Everybody’s scared. Anxious. We fear getting coronavirus, dying, infecting our loved ones, and financial ruin. One idea that has become popular is that fear is bad, an enemy. Fear is the new taboo f-word that needs to be banished. There’s a lot of fear about fear and many don’t even want to mention it like Voldemort, “He who must not be named.” Fearing fear is counter productive, but difficult to get some objectivity on since it is a natural reaction. Being a natural reaction it isn’t effective to deny or suppress fear. What is effective is learning to be with, and develop non-reactivity to, fear. Although this is a highly effective skill to learn, and challenging to accomplish, it is worthwhile. Even a small gain in the ability to be non-reactive has huge benefits.
Reactive fear takes form as many ineffective yet natural and instinctive survival responses: a deer frozen in headlights, an ostrich putting its head in the sand, a hedgehog curling into a ball in the face of an on coming car. Overriding this kind of natural reactions and using our natural intelligence requires will power and a good methodology. The first step is seeing fear clearly.
Fear is a protective mechanism: a response to a perceived threat. Yet the perceptions that tell us something is dangerous is usually learned. Beyond the perception of danger is the learning needed to deal with the danger. Reconditioning is uncomfortable, ask any adult who went back to school. Anything new produces lots of resistance and many people will stay stuck. The discomfort makes them feel like they are changing who they are, which is true, but not as the discomfort suggests, in a bad way. Sheltering in place is a behavioral change similar to taming a wild animal. There are kind and cruel ways to change behavior, but it is always challenging.
We are dealing with the worst kind of fear which is fear of the unknown. The is the number one underlying reason people get a reading, but answers alone are not effective or even desirable. For example, we know what is killing us, the coronavirus, but knowing that answer doesn’t provide a solution. We still need to have multiple solutions from testing to vaccine. Buddhism has very good practices for dealing with fear of the unknown. Buddhism accepts the unpredictability inherent in life. Sure I’ve been able to make accurate predictions, but frankly they tend to be ineffective in establishing behavioral changes unless the client is strategically proactive. To make good use of a prediction one needs to be both proactive and strategic in how to approach the prediction. In the Bible people are told not to turn around and look at the destruction of a city or be swept away. The prediction is you will be swept away. The strategy is don’t look back. Still one person looks back and is turned to salt. Sometimes people just can’t help themselves.
It takes training to strengthen internal locus of control. Let’s say you could know the exact day of your death. How would knowing that change the way you live? If it’s a very short time people tend to make drastic changes since; what have you got to lose? If it’s thirty to forty years in the future behavior change is less likely. Prolonged low intensity threat makes dealing with managing this virus difficult. And oddly I suspect the daily number count of infections and deaths is making some people numb to the scale of the tragedy. The numbers are also deceptive due to low testing of the population. Even knowing something like you will survive coronavirus is limited because for many of you it would be worse to have a loved one die. You and I know of people who were told by their doctors to get their weight or blood pressure down or they have a greater chance of a heart attack or stroke or worse and still they don’t do it, then they suffer the stroke or heart attack. The ability to effectively act in information is the limitation of prediction.
One thing for sure is that fearing a threat is never the best way to deal with it. Fear is useful as a motivator. Most external threats, like wild animals, insects and harmful plants, are manageable with knowledge and experience. Some are easier to learn about than others, but probably the most difficult threat to learn about are other humans. People can be intentionally deceptive and cunning. Some are without remorse. Learning what kind of person is trustworthy and having a workable strategy that doesn’t make you constantly anxious, distrustful, and defensive is not an easy task. It is something I am writing about in a post on premonition. Applied correctly intuition can protect you even when you don’t have sufficient information, but even that takes a lot of practice and is an exercise in building trust and faith. You are building trust and faith in simple messages like, don’t look back.
It may be hard to believe, but even an involuntary fear response, like the startle reflex, is controllable. Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard has demonstrated this ability in a laboratory. You can read about it in the books Destructive Emotions and the Wisdom of Forgiveness, but it takes more training and practice than the average person has time for. Spiritual masters are like Olympic athletes, they show us what is humanly possible, but few will be able to put in the effort to achieve it.
All fears are manageable with the right education, like learning to cook on a hot stove or to ride a bike. When the threat has a potential benefit it can be even more difficult to manage, examples are: making friends, asking someone to go on a date, actually going on a date, getting married, picking a career, changing careers, following your passion. Then there’s the stuff that just sucks like: breaking up, getting divorced, leaving a job, a cancer diagnosis, caring for a sick or dying loved one, taking care of anyone for that matter, losing a loved one. Those are just a few examples. Now we can add to the list global pandemics and viruses unfamiliar to our immunity. Adding to the fear of a deadly new virus, we are have to adapt to a new way of living. The COVID-19 pandemic presents humanity with a multilayered challenge, and each layer is frightening by itself.
It is possible to adapt sanely, gracefully, peacefully, lovingly to all these challenges. Having a strategy gives your intellect something to focus on so the primitive and reactive brain doesn’t take control and run amok. Placing your intellect as the alpha of your mind allows you to train and tame the primitive brain. But just using the intellect can make one cold ridged. Stiff. So be sure to include and balance the intellect with the heart. When dealing with emotional scars the intellect can be too much of a guard dog suppressing the hurtful emotions that need to be processed so the intellect needs to be a wise and kind alpha.
The first step is to clearly see the thing feared. This is difficult to do, and can seem impossible, especially when dealing with the unfamiliar or unknown. Here mindfulness is useful to lessen reactiveness which helps you be level headed and calm. The word mind in mindfulness includes the heart and isn’t limited to the intellect. As we learn more about the coronavirus we get better at dealing with it and staying safe. Another strategy for dealing with the unknown is to rely on history. First there’s human history and the recognition that we as a species have the intelligence and determination to solve problems. Second is your own personal history. Look back over your life and see all the times you have walked into unknown situations, and not only survived, but thrived. Recall the beginning of every new school year, every new semester, new class, test or exam, new job, new friendship, that you entered and succeeded. Sure, some days, weeks, and years went better than others, but you are here reading these words which means you survived and overcame those challenges, and that awareness can build your confidence too. Of course there are things we could have, would like to have, done better, but even that awareness is available to us because we survived the mistakes and grew wiser. We evolved and are better than we used to be. So take heart in knowing that you have overcome many many unfamiliar situations and events.
Fear always creates resistance. Resistance to reality is denial. Denial is part of the human psyche. Even Jesus lamented on the cross, so if even he despaired, we shouldn’t feel bad when we do as well. We can further gain from his example by knowing that he recovered, accepted his fate and gracefully surrendered.
Resistance is an expression of fear, a form of the biological fight, flight, freeze survival mechanism. When resistance is expressed as denial and suppression it can lead to irrational and self-destructive behavior, but not all resistance is bad. Sometimes resistance is useful, like when it take the form of hope or the determination not to give up. We are currently determined to do what it takes to stay safe and to design effective virus tests and vaccines. The point is you can make your intellect work for or against you. Your power is choice. You have the power to direct your intellect and will power: this is intention. Intention applied can make miracles.
Shifting focus, without dropping into denial, is possible with a relaxed and open the mind. There is a scene in Karate Kid III where the bonsai shop Daniel and Miyagi are just starting is damaged in a fight. On the way home Daniel is stressing out while Miyagi is singing a happy song. Miyagi encourages Daniel to sing too, but as usual Daniel can’t easily control himself and shift focus. As they pull into the driveway they find their whole inventory of bonsai trees has been stolen. Miyagi decides to go fishing and Daniel zooms off to the police. The next morning Daniel decides to dig up and sell Miyagi’s treasured bonsai tree to fix the shop and replace the inventory. The tree is safely hidden off a cliff. Daniel and a girl rappel down the cliff and dig out the tree. As they are climbing back up the villains intervene and threaten to drop him and the girl down the cliff unless Daniel signs an agreement to fight in a tournament. Daniel signs but the main villain still breaks the bonsai tree. Daniel rushes the tree to Miyagi who performs a kind of tree first aid. Daniel learns Miyagi sold the his truck to pay for repairs and inventory. Miyagi singing a happy song and going fishing were the methods he used to clear his mind and come up with a solution. Daniel on the other hand got deeper and deeper embroiled in his stress which led him to make bad decisions. Miyagi was able to shift focus so he could more clearly see a solution to his problem. Sometimes a long walk is the best medicine even if it’s in circles around your living room, lawn, or even up and down a hallway. In the book Voices of Insight Kamala Masters reaches the first level of enlightenment by doing dishwashing and walking meditation. She only walked ten steps down her hallway, but she did them mindfully.
Sometimes there is little to nothing you can do about a problem. How does one keep from being overcome with fear or anxiety at a such time. Surrendering to God is the best theistic approach I know and use. There’s no best or right way to surrender. The only advice I can give is be as honest, sincere and open as you are capable of in that moment. Don’t try to be good, because it can be a form of insincerity. If being honest means being mad at God, have at it. If I take Jesus at his word then God is love and that great love should be able to absorb, soothe, and comfort away all my pain if I offer it up completely. The gift of surrender is that you don’t have to be, and aren’t expected to be, perfect. Come complete with all your flaws. It’s the only way to total acceptance. Any self judgement or self hate will naturally block God’s love from entering you.
The best non-theistic approach I know is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the act of observation be it observation of the breath, step, thoughts, emotions or sensations. Mindfulness doesn’t just entail sitting meditation. Singing hymns, chanting sutra, and kirtan (singing the name of God over and over) are wonderful methods of mindfulness. As mindful practice singing and chanting serve the same function as observing the breath. There is a Buddhist practice of breathing and becoming as peaceful as possible in the presence of a dying person. You become peaceful, not by avoiding the suffering and fear of the person, or even your own fears that are triggered, but by embracing it all with your breath. A good image is the way the pulp of orange or apple juice settles in a cup if the liquid is not disturbed. Observation allows the mind to settle in a similar manner.
There is a moment in ho’oponopono (Hawaiian process of setting things right) where the anxiety, depression, anger, whatever the disharmony, is transformed into harmony. The person is restored. They breathe again. When the ha (breath of life) is restored a person regains their strength and balance. They feel alive again. Recall a time when you told the truth, or someone told you the truth, and just after there was a sigh of relief followed by a deep inhalation. As we shelter in place, restless, we also feel helplessness. We are in a situation of compounded stressors and less educated about how to be proactive. We are not good with passive ways of dealing with fear. Yet we can develop this strength. Think of the serenity the dying Jesus fell into once he understood and accepted his fate and surrendered completely when he uttered his last words, “I commend my spirit on to you.” When performing a blessing or ho’oponopono the practitioner must do the same or risk interfering. We become like a water hose, or like the Lakota Holy Man Fools Crow, a hollow bone. The serenity of surrender is only possible when all need to know or be or do are let go of and you allow yourself to be carried like a baby.