Thursday, May 13, 2010

Letting fear be your most tender teacher.

Tonight, I talked a friend through something scary. She was stuck, frightened, and she called, lost and paralyzed by fear.

We talked for a little while, and I asked her if I could share something that has helped me with fear in the last three years, especially last fall when I moved away from my kids for a few months. She was gracious and eager to hear it, so this is what I told her:

I used to feel like I should run at the thing that scares me. That way, fear can't win. (I'll write another post about what I mean by Win, as well... but let me finish this one first...

I have found over the years that while that was often affective, I'd also often miss the opportunity for growth that the fear was there to teach me. The only way that I could learn from fear was to befriend it, to welcome it, to see it as a part of me, the universe, or myself, or my universal self, if you will, trying to gently tug (or in some cases scream loudly...) HEY this is a piece of you that needs some growth!

Weems says it well, this is a corner where you need some leverage. If you have strength in one area, a little bit of leverage in a place where you are not as strong has a large effect.

The fear is asking for your attention. Honor it.

Yes, but how?

Well, this is my favorite way to do it. I think of myself as a big open field, with late August afternoon sun in the long grass. There is a river, shallow and slow on the edges, fast in the middle, and there is green grass along the bank, soft.

There is a large tree to my right, an oak, ancient and shady, and across the bank, there is a long line of trees bending over the water.

I walk up to the river, which is my fear, and I sit down on the bank. The sun sparkles on its surface, I can see the river bed through the water. The bed is soft, small pebbles near the shore, no jagged rocks, no surprises. Nothing slippery or mossy.

I take off my flip flops and roll my jeans up a little. I pay attention to my feet as I see them, sometimes they are young feet, sometimes they are rough feet, sometimes they are dirty, with cracked heels.

I walk out into the river, which is cold, very cold, like snow melt from just upstream. The feeling of the cold is shocking to my feet, if it was more than ankle deep, it might take my breath away.

I know that I can always step out and sit on the bank and sun my feet on the rock, or wipe them off with socks or a t shirt. I know that while they are cold right now, they will warm quickly if I choose to leave the river.

I let this fear run around me like a river, I wade into it, ankle deep. I feel the ground beneath my feet, I feel the shocking cold of the "other" that makes my feet begin to numb, but also begin to acclimatize. I know that I'm okay, the current isn't too strong here, the bottom is forgiving. Just the water, the fear, rushing around my feet and tugging at me, is cold, and powerful.

I look upstream at where it is coming from. Sometimes its clear, sometimes it isn't. I try to look with curiosity, rather than judgement at what is upstream of me. I look downstream, where is it trying to take me?

It is safe to look from this vantage point of wading out in ankle deep water. I stand out there, I walk in little circles, I try to feel the character, the temperament, the impetus of the fear, I try to let it tell me what its trying to tell me, and I try to listen with compassion.

Compassion for myself, but mostly, compassion for the fear, as its own embodied element. Why is it so afraid? Why does it need to be so strong?

Eventually, I realize that the fear won't subside until I listen to it, I believe that fear exists because we are trying to teach ourselves how to become. If I allow the fear, if I am brave enough to just be with it, listen to it, meet it where it needs to be met, allow it to exist, allow it to be appropriate, or right, oftentimes the rage behind it subsides, like soothing a child, and through the hiccuping tears you get the real story.

That real story is often deeply rooted, and in need of grace, gentle acknowledgment, and permission to pass through and move on, as this root of fear no longer serves you. There can be a mutual meeting and a grateful parting with fear, which serves as our most tender teacher, if we let it.


An after note. After we were done talking about this, my friend told me that she felt like she was in a place where there was so much fear, that she wished she could just be through it. We had the opportunity to talk about the fact that if she was to just get through it, she might miss meeting her teacher.

There is this moment in life, especially for me when I'm hearing from several different places at once, where it seems like you have a choice, to shut down, to bulldoze through, to be angry at feeling fear, or impatient, or to look at the train-wreck, or the fear, or the repeated critical message as you, gently tapping yourself on the shoulder. "Are you listening? I have something important to tell you."

There can become a time, though it won't be every time, when you feel that, and you learn to turn right to it and accept it, your most compassionate and tender teacher. This is the moment of your growth, your willingness, your becoming. Just like having your art critiqued, your writing critiqued, your acting critiqued, your skiing critiqued, the critique is not a personal judgment. The critique serves as a method for evolving and improving that which stands before it. Sometimes, that thing can be you. Standing there, waiting to evolve.

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