By Nandini Sarkar
There are many lessons fear has to teach us, and the biggest of them all is not to fear fear, says Nandini Sarkar
Recently, a neighborhood friend, Amu, came with an invitation for a grand housewarming party. She had done well for herself professionally and had an excellent marriage. My mind went back to an incident several years ago. It was 10 at night when our doorbell rang. Amu stood at the threshold with her young cousin, Samar. Both were holding appointment letters from a multinational pharmaceuticals company. Amu’s posting was in Hyderabad, and Samar was to report to their Bombay office, within a week.
Amu was raring to go. In contrast, Samar was a bundle of nerves and overwhelmed by a fear of the unknown. Would he be able to handle the training? What if he failed to meet targets? What if his boss was nasty? What if his single mother, a teacher, died when he was away? Even today, I remember how we all sat around Samar and tried to allay his fears, one by one. But he was so consumed by his lurid imagination that we failed. Ultimately, Samar refused the offer. Despite his brilliant academic record, he settled for a mediocre job in Kolkata. Over the years, he became overweight, blowsy and developed very high pressure.
What do you say to a person like Samar, who is otherwise a logical, intelligent and loving person? To be fair, he had suffered childhood trauma, when his father deserted the family and went on to re-marry and have three other children. Samar’s psychological and emotional wounds were understandable. But what was painful to watch was his complete reluctance to question his fears, and the surrender of his intelligent will to a morbid imagination. In fact, over the years, he had seen Amu face her own challenges, such as her parents’ successive cancer and heart ailments, her sister’s painful marital separation, and her shippie brother’s ordeal as a hostage at sea for months. What Samar had not cared to emulate was her never-say-die spirit, which proved a great blessing for the family and ensured her own good fortune. Amu and he had been very close, had grown up together, but somehow, her dogged spirit had not been able to permeate his own hard shield of fear.
The story of fear
In a captivating TED talk, watched by millions worldwide, author Karen Thompson Walker convinces us to take a fresh look at fear and see it more like a story that we are reading. We are both the author and the reader of this fearful story. How can we decide what fears to listen to? We must cultivate two attitudes while reading the story: the artistic and the scientific. Fears have characters and the characters are us. They have plots and imagery like a novel. Our fears focus on the thought: what will happen next? So they make us think and travel to the future. Fear works like fiction and one thing leads to another. That’s the artistic part of our stories. But at this juncture when we apply the insight that we are not only the authors of our stories, but also the readers, then wisdom or science takes over. Of course, not all our fears are unfounded. Some of our fears do come true. But Karen says she has studied successful entrepreneurs and their handling of fear. They read their fears closely and translate it into action. Business is always ready for the worst fears, with a backup plan. As authors, we dream up horrifying scenarios and then listen to the most lurid of our fears. But those who read their fears like a scientist are less swayed by them. She also suggests that it is not the vivid fears that should be allowed to influence us but the more subtle, clairvoyant fears that alert us daily, such as the building of plaque in our arteries or climate change. A little wisdom and a little insight leads us to the elusive thing called truth.
In my own life, I remain indebted to British authors like Enid Blyton, Somerset Maugham and PG Wodehouse, whose books I read voraciously, as a youngster. A recurring theme in their books was the heroic British attitude of cultivating the stiff upper lip. Cowardice was projected as the only sin, something that prompted you to run away from your fears rather than standing up to them. You were a hero if you could face unpleasant situations, even though you felt terribly compromised. In their books, the result of facing up to your fears was always positive because people started respecting you for your courage, things changed for the better, and that inspired you to continue the work on yourself.
Later, I was deeply inspired by Sri Yukteshwar Giri’s bold assertion: look fear in the face and it ceases to bother you. These values, embedded in youth, have served me well in my business career. Nothing is more uncertain than business, and a businessman’s life is lived on the razor’s edge. I’ve also noticed that businesses are severely tested in their infancy, as if to test their very aspiration to grow and be impactful. I remember the many palpitations I have undergone; the sinking feeling that all was lost or that I had been betrayed and could not carry on any more; the thunderous noise of my own heartbeat, when I was called to address business gatherings. In such situations, the learnings from the past emerged to remind me that I had to dig in my heels and face the challenge. Today, I can say with humility, like Swami Anandamoy Giri of the SRF: I have faced so many problems, so many problems, that now, I don’t remember any of them!
Acceptance and action
I owe my life to the spiritual masters who teach: Accept and act. As a youngster, when faced with fears, I had a unique release valve. I would go off to sleep for a few hours, and was lucky that I could sleep at will. After waking up, I would write furiously about the things that were bothering me, and how I would resolve it. Inspired by the British authors, I was in no doubt whatsoever, that I would face my situation, no matter what the outcome. I was actually practising detachment without knowing it.
Later, when the blessing of spiritual knowledge came my way, I understood that nothing that happens to us is an accident. I learnt that every fear or fearful outcome is not an indictment or punishment from life but rather life’s prod to us: Are you using wisdom in this situation? Would you care to re-examine your actions? Would you care to review the means you have adopted? Would you care to change your perspective? Every fear made me more determined to seek wisdom. It set me on a quest to knock on the door of spirit and to seek answers. What a rich learning experience this has been. I wouldn’t have missed the battle with my fears for anything, because it brings in its wake such great learning. Such peace, knowing that amidst the crash of breaking worlds, if you hold on to wisdom and right action, you are safe.
The Buddhists say that by opening ourselves to whatever is going on at the moment, and living in it gratefully, we will begin to lose fear. In fact, by accepting and thanking life for all things sent to us, we will learn to see that very little is actually negative. Pain loses its sting when we learn to let it simply flow through us. We learn not to interpret or tell lurid stories to ourselves. We gravitate towards teachers and masters who have walked this path and can help us. Life changes and we are transformed. In fact, as a useful side-effect, your dentist starts feeling very impressed, because you can have your tooth pulled out without anaesthesia; your surgeon feels impressed because the operation fails to frighten you, and you don’t even scream in fright when some tube is jammed into you, and it’s not inserted in the right place.
Parents should look at giving this “how to live training” to children through inspiring stories in addition to their singing and swimming lessons. Schools should make fear traininga part of their moral education curriculum. We do a great disservice to our young ones when we send them into the world without being battle ready to handle fear.
The big leap
From his childhood, my husband had recurring dreams of his mother’s death. As a result, he suffered from insomnia and remembers being very fearful during night-times, when it was time to sleep. Subconsciously, he had strong reasons to believe this, as she had suffered two major strokes. No one in his family was particularly religious or prayerful, and he did not have any spiritual guidance at that juncture. But in the face of this deep fear for his mother’s life, he started calling out for help. He would walk up and down his room, sometimes for hours on end, connecting with the unseen, universal presence, seeking help for his mother.
We are precious children of the Universe, much loved and much cherished, and any sincere cry for help meets with a definite response. My husband recalls that around this time, a pundit known to his father recommended doing the mritunjaya japa and they conducted the japa at their home, continuously, for three days. His mother recovered. Ultimately, she passed on when she was 60, just after her retirement, having lived a wonderful life. My husband turned to meditation on Lord Shiva from this point onwards.
Executive coach and author Gay Hendricks has an intriguing explanation for fear: “Fear is excitement without the breath.” He explains that the very same mechanisms that produce fear also produce excitement so fear can be turned into excitement by breathing fully with it. On the other hand, excitement turns into fear if we hold our breath. Most of us when scared think we can get rid of it by denying it or ignoring it, and we hold our breath as a physical tool of denial. It never works because the less we breathe the bigger our fear gets. Feel the fear, celebrate it with a big breath, says Hendricks, just the way you’d celebrate your birthday by blowing out the candles on your cake.
Believe there is a solution
Paramahansa Yogananda spoke of saying a powerful No! to combat negative thoughts. We can do this whenever fear rears its ugly head. He gave wonderful techniques such as Hong Sau to develop dynamic will and guide us through our intuition to the right course of action. We are all compelled to pass through dark stages; death is one; disappointment is another; loneliness, phobias, compulsions, and reliving traumatic experiences, fill us with fear. While ignoring inconvenient realities doesn’t get us anywhere hopelessness and despair set in when people stop believing that there is a way out of their problems. An innovative blog I read recently suggested going on a “fear diet.”
But the best end note for me, personally, comes from Yogi Prasad Rangnekar: “I could say I was born in abandonment, because as far back as I remember, I was afraid of my mother leaving me… Around two years ago, in one of my silence periods, the answer was revealed. We all fear abandonment because we all have abandoned our Self. Every other source of love apart from the Self becomes an obsession. When that source is attained, we feel accepted. When that source is taken away, we feel abandoned. The time in between these two experiences is spent fearing and worrying about the obvious. Somewhere we all are playing hide and seek with our deathless essence. Somewhere we are all busy entertaining guests of the finite while our infinite mother awaits our arrival. Once in a while some of us do experience a glimpse of immortality and infinity but immediately the voices of the mind ground us in flesh. The feeling dies before it blooms into an experience. In the past I used to cry feeling my mom had left me, this time I cried tears of gratitude knowing she had finished her work here.”
About the author: Nandini Sarkar is Co-founder, C-Quel, a management services company. A lover of the spiritual Masters she is a follower in the Kriya Yoga tradition. firstname.lastname@example.org
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