One of the great things about practice is that over time, you start seeing things more clearly. At first for me this was great, I noticed I was growing the skill to see through the emotional layer of other peoples comments, to the truth of what they were saying. When I found myself in arguments I noticed that sometimes I still got sucked up emotionally, but I had a new ability to pull out and get perspective and clearly see where they were hurting and what they were asking for.
So that’s great.
Unfortunately, with outward clear seeing also comes inward clear seeing – and one day I realized that I was clearly seeing my anxiety and fear in a much different way. I realized that I had been existing for quite a while in a bit of a soup of fear and anxiety – low grade and pervasive. As if there was always something that was making me uneasy or fearful.
Meditation practice opens us up to subtler and subtler layers of emotional experience, and other time we’ll become well worn travelers of our subtle inner spaces. While they will be more and more familiar, we’ll still be discovering new things.
I’ve found that my relationship with fear has been like this. It’s a recurring theme, and I’m constantly discovering new things about it, and new subtle fears arise that I never noticed before.
There are overt fears. The fear of speaking in public, the fear of heights, the fear of running out of money, or losing a job, having a relationship fail, or getting sick. Everyone has a story or two going at all times in many of these areas. For the most part before I started meditating, I was really stuck in these fears, and depending on how things were going, they would sometimes run my life. When I felt that one of those stories had stabilized for at least a while (just got a work promotion! Yay, don’t have to worry about that for a while!) – another one would just come up. Almost as if my brain wouldn’t let me just live in peace without constantly looking for the next thing to be worried about or afraid of. Right?
Around the time I started meditating regularly a lot of things clicked into place for me, primarily I got a big raise and a new relationship. Everything was looking up but I still found thing about both that just created new stresses and fears. My practice helped me to start seeing my cycle of fear more clearly. It helped me see how I work to create new things to be afraid of all the time. That even with my major life areas stabilizing, there were all new things to be worried about that kept popping up. It was like I just couldn’t get a break!
Pre Medtiator me would have just grabbed onto the new things and ran with them to cycle on and worry about. But as I grew in my practice and was able to see these new things come up, I was able to also clearly see most of them as manufactured fears. I was able to clearly see how I was creating things to obsess over, where there didn’t need to be any. I also has the insight that if I was just creating these things, they probably weren’t real – like evil daydreams!
This was a HUGE shift for me in practice and in my daily life. In sitting I can now recognize a few areas of my body as tense, and relate that physical sensation to anxiety or fear – and then analyze what that fear or anxiety is. What might be generating fear or anxiety for me right now? Is it a genuine threat, or is it self generated? Ultimately, all emotions are self generated, but some we make up just because we’re so used to having that energy in our life. Sometimes when it’s not there we make it up to maintain that familiar feeling – even if it’s discomfort.
Fear generates a physical feeling in the body, that feeling makes us physically uncomfortable. It might be a racing heart, racing thoughts, and if you’re more sensitive – it might be a rush of prickly energy that’s hard to calm down. We want to get away from fear because of these physical symptoms, unless of course our fear is coming from an imminent physical threat (IE: A large bear). If you’re about to be mauled by a bear, the physical reaction to fear is serving it’s intended purpose. However, most of the time that’s not what’s happening.
One of the ways we try and reduce the physical symptoms of fear is by thinking about it until we are able to magically think it away. This is evolutionary a great trait to problem solve our way away from the bear, but it typically gets a lot of us in trouble when it’s not bear related. It tends to create a loop of overthinking and analyzing that gets us stuck in more suffering instead of less. Most fear and anxiety you can’t think away. In my case at least, typically if I did solve one problem, I’d just make a new one to feed that need to feel slightly unsettled.
So in stead of thinking away fear, or ignoring fear (good luck with that), the idea is find equanimity with fear. So how do you do that? A good way to start is just to notice where you feel the discomfort in your body, and what it feels like. Make a note of where you feel it in the body, and the quality of the sensation – is it vibrational? hard? soft? spikey? polka dotty? expansive? contractive? you name it. The next step is to then start noticing if the sensation is increasing or decreasing. You can just watch it and note: Increasing, Decreasing, Same, and if it goes away for a moment you can note Gone. Just keep doing that for at least 5 minutes and see what happens and how things shift.
If you’re feeling fearful or anxious, this can go a long way to managing the physical symptoms in the moment. Over time with this technique, you’ll find a much greater awareness of your own processes around self generated fear and anxiety. With that awareness comes enough space and distance that if you’re diligent, you’ll gradually find you’re getting caught up in these stories less and less. You’ll be able to plan and prepare for things with a clear mind, and find that you aren’t second guessing your decisions as often – because your decision making is not fueled by emotions, but by clarity of the situation and what needs to be done.
At least…. that’s what happened for me!