level of detachment. We are here to learn. Every situation of strife that you encounter is a karmic lesson and your own previous deeds have created today’s situation. Fears are largely the results of experience over many incarnations. When they haunt you, they are not to be seen as retribution or a calamity, but an opportunity to build soul-muscle. The other participants in the moment may have been with you on a previous journey, there may have been cues you failed to pick up. Here’s your chance to do so and complete your lines appropriately; the one prompting you may have been someone you once ignored deliberately, totally, but are forced to listen to now, only for your own good. The stage is set for your karmic progress. So why tread hesitantly? Walk in with confidence, be sure of your part and don’t fear being center-stage. The Casting Director up there never errs, and if you’re the chosen one, believe in yourself and not the undermining voices whispering in your ears. There is never a life given that cannot be lived fully.
Look at your fear, any fear, in the eye. It could be a physical deficiency that you perceive as repulsive, and fear that others will feel the same and avoid you, while they may not have noticed, let alone scrutinized it the way your hyper-sensitivity would believe. It could be an attachment that brings you the fear of loss – a wife or a house or a car, all these can be overcome with detachment. Above all, there is fear of death. Confesses Shailesh Vyas, a language trainer (36), ‘I have always had an intense fear of getting pregnant, because I thought I would die during childbirth. Not only did the fear make me delay my marriage as far as possible, it also led to so much negativity, that I stopped breathing during the delivery and even had to have a Caesarian done. Strangely, the fear stemmed from no particular reason or experience.’
These are fears born of the total identification with the physical body, fears born out of ignorance of the real Self.
Observes Ashish Virmani, ‘Death is inevitable for everyone who is born on this earth but what is more important is making the best of every day that one lives.’
Fears drain vitality; sap the body of all energy. Natural fears, like that of the student fearing the teacher, are necessary for the former’s growth and progress, but unnatural fears, born in the mind, of impending illness, financial ruin or personal abandonment – none of these are rational.
Observes Devesh Vyas (33), general manager, sales and marketing, Raheja Constructions: ‘My deepest fear is the fear of having no money and not being able to provide for my family and myself. The best way to overcome such irrational fears is to stay with the fear, observe it and what it does and allow it to reveal itself. Since these fears cannot be done away with, the best way is to cope with them, accept their existence and carry on with life.’
This indeed, is what reiki master and workshop trainer Anand Tendulkar did. Says he: ‘I was always afraid of public speaking yet since my work demanded it, I had to keep doing it, and today I have completely overcome my fear.’
While individual fears can be eliminated in numerous ways, eliminating the cause of fear has only one solution. To go deep within and dismantle the false self, the ego self that entraps us in self-centered fear-generating ways of being. We can do this by meditating on the atman as Swami Sivananda suggests. J. Krishnamurti, on the other hand, suggests a direct face-to-face confrontation with the ego self. Says he: ‘Thought has created a center as the ‘me’ – me, my opinion, my country, my God, my experience, my house…Can the mind look at fear without the center? Can you look at the fear without naming it?…It requires tremendous discipline. Then the mind is looking without the center to which it has been accustomed and there is the ending of fear, both the hidden and the open.’
Fear Kills the Will and Stays all Action
Fear in our day-to-day lives has to be dealt with immediately. It is a poison that should not be allowed to circulate. Repeat the name of your favorite deity, or chant a familiar mantra when you feel a fear taking hold of you. Watch for the seed of a growing anxiety, pull the weed out before it becomes a thriving parasite and numbs you of life. Joy is life’s nourishment, fear is starvation. Fear is the opposite of belief. Fear denies faith. What have you to be afraid of if you believe that you are here on a purpose? Is there a school board without an exam? Can there be a life without struggle? No. All difficulties are tests set to strengthen us, not overcome us. If you are not careful, fear will keep you rooted here and now, in your little physical form, six feet plus though you may appear.
Wayne W. Dyer writes in his book, Pulling Your Own Strings, ‘Any time you catch yourself paralyzed by fear – in a word, victimized – ask yourself, ‘What am I getting out of this?’ Your first temptation will be to answer, ‘Nothing.’ But go a little deeper and you’ll see why people find it easier to be victims than to take strong stances of their own, to pull their own strings. It’s the way of the smaller self to wallow in littleness, to avoid risks, and here we aren’t talking about risks like dodging a bullet in Iraq, but confronting an innate fear of say, deep-seated jealousy. It’s these fears, which keep you immobile and weak, clutching at non-essentials, thrashing about with no place to escape. Where can you go leaving your self behind?’
Mobilize your Courage and Inner Resources
The story of Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita is an illustration of a positive intention to overcome fear. At the beginning of the Mahabharata war, Arjuna could not fight his cousins and uncles. Krishna, God Incarnate, knew it was Arjuna’s duty to do so and did not allow Arjuna’s momentary weakness to overwhelm him. He exhorted him to fight and did not allow him to run away from the battlefield. Krishna did not allow fear to paralyze the otherwise courageous Arjuna or have him remembered by history as a coward. Till today, Arjuna is a symbol of valor.
Sometimes, though, fears get obliterated without consciously working on them, through deep and sustained meditation. As long as she could remember, Anupama Ramchandra had feared the dark. In 2004, Anupama attended a Vipassana course at Igatpuri, Maharashtra. ‘I was given a separate cell and I was certain the nights would be an agony.’ Anupama, hardly new to Vipassana, had resolved to diligently meditate this time.
‘Days of intense meditation left me too restless to sleep. My body became super-sensitive to the slightest sound and movements. When in the forests around the Dhamma Centre a twig snapped, I’d feel it on my skin.
‘I fell into a restless sleep one night. I dreamt of being sucked into a vortex. It was a strong sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach. When I woke up the next morning, I knew I’d never be afraid of the dark again. Thanks to Vipassana, I’d eliminated one big samskara.’
Writer Armin Zebrowski makes a distinction between the human ego and the spiritual ego. ‘The human ego consists of desires, passions, wishes and emotions. The spiritual ego is the highest ideal of compassion and is represented by intuition, which supplies us with inspiration. Fear is a feeling of the human ego. It is not an emotion the soul is familiar with.’
Such a fine, insightful explanation. It is the essence of this exploration into fear. Why do we distance ourselves from the inner self, which is the core of our being? Why lose track of the radar, which signals the presence of the soul, which we will be in every lifetime, and not the physical or emotional surroundings we find ourselves in now? Why do we get caught up with fears that are just the projection of our individuality this time around? Why put all of one’s identity into a job one holds and could be sacked from next week? Why preen with a sense of special-me just because fame once knocked at your door, or beauty decided to bestow just that little bit more? Essentially, why the fear of a lack of recognition and appreciation? Just enjoy the delight of your senses for yourself, or even by yourself, and let go the rest. There is no judgment waiting to condemn you. We often perceive non-existent threats to our independence, privacy and freedom and react with anger through prevailing fear.
Egoism and self-centredness lead to a sense of alienation. The fear of being overlooked, and the desire for importance leads to immense anxiety. Today’s whirl of social activities and celebrity circus performances provide woeful examples of insecurities eating up those trying to gain or retain attention. Hysterical demands for invitations, which they fear, may not be forthcoming, or ensuring a late arrival to prove the pressure of very important work, are reflections of insecurity. Legendary actor, Amitabh Bachchan, has acquired a reputation for putting to shame people who invite him for a function and, although his adherence to punctuality is well-known, people are still appalled when he does turn up on time. A few years ago, at a book launch organized at a music store, Bachchan walked in five minutes before the appointed time, only to find the sweeper clearing the floor and a few waiters arranging glasses. No sign of the writer or any of the glamorous organizers or other guests. The chief guest, however, waited and did the honors two hours later with no audible complaint, and even the very curious could only speculate at the irony they imagined in his expression. Bachchan in India has no fear of being overlooked, neither does any non-famous, ordinary individual need to crave public applause. We are all doing what we are meant to, and are perfectly placed in positions to learn our lessons.
Another instance recalled by a fashion photographer involved a photo-session for a magazine cover, which featured four top male models of the decade. Four smart, good-looking men, unquestionably the toast of their time. However, their misplaced anxieties, wrapped up in their celebrated egos, provided many moments of mirth in the photographer’s studio. This is what happened that evening – each of them got to the studio within a few minutes of the others, but two of them kept circling the studio in their respective cars, calling from their cell-phones and asking the staff if all the other models had arrived, not willing to be the first one in, each reluctant to be the one who came in and waited. This went on, till the photographer took matters into his hands, not wanting this formula driving to go on all night, and lied systematically to each one saying two others had arrived and so on. The shoot took place, and the photographs looked great. But, no one present that night ever forgot the fears these men displayed, when ironically, they had been called to participate in a shoot, which actually celebrated their handsome faces, great physiques and success in a chosen field. Unfortunately, their immature behavior left behind impressions that were anything but glorious.
Deepak Chopra believes that control is the way the ego solves the problem of fear. ‘Whenever any of us falls into controlling behavior, one of the following scenarios is at work in the unconscious:
o We are afraid someone will reject us
o We are afraid of failing
o We are afraid of being wrong
o We are afraid of being powerless
o We are afraid of being destroyed
Fearful thoughts keep chasing each other in a vicious circle. Insecurities mount and the fear of loss of control leads to more fear, and a paramount desire to keep the face of control secure. What do we achieve? Tension and unhappiness.
Dada Vaswani also believes that one of the greatest maladies is loneliness, and all fears arise from a basic fear of abandonment and frustration. He says that long queues outside cinema theaters indicate the growing internal loneliness, when all diversions are sought externally, with little thought for introspection or self-expansion. Mind games, instead of soul-food. Fears are only self-imposed limitations, not lines drawn in concrete. You can learn to use the computer even when well into your 60s, if you believe you can do it. But if the fear of embarrassment or failure holds you back, then it is the fear that controls you and the desire suffocates and dies. You will sadly, take away from yourself a minor but significant sense of accomplishment. You give the fear a larger-than-life status, and put life itself in the sidelines. Fear is undermining. If fear has its rationales – of caution and wisdom – give it a good hearing, then proceed. If fear gains the upper hand, confusion prevails. Objectives blurs, confidence is lost. What is the choice you want to make? A few smudges on a clean mirror don’t make the mirror useless, the smudges just have to be wiped off.
Disarm the Dragon with Loving Forgiveness
The presence of fear indicates the inability to love completely. We often hold fear up against ourselves as armor. An instrument of defense even in the presence of family and friends. Why is fear a tool of survival? Love ensures a more comfortable trek, some provision for nourishment and protection against a few blows and setbacks. Fear can’t be part of this ongoing, wholesome process. Yes, life’s journey requires checks and surveys, of pauses and progress, but certainly, the journey can be free of fear. Free of believing in half-loves, inadequate communication and incomplete acceptance. Fear predicts an inability to let go, a restraint and an inactive pause in which precious moments of growth are arrested. Instead, use the power of visualization to untangle knots. Think of yourself as the victor in spiritual warfare, where negative thought is defeat and positive endeavor a spur. Let go of the thoughts that attract the fear to you. Set yourself free and invite the free flow of love and good energy.
The most vulnerable is the most fearless. Like a newborn, says Deepak Chopra in his book, The Path to Love: ‘Newborn infants, because they have no past, lack all defenses; a baby is completely vulnerable to any intruder or harmful influence, utterly dependent on outside protection to survive. Yet, paradoxically, no one is more invulnerable than a newborn child, because it has no fear. Experience has yet to create its imprint on the nervous system, and without a frame of reference there is no threat.’
Chopra points out some patterns of futile behavior:
o We constantly compare ourselves to an ideal that we can never live up to. The loveless inner voice drives us by saying, ‘You aren’t good enough, thin enough, pretty enough, happy enough, secure enough.’
o We look for approval in others. This behavior basically projects our inner dissatisfaction with ourselves in the hope that some outside authority will lift it from our souls.
o We rely on love to remove the obstacles that keep it away. All sorts of unloving behaviors are allowed to persist with the attitude that we will become affectionate, open, trusting and intimate only by a touch of love’s magic wand.
This very instant, do yourself a favor. Trash all debilitating thoughts. Empty the mind, while simply knowing that the Self is all, and set yourself free. Because fears are just hollow concepts built in the mind and drawn from interpretations of experiences. If a salesperson in a store has been rude to you once, you shudder to enter the store again, even if you quite like what’s on display inside. Ever paused to consider that perhaps that salesman is not employed there any longer? Or, you can learn to ride a bike and wobble along in the fear of falling, but if you believe that it’s just a wonderful joy-ride, choose to steady your hands and look straight ahead, hey, it could well be one unforgettable ride.
Being in constant awareness will help create a meaningful abandon.
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