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Fear vs. Awareness

In an effort to assist you in trusting (or at least entertaining) what I have written below, I have been encouraged to tell you that I am a mental health therapist with several years of experience in helping people to live the life they prefer.  In this capacity, I have had the opportunity to witness how people relate to their emotions and can often be consumed by them.  The following discussion is an attempt to bring awareness to the power that fear can have over all of us and to offer that we all have the ability to choose whether fear maintains that power in our lives.

While this has been an article I have been wanting to write for some time, this most recent pandemic has prompted me to put thoughts to paper in an effort to invite us all to rise above our base instincts and approach life more consciously.  It is only natural when faced with something so unknown, which disrupts our lives so massively, that we may all be tempted to react and focus on the most primal of instincts, the need to survive.  This tendency towards self-preservation is simultaneously our greatest superpower and, if left unchecked, the most certain path to our eventual demise.  It is from this frame that I will be inviting readers to consider the difference between fear and awareness, to approach all unknowns from consciousness and not reactivity.

I first want to be clear about my stance on fear as I want to avoid any misunderstanding that I am in any way diminishing the importance of fear.  On the contrary, I honor fear completely and believe we must all truly understand the nature of fear and listen more to its advice and guidance.  Fear is our oldest ally in our struggle to survive and exist for as long as we have, and it is not to be dismissed or subjugated.  Instead, fear must be embraced so that we can harness its wisdom and consider its perspective in our effort to move through life effectively.  Without fear, we would all be completely vulnerable to the dangers of the world as fear is our first defense; it is that feeling that something is just not right.  Fear triggers us to be on alert, to pay closer attention, to be on the lookout for what may be wanting to do us harm.  Thus, please be assured that I will not be suggesting that anyone stop being afraid as that would not only be impossible, but incredibly irresponsible and dangerous.

However, my contention, and what I hope to convince you all of, is that fear is not to be fully trusted as it is unable to connect to any other perspective than its own.  By the very fact that it is an emotion, it cannot connect to anything beyond what it is programmed to tell us.  In other words, fear can only speak of danger and self-preservation; it will only ever tell us of the worst-case scenario and cannot see beyond the limits of what has already been experienced.  Fear is our body’s alarm system, alerting us to potential harm, but if we just blindly followed fear’s leadership, would we ever stretch beyond the limits of survival?  Would we ever challenge ourselves to try something new or attempt something that we have already failed?  Fear is pure reactivity, interested only in keeping us safe, and the safest place for us to be, is what we already know.  So, while fear is paramount to our survival, if we allow fear to be the driver of our lives, we will never even begin to see our true potential or what the world may have to offer us.

Therefore, please allow me to make the case for awareness.  According to the Buddhist tradition, there are three states of mind: The Emotional Mind; the Intellectual Mind; and the Wise Mind.  Very simply stated, if one lives only in the emotional mind, life is chaotic.  If one only allows intellect to guide them, they become robotic and find relating to others to be difficult, if not impossible.  Therefore, wisdom is the integration of emotion and intellect; the ability to connect to all the information in order to make the best possible choice in that moment.  Awareness is that wisdom, the harness which keeps fear from fully taking over and causing us to react rather than respond.  Whereas fear suggests that we can know what the future will be and thus control it, awareness accepts that we have no control over what will be or what has been, which allows us to connect to our ability to choose our next move in this moment.  Awareness helps us to see that our true power lies not in reacting, but in paying attention and preparing.

From the perspective of fear, this pandemic is the most dangerous thing that has ever happened to us; it is so unknown and so outside of our control that it is easy fall into the belief that we must only focus on our own survival.  From the perspective of awareness, however, this is simply one more challenge we must face and find our way to the other side.  Again, this is not dismissive of the massive struggles and life-altering consequences being enacted because of this crisis.  It is, however, a recognition that process is more important than content.  If we focus only on the content, then every time we encounter something new or different, we will immediately be plunged into a state of fear and instantly think that this new thing is dangerous and that we should just stay where we are, paralyzed but safe.  If, on the other hand, we were to realize that everything we encounter for the first time is, by definition unknown, we would see that the process is always the same: pay attention and learn what we can, then approach with caution to see what needs to happen to overcome that challenge, and put what we have learned into practice, thus making the unknown, known.

It has been said that the most certain thing in life is uncertainty yet fear inherently rejects uncertainty and invites us to live under an illusion of security, which always presents a dilemma when something unexpected occurs.  This is not fear’s fault as its sole function is to keep us safe and there is nothing more unsafe than the unknown.  The challenge here is, of course, that our body’s primary defense system automatically and instantly resists this basic truth about life, that life is uncertain.  With practice, however, we can cultivate the awareness to live our lives free from the bonds of our automatic processes.  We can learn to create space between what is happening around us (that which is out of our control) and how we choose to respond.  It is this ability to live life intentionally and with purpose that will enable us to find our way through any challenge we face.  So, when fear tries to convince you to react and think only of survival, see if you might pause a moment to consider what awareness would say.

What is Acceptance?

Along with Mindfulness, Acceptance has become a new buzz word and yet, in my experience, many people seem to misunderstand what it means to accept things as they are. I hear people saying, “It is what it is,” and while that sounds very Zen and as though those individuals are at peace with the struggle they face, I often wonder if they are using it more as a way to avoid feelings, just as we may do when we go have a drink after a hard day at  work. To act as if something does not bother us is not the same as accepting that struggle for what it is, at least not in the way that phrase was intended to be used.

Instead, true acceptance is a recognition that whatever is occurring is occurring regardless of whether we want it to or not. This is not an attempt to dismiss our emotions around the challenge at hand or act as though we are not bothered by such a challenge. True acceptance, on the contrary, allows everything to exist as it does, including whatever emotions or resistance or thoughts we may have about the situation. From this standpoint, life happens as it happens and our response to life happening is perfectly understandable given what we know at the time. Acceptance, then, is an exercise in seeing things clearly so that we can begin to practice responding as we choose rather than reacting as we have always done, being a slave to our conditioned and automatic responses.

So often, it seems as though we are living in a culture of instant gratification and avoidance of painful, or potentially painful, experiences. What is missed in this approach to life is that the struggle to find our way through a particular challenge or the pain associated with that struggle can be our greatest teacher if we can just allow ourselves to pay attention to the lesson. The greatest example of this is a child learning to walk. If anyone has ever witnessed this, they can clearly see that there is a great struggle in this endeavor, and yet to avoid that struggle or find a shortcut to circumvent the process, would do a great disservice to that child. We may all be able to see that for that child the struggle is super important and that child is the only one who can overcome his challenge. Furthermore, that child never seems to give up or waiver because they failed the first time, they simply get back up and try again. However, as we get older, we somehow forget what it is like to be that child and lose sight of how important overcoming challenges is to our growth and well-being.

There is no doubt that we all experience challenge and struggle in our lives, and while each of our individual struggles may be unique to our life circumstances, we all share a common bond in the pain that is life. While this may sound bleak, I offer that it is quite the opposite as it is not in the circumstances of life that we discover our potential, it is in how we choose to respond to such circumstances. In this way, acceptance helps us to be present to what life brings to us, free from judgment or fear or rejection so that we can begin to find solutions to our dilemmas and navigate our way through them and soak up any lessons we can learn along the way.