Maria described herself, during our first therapy session, as a “prisoner of fear.” Her slight frame was tense, and her dark eyes had an apprehensive look. From the outside, she said, her life appeared to be going very well. As a social worker, she was a strong advocate for her clients. She had good friends, and she had been living with her partner, Jeff, for three years. Yet her incessant worrying about how things might go wrong clouded every experience.
When stuck in morning traffic, Maria was gripped with fear about being late for work. She was perpetually anxious about disappointing her clients or saying the wrong thing at staff lunches. Any hint of making a mistake spiraled into a fear of being fired. At home, if Jeff spoke in a sharp tone, Maria’s heart pounded and her stomach knotted up. “This morning he complained that I’d left the gas tank near empty, and I thought, ‘He’s going to walk out and never come back,’” she said. Maria could never shake the feeling that just around the corner, things were going to fall apart.
Maria was living in what I call the trance of fear. When you are in this trance, fearful thoughts and emotions take over and obscure the larger truths of life. You forget the love between you and your dear ones; you forget the beauty of the natural world; you forget your essential goodness and wholeness. You expect trouble and are unable to live in the present moment.
Brain chemistry and genetics may predispose a person to excessive fearfulness, and it can be fueled by societal circumstances, such as the perception of a terrorist threat. Traumatic childhood experiences may also give rise to the trance of fear.
For Maria, the fear took hold in elementary school, when her mother was holding down two jobs and going to night school, leaving Maria to care for her two younger siblings. Her father worked erratically, drank too much, and had an unpredictable temper. “He would barge in at dinnertime, red-faced and angry, yell at me, and then disappear into his room,” she told me. “I had no idea what I’d done wrong.” When Maria was 13, her father vanished without a word, and she always felt that she had driven him away.
It is understandable that Maria’s fear of her father’s anger became linked with a belief that her “badness” made him leave. But even if your personal history is not so distressing, you might spend a part of your life worrying about the ways in which you aren’t good enough.
Fear itself is a natural and necessary part of being alive. All living beings experience themselves as separate, with a sense of “me in here” and “the world out there.” And that sense of separateness leads you to recognize that you can be injured by others, and that, eventually, the “me in here” will die. At the same time, you are genetically programmed to keep yourself alive and free from harm, and it is fear that signals you to respond when threats arise. It lets you know to hit the brakes when the car in front of you suddenly stops, or to call 911 if you are having chest pain.
The problem is that fear often works overtime. Mark Twain said it well when he quipped: “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” Think for just a minute about all of the time you’ve spent fearful and worrying. Looking back, you might see that much of what you fearfully anticipated turned out fine. Precious moments in life—moments that could have been full of love, creativity, and presence—were taken over by habitual fear.
Here’s the good news: When you bring what I call unconditional presence to the trance of fear, you create the foundation for true spiritual awakening. In other words, as you learn to face your fears with courage and kindness, you discover the loving awareness that is your true nature. This awakening is the essence of all healing, and its fruition is the freedom to live and love fully.
While the basic experience of fear is that “something is wrong,” many people turn that feeling into “there must be something wrong with me.” This is especially true in Western culture, where one’s sense of belonging to family, community, and the natural world is often weak and the pressure to achieve is so strong. You may feel as though you must live up to certain standards in order to be loved, so you constantly monitor yourself, trying to see if you’re falling short.
When you live in this trance of fear, you instinctively develop strategies to protect yourself. I call these attempts to find safety and relief “false refuges,” since they work, at best, only for the time being.
One such strategy is physical contraction. When you stay trapped in fear, you begin to feel tight and guarded, even when there is no immediate threat. Your shoulders may become permanently knotted and raised, your head thrust forward, your back hunched, your belly tense. Chronic fear can generate a permanent suit of armor. In such a state, we become, as the Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa taught, a bundle of tense muscles defending our very existence.
The trance of fear traps the mind in rigid patterns, too. The mind obsesses and produces endless stories, reminding you of the bad things that might happen and creating strategies to avoid them.
In addition to physical armoring and mental obsession, there are many well-worn behavioral strategies for reducing or avoiding fear. You might run from fear by staying busy, trying to accomplish a lot, or judging others critically to boost your ego. Or maybe you take the popular approach of numbing yourself by indulging in too much food, drugs, or alcohol. Yet no amount of doing or numbing can erase the undercurrents of feeling fearful and unworthy. In fact, the efforts you make to avoid fear and prove yourself worthy only reinforce the deep sense of being separate and inadequate. When you run from fear and take false refuge, you miss being in the very place where genuine healing and peace are possible.
Bringing compassion and mindfulness directly to the experience of fear will help dissolve the trance, taking you inside to the real refuge of unconditional presence. Compassion is the spacious quality of heart that allows and holds with tenderness whatever you are experiencing. It seeks to answer the question, Can I meet this moment, this experience, with kindness? Mindfulness is the clear recognition of your moment-to-moment experience. Here the inquiry to use is, What is happening inside me right now? Being mindfully attentive means that you are aware of the stories you are telling yourself and the feelings and sensations in your body. You can initially emphasize either compassion or mindfulness in meditation; both are essential when facing fear.
One evening, Maria arrived at my office distraught and unnerved. A co-worker was sick and Maria’s boss had asked her to step in as supervisor for their team of social workers. Sitting rigidly with her eyes downcast, she said bleakly, “Tara, I am really scared.”
I invited her to pause—to breathe and simply be aware of the two of us sitting together. “I’m here with you right now,” I said. “Would it be all right if we paid attention to the fear together?” Looking up at me, she nodded. “Good,” I said, and went on. “You might begin by asking yourself, ‘What am I believing right now?’” Maria responded without hesitation. “I’m going to let everyone down,” she said. “They’ll see that it was a mistake to ever hire me. They’ll want to get rid of me.”
When you are emotionally stuck, becoming mindful of what you believe at that moment can be a powerful part of awakening from trance. By bringing your stories and limiting beliefs to light, they gradually have less hold on your psyche. I encouraged Maria to simply acknowledge the thoughts as a story she was telling herself, and then to sense the feelings of vulnerability in her body. I assured her that if the process felt like more than she could handle, we could shift our attention—it’s not helpful to feel overwhelmed or possessed by fear. After a few moments, she reported in a shaky voice, “The fear is big. My stomach is clenched, and my heart is banging. Mostly there is a gripping, aching, empty feeling in my heart.”
I invited her to check in with the fear, to ask it what it wanted from her. Maria sat quietly for a few moments and then began speaking slowly: “It wants to know that it’s OK that it’s here…that I accept it. And…” At this point she became quiet for some long moments. “And that I pay attention, keep it company.” Then, in a barely audible voice she whispered, “I will try. I want to keep you company.” This was one of Maria’s first moments of being truly compassionate with herself. Instead of pushing away her feelings, she was able to gently acknowledge and accept them.
What Maria and all of us need is to feel that we are loved and understood. This is the essence of unconditional presence, the true refuge that can heal the trance of fear. As the Buddha taught, our fear is great, but greater yet is the truth of our essential connectedness.
If you’ve been wounded in a relationship, the love and understanding of friends are essential components in bringing a healing presence to your fears. You need the gift of this caring presence from others, and through meditations that cultivate compassion and mindfulness, you can learn to offer it to yourself.
And if you’ve been traumatized, I think it’s important to seek the help of a therapist as well as an experienced meditation teacher as you begin deepening your presence with fear. Otherwise, when you allow yourself to reexperience the fear, you may find it to be traumatic rather than healing.
In Maria’s case, we spent several weeks working with meditative practices that develop unconditional presence. I acted as her guide, and when she became aware of fear, I encouraged her first to pause, because pausing creates a space for you to arrive in the present moment. Then she would begin mindfully naming out loud what she was noticing: the thoughts she was believing, the shakiness and tightness in her belly, the squeeze in her heart.
With whatever was arising, Maria’s practice was to notice it, breathe with it, and with gentle, nonjudging attention, allow it to unfold naturally. If it felt overwhelming, she would open her eyes and reconnect to the sense of being with me, to the songs of the birds, to the trees and sky outside my office window.
Abandoning False Refuges
The challenge in facing fear is to overcome the initial reflex to dissociate from the body and take false refuge in racing thoughts. To combat this tendency to pull away from fear, you awaken mindfulness by intentionally leaning in. This means shifting your attention away from the stories—the planning, judging, worrying—and fully connecting with your feelings and the sensations in your body. By gently leaning in instead of pulling away, you discover the compassionate presence that releases you from the grip of fear.
My meditation student Phil got an opportunity to lean in to fear the first night his 16-year-old son borrowed the car. Josh had promised to return home by midnight. But midnight came and went. As the minutes passed, Phil became increasingly agitated. Had Josh been drinking? Had he had an accident? By 12:30 Phil was furious, trying his son’s cell phone every few minutes.
Then he remembered the instructions on mindfulness from the weekly meditation class he attended. He sat down, desperate to ease his agitation. “OK, I’m pausing,” he began. “Now, what’s going on inside me?” Immediately he felt the rising pressure in his chest. Noting “anger, anger,” he experienced the sensations filling his body. Then, under the anger, Phil felt the painful clutch of fear. His mind was imagining the police calling with the news that is a parent’s worst nightmare. He leaned in, breathing with the fear, feeling its crushing weight at his chest. The story kept arising, and each time, Phil returned to his body, bringing his breath and attention directly to the place of churning, pressing fear.
As he leaned in to the fear, he found buried within it the hollow ache of grief. Then, drawing on a traditional Buddhist compassion practice, Phil began gently offering himself the message “I care about this suffering,” repeating the phrase over and over as his eyes filled with tears. Phil was holding his grief with compassion, and as he did so, he could feel how much he cherished his son. While the fear remained, leaning in had connected him with unconditional presence.
A short while later, he heard the car rolling into the driveway. Josh barged into the living room and launched into his defense: He had lost track of time. The cell phone had run out of juice. Instead of reacting, Phil listened quietly. Then with his eyes glistening, he told his son, “This last hour was one of the worst I’ve gone through. I love you and…” He was silent for some moments and then continued softly, “I was afraid something terrible had happened. Please, Josh, don’t do this again.” The boy’s armor instantly melted, and apologizing, he sank onto the couch next to his dad.
If Phil had not met his fears with unconditional presence, they would have possessed him and fueled angry reactivity. Instead, he opened to the full truth of his experience and was able to meet his son from a place of honesty and wholeness, rather than blame.
Several months after we had started therapy, Maria arrived for our session with her own story of healing. Two nights before, she and Jeff had been arguing about an upcoming visit from his parents. Tired from a difficult day at work, he suggested they figure things out the next evening. Without their usual goodnight kiss, he just rolled over and fell asleep.
Filled with agitation, Maria got up, went into her office, and sat down on her meditation cushion. As she had done so often with me, she became still, pausing to check in and find out what was going on. There was a familiar swirl of thoughts: “He’s ashamed of me. He doesn’t really want to be with me.” Then she had an image of her father, drunk and angry, walking out the front door, and she heard a familiar inner voice saying, “No matter how hard I try, he’s going to leave me.” She felt as if icy claws were gripping her heart. Her whole body was shaking.
Taking a few deep breaths, Maria began whispering a prayer: “Please, may I feel held in love.” She called to mind her spirit allies—her grandmother, a close friend, and me—and visualized us circling around her, a presence that could help keep her company as she experienced the quaking in her heart. Placing her hand gently on her heart, she sensed compassion pouring through her hand directly into the core of her vulnerability.
She decided to let go of any resistance to the fear and to let it be as big as it was. Breathing with it, she felt something shift: “The fear was storming through me, but it felt like a violent current moving through a sea of love.” She heard a gentle whisper arise from her heart: “When I trust I’m the ocean, I’m not afraid of the waves.” This homecoming to the fullness of our being is the gift of fear, and it frees us to be genuinely intimate with our world. The next evening when Maria and Jeff met to talk, she felt at peace. “For the first time ever,” she told me, “I could let in the truth that he loved me.”
As long as you are alive, you will feel fear. It is an intrinsic part of your world, as natural as a bitter cold winter day or the winds that rip branches off trees. If you resist it or push it aside, you miss a powerful opportunity for healing and freedom. When you face your fears with mindfulness and compassion, you begin to realize the loving and luminous awareness that, like the ocean, can hold the moving waves. This boundless presence is your true refuge—you are coming home to the vastness of your own awakened heart.