Oh The Things I’m Scared Of!—Meditating on My Fears

I invited Fear to speak her mind today during my daily meditation, a practice I’ve been developing for some time now and have written about elsewhere. She started in on a pretty standard list:

  • Fear of injury (a few weeks earlier an acquaintance had fallen 40-feet and shattered his feet and ankle bones, so I feel more vulnerable than usual, and mindful of my luck)
  • Fear that my new workshop venture will fail
  • Fear of irrelevance (which surprised me, because I don’t think of myself as particularly relevant anyhow)
  • Fear of death

Then Fear went wild. I’d never heard her this animated. She started chanting, death and failure, death and failure, death and failure, over and over. I was disconcerted, heading toward freaked out. I started trying to rationalize that I shouldn’t be scared of death, because I wouldn’t even know. I tried to convince myself I wasn’t scared of death, that death was a new beginning. I did not persuade myself. I thought maybe I could distract Fear. So, I asked her, is it really death? Casually. As if we were having a conversation over a glass of wine. Failure, yes, I get that. She thought a moment and then launched into more frenetic chanting, pain and failure, pain and failure, pain and failure. Oh yes. Pain. Just the thought made me want to squirm out of my skin. I could not rationalize pain away.

As I listened to Fear chanting, I thought about how I was going to write down what she said. Here. For this post. I judged myself harshly for thinking into the future. I judged myself for judging myself. Meanwhile, even as I was having this side conversation with the Judge (another voice in my mind’s pantheon), Fear chanted on. She wasn’t going to let me get too caught up in other distracting thoughts. Zip-zaps of fear-adrenaline (really, it’s cortisol, if you want to get scientifically precise) kept flushing through my heart, then radiating outward in a sunburst.

After a while she calmed down and went back to her usual litany style. Once Fear gets rolling, the lists can get long:

  1. that my ambitions are too big, I’ve overreached and, therefore, my aspirations will not come to pass and I’ll deserve the failure
  2. that I will never make a decent living
  3. that I will lose everything
  4. that society will descend into violence and I will be the first to die, because I don’t want to be violent
  5. or worse, that I will descend into violence, too
  6. that I won’t be able to afford to color my hair and will age overnight
  7. that I’m a crap partner, sister, daughter, aunt, friend
  8. that everything I do is destined for mediocrity
  9. that I can’t be a better person that who I am
  10. that people say “phew” when I leave
  11. that I shouldn’t wear a bathing suit in front of other people (this, as particular punishment for having not understood why someone would not do a swim workout because they were worried about how they’d look in a bathing suit)
  12. that my upper arms are too saggy (despite my strength) to wear sleeveless
  13. that everything really is my fault
  14. that my needs take up too much space and are unreasonable; and furthermore, that I am indulgent with my needs (for example, on a day when I have a show, an interview or a talk, I schedule as little else as possible, to leave myself mental space to prepare my energy—such coddling! Who do I think I am?!)
  15. that my anxiety is a sign of weakness (then I double down and judge my judgment of my anxiety and fear that I will never live up to the Judge)
  16. oh, and lest I’d forgotten, that I’m going to die.

But as she got toward the end of the list, I could feel Fear’s energy flagging. Again, this was something new. When she finally wound down, she sighed. I could feel her impatience. She said, “You know the list and I’ve got nothing else for you today, nothing pressing and nothing new.”

Then a huge feeling of rootedness swept over my whole body; a wave of past experiences—from ultra-marathons I’ve done, to injuries I’ve gotten through, to my run a few days earlier with a friend. And those were only the physical sources of courage. There were echoes of other accomplishments, too. I felt Fear raise her eyebrows, as if to say, “See?! Can we move on?”

Wouldn’t that be grand.

I also saw Fear’s point. I got the idea to meditate on fear from Kristen Ulmer’s book, The Art of Fear. She suggests meditating on fear: tuning into where fear is located and what fear feels like in my body; feeling the physicality of what I’m scared of; also, anthropomorphizing Fear (that’s where she gets the initial cap from and her gender) and having a conversation with her; asking Fear what’s on her mind; allowing her the space to express herself, instead of fighting, repressing or pretending to ignore her—not that she can ever really be ignored anyway. She just gets more creative. The idea is that getting intimate with Fear will transform her (aka our fears) into a healthy catalyst, instead of a dreaded obstacle.

This morning, Fear was impatient with me about resisting the leap from dreaded obstacle to healthy catalyst. Of course, I fear death. Death is a big fear for most of us. Surprise! A friend in his 80s recently told me that every time he sees an exit sign, he thinks it’s for him, for his life. Soon after he told me this, I was in a spin class, riding hard toward nowhere on my stationary bike, and for the first time I noticed the studio exit sign. The illuminated word was strangely double-sided, as if two exit signs were back to back, about to duel. Rays of reflected light splashed a red-streaked triangle across the whole door—after what my friend said, it felt like a personal invitation from death. I declined the invite by enjoying the gift of the hard work even more.

A few nights later at Young Jean Lee’s show, We’re Gonna Die, we (the audience) all got to sing along to the title lyrics at the end of the show, a rousing chorus of We’re Gonna Die, sung over and over again. Strangely joyous. Not at all fearful. A call for action. We’re here now. Strike up the band.

Fear knows that I know about this catalyst vs obstacle business.

Now that I listen to Fear on a regular basis, it has at least gotten easier to re-examine her lists. I didn’t say easy, just easier. Each time my meditation grants me a glimpse of my own courage, like this morning, the residue of bravery gets stickier. Tara Brach’s RAIN is also a helpful structure for reviewing Fear’s lists: Recognize. Allow. Investigate. Nurture.

Yes, even nurture my needs and anxieties. Nurturing is its own kind courage, because it asks us to face and accept a fear. These conversations with Fear are a work in progress. Like life. At its very best, life is a work in progress until the very last moment. Maybe that’s what I’m beginning to understand from speaking with Fear, that this ongoing-ness, this never-finished-ness, is the expansiveness hidden behind every fear, the possibility yet to be uncovered, the catalyst for potential.

For discovery. For peace.




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