I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain— Frank Herbert, Dune – Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear
Hardwired into the system of every human being, is the capacity for fear. It can arise under the most trivial circumstances as flashes of insecurity, pain or dread. We can feel fear before an event, when meeting new people or traveling, fear that we will lose our lover, our job, our life. More than an emotion, fear is a psycho-physiological response that orchestrates a complex release of stress chemicals into the bloodstream and affects every aspect of our body and consciousness. The autonomic nervous system responds to fear on a primal level, over-tightening muscles, altering body systems, contracting movement, releasing hormones, disrupting digestion and sleep. Our minds can grow restless, anticipating negative outcomes and worrying over phantoms. At its worse, fear paralyzes us.
On a deep level, our fears are shaped by difficult events from our past, our childhood and adolescence. According to Hinduism, fears, phobias, taboos and sorrow can even migrate from previous incarnations. Scars and birthmarks that appear in our body are the echoes of past traumas, lodged in our minds and our bones, waiting for karmic release. Fear can close around us, stopping our growth and limiting our choices, cutting us off from the world so that we insulate our lives in a protective shield of habits that may seem comfortable but in reality is suffocating.
As a primal response, fear serves a purpose, alerting us to danger so that we can take appropriate actions to remain safe, but when fear becomes incapacitating, we can become increasingly dysfunctional, overwhelmed and unable to move or reason. As Frank Herbert wrote in the novel Dune, “Fear is the mind killer.” Once our defense system rises up to protect us, it recruits our own beliefs, habits and suspicions to mount an offensive against any perceived threat. We begin to project outside of ourselves, to find enemies as the acronym credited to Veer Sharma suggests, F.E.A.R is False-Evidence-Appearing-Real. Although our ego is necessary for navigating existence, giving us a confident self to operate from, the ego can become an unyielding edifice to be defended. The ego doesn’t like change— change threatens identity. So when extreme change happens in our lives; moving, job loss, divorce or death, the ego can experience tremendous levels of fear, sometimes emanating from the deep, hidden recesses of our sub-conscious mind.
A secondary emotion for fear is anger. In fact, it is just another form of fear. If one has been victimized and abused, the pain and hurt, the devastation and emotional loss can be transmuted into anger which feels more controllable and therefore more comfortable and less threatening than fear. In anger, we strike out, attacking the perceived threat. Anger can be a valid healing step, burning away fear in an explosion of energy, especially when we have experienced injustice. The explosive energy of anger often rises up from the unconscious and is the psyches attempt to balance the scales. Left unchecked anger can be self-destructive, consuming both the perceived enemy and the self indiscriminately. Anger should never be repressed; instead, it must be released constructively and with a sense of justice.
As we move past fear and anger, we come to the primary emotional wound – hurt. Hurt is the basic emotion that begins the cycle. When we feel vulnerable, unprotected, attacked, abandoned and disappointed we experience fear, a systematic shutdown of our minds and our bodies, followed by anger, either expressed or repressed. These deeper levels of pain and the fear response, if left unattended, can break down our health and limit our choices in life, affecting our happiness and our sense of peace.
Although fear can be a useful tool, a powerful alarm system that tells us when we are in contact with something that could potentially harm us, in its more psycho-dynamic forms, it can be a hindrance to growth. When the threat is psychological or ego driven, the physical and mental responses are more complicated and nuanced. The subconscious mind will often hide the pain beneath layers of disappointment, fear and anger. So how do we dissolve fear and get to the core of what we’re feeling?
First we must become aware of the armoring response in our body and our minds— the stiffening, hardening, shutting down of sensation and emotional deadening that accompany the less obvious manifestations of fear. Shutting down can take the form of withdrawal from the world, avoiding unfamiliar activities, retreating into dogma, or pulling away from anyone or anything that challenges our worldview.
The body can also exhibit fear responses such as sleeping too much, overexertion and overeating, while the mind experiences paranoia, avoidance or a retreat into fantasy. Physically, the body will armor itself with muscle or insulate itself with fat; both responses are a form of shielding between the world and ourselves.
The first thing we must learn to do, is listen to and nurture ourselves. We must acknowledge the fear response as a clue to our needs and move into witnessing consciousness by observing our feelings, appetites, behavior, dreams, fantasies, feelings of stress or panic, imagery we are drawn towards or avoiding, physiological responses and the quality of our breath. We must read the metaphoric language of the subconscious and acknowledge what it is trying to tell us something through coded messages. Self-dialogue can help, accepting that we are afraid of something and asking the difficult questions, then watching for the answers that may come in a moment of insight, a song, a word from a stranger. Anything that strikes us to the core. We must become mindful, listening to ourselves without judgment, becoming our own good parent.
Next, we must try to remain receptive, mutable and responsive to the world and potential solutions. We must even remain open to the concept that our own ideas may be limited by our fear and be willing to seek help from others. People who commit crimes often feel they had no other choice. In many cases, criminals see the crime as a solution to their troubles—their connection to the world and all the solutions available to them have shut down.
To remain receptive, mutable, fluid and open, is to allow a wider array of choices. This is the hard part; we need to move into our primary emotion, to actually feel our hurt, to rest in our vulnerability before the Gordian knot of fear can be dissolved.
Every human being must face fear and its manifestations as we move through life. Fear can be a teacher that shows you the knots in your life that need to be untied. In the end there is only one way forward— to stand your ground and face the hurt that created the fear. It takes incredible strength to stay vulnerable and to acknowledge what set off the fear in our lives. But when we face our fears, amazing things happen. Slowly, our fears dissolve and we’re rewarded with new freedom and opportunity.
This is true Tantra, to transmute the poisons of hurt, disappointment, fear and anger into true power— the power to change our lives.