Recently, I took an informal poll of some friends, colleagues, and students in which I asked them what they considered their biggest inner roadblock. Three out of four people said “fear.” The truth is that fear doesn’t have to be paralyzing: For a person on the verge of transformation, fear can be a great teacher. But if you want freedom from fear, you also need to learn how to work with it. You’ve no doubt heard or experienced how yoga can help you release fears from your body. Yet at some point, most of us will be asked to move into our fear, to explore its different layers in the body and mind. Here’s a guide to working with fear from three points of view—inspired by questions from readers in the process of encountering and moving through some basic fears.
In meditation, I am able to slip into quiet fairly easily. But I often feel as if something just outside my awareness is trying to get in, and it makes me anxious. Something is causing me fear, and I don’t know what to do about it.
Meditation is, among other things, a journey through the layers of your psyche. As you move deeper, you’ll travel past the fairly superficial level of your conscious mind—with its mental chatter, problem-solving tendencies, and the like. You’ll also encounter your subconscious, with its insights, feelings of blissfulness, waves of irritation, volcanic pits of anger, or swamps of sadness. One of the great boons of meditation practice is that it can teach you to move through these layers without identifying with them. With practice, you learn to recognize that all this stuff is arising, passing through you, and subsiding. If you can learn to stay with your meditation when fear shows up, resisting the impulse to believe the story that fear is telling you, you will allow your psyche to cleanse itself of the fear. The basic practice is to recognize thoughts and feelings as just what they are—thoughts, movements of emotional energy, and nothing more.
As you practice noticing “Ah, here’s a repetitive thought pattern” or “Here’s a layer of fear,” you’ll eventually have the direct experience of watching these inner patterns come to the surface and then fade away. Over time, you’ll find many layers of fear, guilt, and desire begin to release. Meaning, they’re gone. You’ll no longer find your subconscious fear or resentment running your life from beneath your awareness. This is one of the ways in which meditation brings true inner freedom—it liberates you from being run by the emotional currents of the mind. And as you train yourself in meditation to hold steady with emotions and not be completely subject to them, it becomes easier to do this in life.
When I first began meditating, I, like you, became conscious for the first time of the buzzing anxiety that permeated my system. It seemed to have no immediate cause, though it would often attach itself to reasons, to stories. As I studied the research on stress, I realized that this basic anxiety was the residue of long-accumulated fight-or-flight experiences. So much of my life had been spent in stressful, performance-demanding situations that I’d lost control of the “Off” button that could stop the stress chemicals from flooding my body. I was living in a continual bath of stress hormones.
In the high-stress environment of contemporary society, the fight-or-flight response is triggered over and over and becomes chronic. Meditation will help you process that agitation, and part of the processing happens simply by holding what is sometimes called a spacious mindfulness. To create this state, you must first recognize the way anxiety feels in your body. As you breathe, tune in to the way it feels in your muscles, the different sensations it creates. Do this with a soft, gentle feeling of affection for yourself. Once you recognize it, you can practice releasing stress on the exhalation. As you do this, talk to yourself, coach yourself by saying, “It’s all right” or “Let go a little.” Don’t feel that you need to get rid of your anxiety all at once. Instead, use the first moments of your meditation practice to release, little by little, the anxiety that is layered into your body and breath.
You might find it useful to spend a few minutes before meditation shaking out your body. Shake one arm seven times, then the other. Shake one leg, then the other. Let your head bobble. Scrunch up your body, then release it. The physical relaxation process will begin to move the accumulated stress that is showing up in your consciousness as anxiety.
Basic biological anxiety is one level of fear. But behind our stress-related anxiety is the deeper, more primal fear that comes from the personal ego’s fear of annihilation. By “personal ego,” I mean the basic tendency to identify with a limited experience of Self. The ego performs an important function. It creates boundaries around your experience, making it possible for you to act as an individual in the world. It says, “I am this and not that.” “I am Sally and not Fred.” It makes personal meaning out of the raw data of experience.
Unfortunately, the ego filters the innumerable experiences of your lifetime and creates “stories” about them. It also fixates on these stories, defines “you” through these stories, and then creates strategies for self-preservation that may be spontaneous and creative, but that can also put rigid holding patterns into your body and mind.
As long as you identify with your body, your mental and social abilities, your roles, and your conscious experience of personality, you are going to be afraid of losing them. In fact, the ego is essentially a controller and protector, concerned with keeping “you” safe and improving your ability to cope. But most egos define “safety” rather narrowly. Most egos don’t like the unknown (that is, unless the ego defines itself as an adventurer, in which case it may feel more threatened by the ordinary). So when you find yourself in unfamiliar territory (for instance, deep meditation), the ego is likely to go on hyperalert and send out danger signals—in other words, it will manufacture or trigger feelings of fear.
Child of the Universe
In fact, when you go deep into meditation, you will begin to experience yourself as part of the whole, as part of the earth, as part of the energetic substratum that connects all living beings. At that point, the primal fear that arises from your sense of being separate from the whole (and hence subject to annihilation) can leave you. The joy that this creates is one of the most powerful gifts of meditation. Yet, paradoxically, this feeling of freedom is the one thing that the ego resists above all else! The ego will protest when you begin to experience the inner shift into meditation—that sensation of sinking into a deep place, or the sense that your awareness is expanding beyond the boundaries of the body. For some of us, the ego’s protest takes the form of pride—”Oh, wow, I’m making progress.” Sometimes, it takes the form of fear. Understanding this is crucial. Once you recognize that the fear is largely a product of the ego’s storytelling mechanism, you can work with it without being hijacked by it.
When fear comes up during meditation, two practices can help you move beyond it. First, imagine greeting your fear and bowing to it. Ask the fear what it has to say to you, then listen to the message. Tell the fear that you know it is trying to protect you, that you appreciate this, but that you would like it to back off for now. Then sit in meditation a bit longer, allowing yourself to experience the spaciousness that this will create.
When you soften to fear and treat it kindly (as opposed to trying to get rid of it), you make space for fear to relax. At that point, you will begin to realize that fear is not something concrete and solid, that it will pass, and that you can even see through it. You can recognize that it’s a natural reaction to the new, and let it go.
You may also try the classic method for activating the observing self, the so-called witness of the fear. You can use any self-inquiry question here, such as “What is it in me that observes fear?” or “Who experiences the fear?” or “Who am I beyond this fear?” This allows you to begin to find that part of yourself that is unaffected by fear—the part of you that can not only observe its own fear but can also see it as part of the whole panoply of your experience in the moment. In this way, fear becomes less implacable.
Welcome the Truth
I’ve been dealing with some health issues. They’re not life threatening, but they bring up enormous fear. I have been working with the contemplation “I am not my fear; I am the awareness that knows my fear,” but it doesn’t really help. Do you have any ideas?
A health crisis, the loss of someone dear to you, or a natural disaster touches two kinds of fear. One is the biological fear that is built into the body and helps ensure our survival. This is the kind of fear—call it primal fear, or natural fright—that gets your heart pumping, impels you to defend your safety, and ultimately protects you.
The second is psychological—the fear that you create by anticipating a painful future or by dwelling on painful past events. Most of the negative outcomes you dread will never happen, and yet when you think about them, you trigger the physiological reactions in the body that actual danger would set off.
A genuine threat will often activate not only the primal, biological fear of death but also your habitual anticipation of catastrophe. You can deal with the psychological pattern primarily by finding the part of you that is not touched by fear. However, in order to find this, you will need to become present to the experience of fear itself, rather than simply try to get rid of it. I believe that this is what you are being given the chance to do.
Recently, I heard from my friend Lowell, who made a life-trajectory decision that got him booted out of his job, his marriage, and his home and had him sleeping on people’s couches for nearly a year, waking up every night with heart palpitations and a fear of the future. He handled it at first the way you’ve been handling it: by trying to apply the yogic teachings he’d learned. But he found that simply thinking “I am not my fear” was too abstract to help him with the sheer physical terror of not knowing how his future would play out.
He told me that three things helped him through this year of radical uncertainty. First, he began paying attention to the feelings of fear in his body and breath. Second, he faced his fear of the unknown every time it came up, rather than turning away from it, denying it, or trying to talk himself out of it. And third, accepting his fear as natural, he then asked himself two questions: “Where is love in all this?” and “Where is the Self that doesn’t die?”
To work with your fear, you’re being asked to accept and even welcome what your health crisis is trying to show you—that loss and death are natural parts of life. The more you try to protect yourself against loss, the more fearful you become and the more likely you are to be thrown by the natural uncertainty of life. It’s a paradox that when you try to insulate yourself against the things you fear, you make yourself more susceptible to them.
To believe that you should be immune from change, loss, and pain is a form of magical thinking, the defensive crouch of the immature ego. I catch myself at it often—believing that I, alone, am somehow immune from dying! Yet some of my most profoundly alive moments have come in the aftermath of a visceral recognition that I, too, will die. When you accept that you, too (yes, even you!) can lose a job, lose love, lose health—and still remain you—you also open the door to recognizing your own place within the larger fabric of life. And, combined with your meditation practice, this acceptance of large and small deaths can, paradoxically, let you see that what is most deeply “you” cannot be lost.
One step beyond acceptance is the practice of actually welcoming the health crisis. When you welcome events that threaten your ego’s sense of well-being, you affirm the truth that you are bigger than the events, that there is a wholeness to you that can withstand even the big-time ego busts that come through sickness, loss, and failure. Welcoming what comes, whatever it is, is a powerful way of loosening the grip of fear and anger.
You can try it now. Try saying, “I welcome this health crisis because it is giving me an opportunity to take better care of myself. I welcome it because it reminds me that I am human and vulnerable. I welcome it because when I welcome it, the gesture of welcoming will open my heart. I welcome it because I know that this experience will teach me things about myself that I could never learn if nothing ever went wrong.
“I welcome it, finally, because by welcoming even what I don’t like in myself, even what I wish had never happened, even what hurts, I create the possibility of more openness, more freedom, and more joy.” To welcome what is, instead of trying to push it away, triggers the natural goodness within your own being. There’s an old saying: “What you resist, persists.” Its opposite is also true: “What you let in, leaves.” That release gives you the opportunity to discover the natural courage that is even deeper than fear.
I recently started to sing professionally. I love to sing, but as soon as I began thinking about singing as a career, I developed a quaver in my voice. I’ve undergone therapy to look at the emotional issues behind my problem. But the deeper issue may be fear. How can yoga help?
Performance anxiety has many tendrils, but at its root is the belief that your identity is bound up in your skill as a performer. Like the rest of us, you carry an image of who you need to be in order to be acceptable to yourself. When you have an image that you have to live up to—as a singer, a competent and responsible adult, or a “yogi”—your sense of safety and well-being will depend to a large extent on how well you do it. The more deeply you identify with what you do, the scarier mistakes are—because a mistake calls your sense of self into question. If this questioning becomes acute, every performance seems like a life-or-death situation.
Sometimes you can use this stress to give yourself energy and focus. But if the identification and the aversion to failure are too much, you freeze, and a pattern gets locked into the body. If you’re a singer or speaker, the pattern tends to cluster in the throat—and before you know it, you have a quaver or, perhaps, a tendency to go flat or sharp. You may even lose your voice altogether. Examining the emotional issues behind your quaver will help, as will the many skillful techniques that singing coaches offer for relaxing the throat. But the fear of failure often doesn’t go away through emotional work, or even with success, if you continue to identify with your gifts as a performer. Laurence Olivier, the greatest actor of his generation, developed paralyzing stage fright in the midst of the most successful period of his career.
One of the most helpful ways to work with the fear that comes from overly-identifying with success is to remember your original motivation for singing. This can be a pivotal practice in helping you overcome a block. It certainly was for me. I began writing almost as soon as I could talk, because the process of looking inside to find words and imagine stories gave me immense pleasure. But because my writing was praised, it eventually became a linchpin of my identity, bound up with my sense of self-worth. The result was that in my 20s, as a professional journalist, I became so terrified of not writing well that my mind would seize up at the typewriter. Consequently, I would often write 10 different beginnings for a piece, unable to decide which one was the best. The higher the stakes (that is, the bigger the media outlet I was writing for), the more scared I grew and the harder it became to finish anything.
At one point, I began drawing, just for fun. I have no particular talent as an artist, so there was no ego involvement whatsoever. The result? When I drew, I tapped into the same inner satisfaction I’d originally received from the act of writing. To recognize this was a revelation. Once I could see that it was my identification of myself as a writer that paralyzed me, I began to practice detaching my sense of self from writing. For me, the trick was to look at my writing as if it were someone else’s—as a product rather than as the expression of “me.” This silenced the inner critic, and I began to get back in touch with the sheer pleasure of writing.
Use Your Gift
The yogic key to freedom in action is in the Bhagavad Gita: “Your right is to the performance of actions, but not to its fruit.” One interpretation of this mysterious and significant phrase is that using your gift is its own satisfaction, so you can do what you do for its own sake. Yes, you may lose that original joy when your art becomes your profession. But even in the midst of struggling for mastery, there will be moments when you remember that singing is a natural expression of who you are. You sing the way a rose emits fragrance, or the way a bird sings. It’s simply a part of your being.
Offer Up Your Song
On the road to loosening the clutch of fear and taking back your original joy of singing, try one of these self-coaching points. (They’re not just for singers). First, realize that you are developing your skills. Think of yourself as being in training. Instead of expecting yourself to have mastered your voice, think, “I’m learning.” If you believe you’re supposed to be a master, you’ll criticize yourself when you aren’t. But if you define yourself as a learner, you’re much more likely to forgive yourself for mistakes. Instead of mentally trashing yourself when your voice quavers, tell yourself, “I’m in the process of learning how to sing with power and ease!”
The second step is to make your voice an offering. Offer your voice and your song and your vocal cords to humanity—to the All—using whatever frame allows you to touch your sense of the greater whole. Remember that once you make an offering, the outcome is out of your hands. It’s not your voice anymore. It belongs to the universe, to God.
Third, ask the universe, the absolute love, God, your higher Self, or perhaps the spirit of a singer you admire, to sing through you. Open yourself to allowing that to happen. The key to letting go at the deepest level is to feel that you are not singing, but being sung. In fact, this is the truth. There is no “you” singing. Singing is happening through your body, your vocal cords, and your mind. What freedom arises when you let that be true!