Fear does a really, really good job at convincing us it is real. Throughout my years of experiencing anxiety, panic, intrusive thoughts, depression, etc., I’ve had moments where I was so entangled in my thoughts and fears as being very real. As if I had every reason to be scared and to react and to fight and to give in.
But most of these fears that anxiety creates are just that- fear. Not truth, not reality, but fear. And fear itself cannot hurt us. How we RESPOND to the fear is what has the ability to harm us or help us.
So what if we saw fear for what it was? What if we called it out? What if we revealed its ridiculous lies?
It can be incredibly hard sometimes to decide what’s fear and what’s actually a threat. For example, say we have the thought, “What if I drive off this bridge right now?” (and if this thought doesn’t resonate with you, you can replace it with pretty much any fear-thought: What if I hurt someone else? What if I’m having a heart attack? What if I become a pedophile? What if this panic attack kills me?) We have the thought and our body starts to respond with fear. We feel our hearts racing and our stomach dropping.
And first, we might need to take a moment to assess the situation rationally. You might tell yourself that you have anxiety and that doesn’t mean you’re going to lose control and do something you wouldn’t normally do. You might remind yourself that you’ve had strange thoughts like this before and that they’re just a product of an anxious mind, and that many, many people struggle with this. You might remind yourself that “what if’s” are usually always a part of anxious thinking and NOT present dangers.
But as soon as we can call fear out, we lessen its grip.
Oh, this is just fear. This is just anxiety.
We see fear as the illusion that it is.
And then, we can train ourselves to see that fear and to offer it a smile. “Oh how funny, fear is trying to scare me again.”
One of my favorite stories that I think of often is the one of the Buddha becoming enlightened. Tara Brach shares it wonderfully in her book, Radical Acceptance.
She tells of how the Buddha-to-be sat underneath the bodhi tree to meditate. Soon enough, the god Mara came to visit, who represented the shadow-side of human nature. Mara appeared to the Buddha in many forms, trying to scare him and tempt him. He’d show up as violent storms, raging demons, massive armies. But each time that Mara appeared, the Buddha opened to the fear. He sat with what he felt. He recognized Mara as ILLUSION.
Even after the Buddha became enlightened, Mara would still visit him, coming up with new ways to scare him, but the Buddha would simply invite Mara to tea. He’d let Mara in and speak to him as a friend, with kindness and compassion, all the while recognizing that Mara was not truth and could not hurt him.
So those moments when I feel completely bombarded by fear and anxiety and horrible physical sensations and intrusive thoughts, I pause. I recognize it as illusion. I recognize that it cannot hurt me, even though it’s trying so, so hard to convince me that it can and that I should be scared.
Then, I try to smile at the fear. I imagine myself sitting under a tree, eyes closed, allowing all of this horror to swirl around me but not touch me or affect me. I just sit there smiling, all the while.
“Oh hi again, fear. I see that you’re trying to scare me in a new way. I see you. I love you. Be here, but I will not believe you.”
When we believe the fear and give into the fear, we give it ALL of the power. And when we rest in our own true nature that is loving, compassionate and kind, we realize that we don’t need to play into fear and that we can just let it be.
I know this is a lot more challenging than it sounds, and it’s something I still have to practice. Sometimes I believe the fear thoughts and it takes me a little longer to see the illusion, but that’s okay. Because eventually I DO see. And eventually, I can always return to my own loving heart that knows fear is not truth. So we practice. We send ourselves lots of kindness. And we smile at fear, because maybe all it wants is our loving attention.