For most of us, when life feels out of control our most ready response is fear. When fear dominates, our sense of possibility collapses. It limits our options, strangles creativity, restricts our vision of what is possible. When the danger is physical, fear leads us in one of two directions: fight or flight. The body mobilizes to help us battle the menace or flee to safety. But even when we aren't in mortal danger, if we're lost in fear we respond the same way. We either resist what is happening by angrily insisting that it be different, or we tighten up and pull away, denying our experience. When we are deeply afraid, we view any change as a threat and the unfamiliar as a mortal enemy.

Being alive necessarily means uncertainty and risk, times of going into the unknown. If we withdraw from the flow of life, our hearts contract. We hold back so much that we feel separate from our own bodies and minds, separate from other people, even people we really care about. In the grip of other intense emotions, like grief and jealousy, we might feel anguish, but fear shuts us down, arrests the life force. To be driven by fear is like dying inside.

-- Sharon Salzberg

After listening to Patricia’s fear for more than six months, one day I told her that for the next four weeks she was simply not allowed to be afraid. She had looked at me in confusion, unable to imagine what I had meant. Carefully I explained that I had observed that her first reaction to just about everything was fear and that when people had one reaction to everything, that reaction became suspect. In short, I did not believe that all her fear was true.

Abruptly she had become angry, telling me that I was no compassionate and indeed did not see her or understand her. “No,” I said, “I believe that after all these months I do see you. This fear that has so little to do with who you are got in the way.”

Calmer, she asked again what it was I was suggesting that she do. She reminded me that she experienced fear many times every day. “I know,” I told her, “and I am proposing an experiment.” I suggested that whenever she felt fear that she think of it as only her first response to whatever was happening. The most familiar response, as it were. I encouraged her to look for and find her second response and follow that. “Ask yourself, ‘If I was not afraid, if I were not allowed to be afraid, how would I respond tow hat is happening’” She was reluctant, but she agreed to try.

At first, Patricia had been discouraged to notice how many times she experienced fear every day. But she was surprised to find that often she could step past her initial stab of fear with some ease and that then she had a wide variety of different reactions to the events in her life. It had never occurred to her to challenge her fear in this way before.

After a few weeks, she even began to wonder whether she, herself, was afraid. For the first time she questioned if the fear that had been her life’s companion was just a sort of habit, a knee-jerk response to life that she had learned years ago. Over the next few months whenever she felt fear, she would stop and ask herself if it were true, looking closely to see if she really was afraid. Surprisingly often, she discovered she was not.

Over time, she found that she was not afraid to submit her work to others, not afraid to try when she was not sure she could succeed, not afraid to speak out in defense of her values, not afraid to introduce herself to someone and offer them her help, not afraid to confront an angry person. Her mother had been afraid of all these things.

Staying safe had been the most important thing in her mother’s life. Slowly Patricia came to realize that it was not the most important thing in hers. Her mother had lived a narrow and unhappy life. It had been a close call. “Rachel,” she told me, “if you carry someone else’s fear and live by someone else’s values, you may find that you have lived their lives.”

-- Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings 

Pain is fear leaving the body.

-- unattributed

Fear is excitement without oxygen.

-- unattributed