What Happens When I Meditate On Fear

Chris Ensey on Unsplash

This morning I meditated on fear, as I have been doing for the past five weeks (more on that in a minute). My meditation app (Insight Timer) allows others meditating at the same time to share messages. The standardized message looks like this:

Profile Photo (or more likely a mandala, a flower or a babbling brook)
Betty from Newark, NJ wrote:
 “Thanks for meditating with me.”
**** (stars indicating how many milestones the person has reached)

This morning I got a message from Mara (no town listed). Weird.

In Buddhism, Mara is the demon of temptation, who uses sensory pleasure, mockery and violence to divert us from our truth and essential goodness. How fitting that Mara should send a message on a morning that I had a meditation conversation with one of that demon’s liveliest manifestations. Hello, Fear. How are you feeling this morning? Are you planning to divert me from my possible future today or give me a boost of focused energy?

After my meditation and a bit of work, I went to meet my partner at a new coffee spot. He was coming from a run. When he got to be 25 minutes late, Fear/Mara started mocking me, sitting alone: “You’ve been stood up, you don’t have any friends, everyone sees you’re a loser.” My self-centered fears were mixed up with fears that something bad might have happened to my partner. I went home without having breakfast, to find that he had waited for me at our regular coffee shop. A misunderstanding. Which caused Fear to wonder aloud if I was just dumb, or living in my own world, oblivious to others.

Mara sent me thanks in advance, for the havoc that demon planned to sow in my mind. All before breakfast. Side note: My partner brought my favourite flax muffin home. Which I ate as I worked on this.

What is this whole business of meditating on fear?

I recently read Kristen Ulmer’s book, The Art of Fear.  She suggests meditating on fear. Tuning into what fear feels like in my body. Also, anthropomorphizing fear and having a conversation with her. Asking her what’s on her mind. The idea is that getting intimate with Fear will transform her into a healthy catalyst, instead of a dreaded enemy.

Fear enumerates her long list of concerns for me:

  1. My play never having another production;
  2. no one liking my new book;
  3. having nothing to write;
  4. no one reading what I write anyway;
  5. getting sick, losing my physical strength;
  6. losing my ability to move easily;
  7. specifically, today, that my IT band pain won’t go away and I’ll never run again;
  8. not being attractive to my partner (or anyone else);
  9. breaking up with friends;
  10. not connecting with people;
  11. that my washing machine is going to go on the fritz and flood the downstairs neighbour’s apartment;
  12. that the electrical wiring in my 115-year-old apartment building will catch fire;
  13. that everywhere I go in public I’m at risk of being shot by a gun-toting extremist;
  14. that we are on the verge of The Handmaid’s Tale and it’s already too late to get out;
  15. Monday mornings and the feeling that I’m not going to accomplish anything;
  16. that my partner will get sick;
  17. that one of the so-many planes he’s on will crash;
  18. that I’m too dependent on my partner (emotionally, financially and for plumbing and carpentry);
  19. that I’ll have to give up writing and take a job that makes better money;
  20. that my plane will crash;
  21. that I will never achieve the success I think I want;
  22. that I will achieve the success I think I want and it will change my life for the worse;
  23. the extra ring of softness around my belly that is immune to all core strength work and probably requires a starvation diet that I’m not prepared to do;
  24. the way my hair is thinning at the temples (just like my father and brother), so that I have to be more artful when I wear it pulled back.
  25. Plus, the existential, running subtext fear that my life doesn’t have meaning.
  26. And maybe the biggest one—fear of my own mind’s cruelty, the mean things it says to me and the power my mind has to derail me.

I feel my meditations with Fear in my body. I feel her squeezing my heart and sluicing chilly thoughts through my veins.

We mistakenly think that meditation is about finding our Zen-master-self. If that’s what we are seekingor going after, we will be disappointed. Our meditations create space in our minds (and bodies!), by allowing the un-peacefulness to rant and rave and get its ya-yas out, leaving room for other thoughts. In meditation, we sensitize ourselves; we don’t go numb. We feel all the feelings at level 11. Then we can begin to see how we auto-generate our thoughts. They are just thoughts. They truly can pass through, without getting stuck, if we let them be. Give a thought half a chance to run its course and it will. That requires presence, not giving into Mara’s many distracting temptations. As in, if I just stay busy bingeing on life—at work, from my plate or martini glass, in the gym, in front of the television, etc.—then I won’t have to deal with this emotion. When we don’t allow our emotions to speak their full piece, we get attached. Like children, we don’t want our thoughts to grow up and leave home. Will our minds be empty nests?

Simply allowing Fear the space to express herself is new for me. Instead of fighting, repressing or pretending to ignore her (because she will never really be ignored, she just gets more creative); I’m listening and inviting conversation with Fear.

I feel a small catalytic effect. As in, “Okay you’re scared, that’s okay, let it be, and hey, maybe you can still do the scary thing.” Here are two moments I noticed:

I was in the midst of a scary dream.

I was being chased by a man in a dark alley. He had plastic piping over his hand and forearm, which would make his violence all the more damaging. Normally, in such a dream I run away as fast as I can, given the dream running-in-thick-mud problem. Or I fight tooth and nail. Instead, this time, I stopped running; turned around and faced the man bearing down on me with his pipe-hardened arm. I said, “You don’t have to do this. I know you don’t really want to hurt me. Please stop.” And he did. An unexpected plot twist in what started as a bad dream.

The second moment I noticed was during a weekly longer meditation.

As I sit, I imagine the future as I’d like it to be, while summoning a positive elevated emotion, such as joy, love, gratitude, courage, compassion. Usually I go for gratitude, which feels easiest (because I am grateful for so much in my life), unless it’s a really good day and joy or love are right there, vying for a turn. On this day, a week or so after I first started meditating with Fear, when I summoned gratitude, the emotion that answered was courage. Wow. I love gratitude as an emotion, but gratefulness can feel like an emotion back on its heels. Gratitude says, “Thank you so much. I’m humbled. Actually, I’m not worthy, what luck this goodness even came my way.”

Whereas courage feels like it’s up on the balls of its feet, raring to go. Courage roars, “Yaaas. I am a queen. I am worthy of that piece of good fortune over there. You can just direct that opportunity my way, that bestseller list, that fabulous production of my play directed by one of those kickass female directors.” What? That voice sounded drunk, delirious, diva, forbidden, unfamiliar, powerful and expansive. That Courage felt good. Yum.

Those moments marked shifts in my relationship with Fear.

Has my whole life changed in the past month? No. Transformation is not a mail order seahorse that springs to life over a few hours after you add water.

Take this morning, sitting alone in a café waiting for my partner. My worry and embarrassment were a recipe for anger. Instead, I invited Fear to tell me how she was feeling. You already know what she said. I went home. I told my partner how I’d felt, with so much less judgment or blame (of myself or him) than I might have a few months ago. I told him what Fear said, too.

We’ve been having conversations like that now. Fear said this. Fear said that. They’re fun. Check it out for yourself.

Fear is waiting for your invitation. She’s just like us. Some days she needs an ear to listen and that can make all the difference. One moment at a time.


Other musings about meditation:

Nine Nifty Things I Noticed in 150 Straight Days (and counting!) of Meditation

How To Build a Meditation Practice: The Little Fish and The Fisherman

A Glimpse Behind The Veil: Coming To Terms With Our Connectedness

The Interior Design Benefits of Meditating





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