SITTING EATING POPCORN WHILE SOMEONE IS YELLING, “FIRE!” IN A CROWDED THEATER

Fear can be one of our most beautiful emotions.

I’ve been feeling a lot of fear lately.  It manifests itself in different ways:  nervousness, anxiety, increased introversion, shortness of breath, elevated heart rate, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, distractedness, inability to concentrate, the list goes on.  Everyone has a unique fear-response.  What we are afraid of differs from person to person, as well.  We have reasonable fears (heights, velocity, bears, things that are actually dangerous, or can be), experiential fears (dogs, bees, motorcycles, things that are linked with danger in our own experiences, at least once) and unreasonable fears (puppets, clowns, dryer lint, anything that we are afraid of based on associations usually made in childhood – yes, I know clowns are actually dangerous but I have been told there is nothing to be afraid of).

Currently I’m feeling a lot of fear because I am pushing myself in a lot of different ways.  My comfort zone is now like a vacation cabin that I remember fondly and wonder when I can visit again, if ever.  I often feel like I’m the sole survivor of a shipwreck, floating along on a piece of flotsam with no land in sight.  Also, it’s the middle of the night.  In a thunderstorm.  And I’m blindfolded.

That is how un-moored I feel.  That is how out of my comfort zone I currently am.

Feeling this fear has given me an opportunity to practice two things:  radical gratitude and radical responsibility, which I’ve touched upon in previous posts.  I do my best processing through writing and so the other day I sat down to see if I could be grateful for my fear.

It started awkwardly, which isn’t really surprising.  “Hmm, well, I guess I’m grateful for feeling afraid because it makes me feel alive.  All of my senses are sharpened, I can feel my heart beating in my chest.  I feel my edges so clearly.  I’m really aware of where my knowledge and capacities end…or where I think they end.  I’m grateful for how this is bringing my attention to what I need to learn, what I need to get better at…”

Even though it was difficult when I first started writing, I pushed deeper into my feelings and explored them.  Soon I found reasons to be grateful that felt real and genuine.  As I expressed the reasons for my gratitude I started to see the lessons that were embedded in the experience.  The feeling of fear that I previously experienced as crushing and immobilizing now seemed to be encouraging me to take action.

I suddenly felt a rush of my own power, I had felt afraid because I was out of my element, with all of my ignorance exposed.  Now I was aware of that.  With that awareness I could begin to search out the knowledge and experience I needed to shift into understanding and capacity.  The fear itself seemed to be doing the work of showing me the action steps I needed to take to gain confidence.  I was able to take responsibility for moving myself from a state of unknowing where I had felt fear to a place of knowing where I could experience competence and empowerment.

This led me to think more about my fear and how I could explore it.  It is a common misconception that courage is the absence of fear.  Thinking so can actually keep us from the ability to bolster our courage because when we still (inevitably) experience fear we may think that we are failing, we are not courageous, we don’t even have it in us to become courageous.  This is simply not true.  Courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to continue operatingwhile experiencing fear.

Fear is a natural, normal and healthy emotion.  It can be an indicator of danger (reasonable fears) or a reminder that a certain situation has been dangerous before and so caution is warranted (experiential fear).  It can also be a “false alarm,” (unreasonable fear) ringing and ringing for no real reason at all.  The important thing to keep in mind when experiencing fear is that it is an emotion.  Essentially this means that it is a temporary sensation we are experiencing in our bodies that may or may not come with associated thought patterns and that is most likely signaling something to us about the situation we are currently in.

Emotions are not real.  Emotions feel real.  Both of these are true.  

To really understand this concept let’s look at a situation where we might experience two entirely different emotions in the same situation:  on a Saturday afternoon you make plans with a friend to go out to dinner at 7:00 pm.  At roughly 6:00 pm they phone you to let you know that they need to cancel your plans since they accidentally double-booked with another friend earlier in the week.

In one version of this story you feel disappointed and angry with your friend, how inconsiderate of them, they always do this, maybe you should spend less time with them.  In another version you feel relieved, even elated, what a good stroke of luck, this is exactly what you wanted.

How could your emotions differ so wildly?  In the first scenario you had been looking forward to going out and when your friend canceled on you, you started to doubt yourself.  Perhaps they didn’t really like you, or thought this other friend was more important than you.  You felt disappointed and then became angry.  In the second version you had accepted your friend’s invitation, but had not really wanted to go, you felt tired after a long week but didn’t want to seem rude.  You were dreading going out that evening and so when they canceled you were excited to get some much needed alone time and couldn’t care less the reasons why they needed to change plans with you.

In either version of this story the emotions that you would have felt would have seemed to be absolutely real.  Emotions come with bodily sensations, in that sense they are very real.  But by their very transient nature and conditionality they show how they are not real.  Another way to think of this is to compare emotions to weather, whether the sun is shining or if it is pouring rain both of those are passing conditions.  You may get a tan or you may get soaking wet but you are still you.  You are you, you are not the emotions that you feel.

Why would emotions feel so very real to us if they are not truly our reality?  Why would we have a bodily response and an associated pattern of thought, a way to recognize them if we were not meant to recognize them?  Well, recognizing our emotions is a vital part of navigating our lives, the problem comes when we are ruled by them.  They feel so very real and immediate because they are very, very important.  Our emotions are a way for us to communicate with ourselves in an non-verbal fashion.  Our brains are organized into different parts with different functions.  Emotions reside in our limbic brain which has no capacity for language.

The limbic brain has no language, it is the realm of emotion and it is also responsible for our behavior and decision making.  The neocortex controls analytical thought and language.  This is why you can argue with someone for hours on end employing the most impeccable logic and still never change their mind.  Decisions and emotions live in the same region of the brain and do not use language.  In essence, this means we make our decisions with our hearts.  (If you read last week’s entry about the difference between choices and decisions this will add a bit of depth to those ideas.)  Emotions are the way that our limbic brain talks to us.  When you hear a “little voice in your head,” that is your neocortex translating your limbic brain to itself as best it can.  When something “just feels right” that is you processing a decision through your limbic brain.

Emotions may not be real, but the feelings associated with them are, and this is so we pay attention because what emotions are trying to tell us is very, very real and very, very important.  That is why so much havoc breaks loose when we try to suppress or ignore our emotions.  In order to understand what they are telling us we must be able to recognize them, and that means we need to get familiar with them.  Is fear different from terror, is sadness different from despair, what about happiness and joy, listlessness and malaise, anger and rage?  How can we know what a feeling is communicating if we don’t even know it’s name?  This takes time, practice and a willingness to experience our feelings as they come up.  A lot of times this just means feeling our feelings and paying attention to how we experience them and what is happening when we are experiencing them.

The time we take to learn our feelings and to recognize them and to understand them is important because it can let us know if we are rightfully angry or just indignantly outraged.  What’s the difference?  First it helps to understand anger.  Anger is so powerful because it can mobilize a lot of energy inside of us, energy we need in order to powerfully act.  If you are walking through the park and someone you don’t know runs up and kicks you and tries to take your wallet you may feel rightfully angry.  Very useful, you can yell for help or run away or maybe kick them back.  If you go to Starbucks and their holiday cup is just plain old red you may feel indignant outrage.  Not useful, because yelling at the barista may result in them blowing a snot bubble into your half-caf non-fat vanilla latte.

And in this way, taking the time to explore and learn to recognize our fear is absolutely necessary to living a fulfilling life.  Think of the emotion of fear as a part of your brain that thinks that there might be danger and it’s only way to tell you is by yelling “FIRE!!!” in a crowded theater.  The yell is real, the ensuing panic is real.  The fire, however, may be bullshit.

How can we tell if the fear we are feeling is reasonable, experiential or unreasonable?  I use this simple measuring stick, I ask myself:  could I die from this?  If the answer is yes, then that is a reasonable fear.  If the answer is no, I ask myself:  did this hurt me in the past and is it reasonable to believe it will hurt me again?  If the answer is yes then this is an experiential fear that is reasonable in this situation.  If no, I go on to ask myself what may be the most important question, the question that can reveal an unreasonable fear:  is this something that you really, really want?

The author, Elizabeth Gilbert, in her wonderful book “Big Magic,” addresses her fear in relation to creative endeavors in this way:  “I acknowledge that you believe you have an important job to do in my life, and that you take your job seriously.  Apparently your job is to induce complete panic whenever I’m about to do anything interesting…”

When I find myself in a situation and I am feeling fear it always essentially feels the same way.  It feels like I am about to die.  That is what my fear is telling me, it is telling me that whatever I’m doing will probably kill me.  The thing is, my fear tells me this in the same way whether I am 75 feet in the air rock climbing, considering dating someone with a shitty attitude, no job and no friends or about to embark on what, objectively, is a new and exciting direction in my work.

To be able to live the life I want, to do things that I am excited about (even when they are new and different, and therefore terrifying to my fear), to grow and expand as a person I have to become familiar with my fear.  I have to be able to ask the above questions.  I have to be level-headed enough to do risk assessments.  And I have to be able to move forward if I determine that there is no risk, or that the risk is worth it, while my fear is still yelling it’s head off about fire, sharks, sharks with lasers mounted on their heads, whatever.  I have to be able to practice continuing to operate in the midst of my fear aka courage.

As I discovered in my journaling, fear brings a sharpness to my existence.  Fear can bring our attention to focus on the now.  Which explains why things like horror movies and rollercoasters are so popular.  With those activities we get to experience fear without real danger.  Because our limbic brains are pretty sure there is danger, and because ultimately our brain’s job is to protect us, we are provided with that fire-in-a-crowded-theater level of alarm, our senses are sharpened, colors are brighter, we are present for the experience.  Because of the guarantee of safety we can enjoy fear in these situations.  But what about when there are no guarantees?  What about when we are not in danger of dying but we are in danger of failing (because anytime we try something new failure is a possibility)?

Can we learn to enjoy our fear in an uncertain situation?  Can we enjoy the sharpness of the experience in those times?  Honestly, I don’t know.  I would love it if I could enjoy the process of learning new things, expanding my abilities and growing as a person.  I would love it if it didn’t feel like I’m being attacked by a bear anytime I step outside of my comfort zone.  I don’t know if fear can be enjoyed, maybe it can only be tolerated.  Although the idea of having totolerate any of my feelings is super depressing to me.  Like, is that all there is?  Gritting my teeth and hoping this is over soon so I can get to the “good stuff?”

There has to be another way to engage with fear.  If the physical sensation of fear, the feeling of the emotion of fear, is similar to feeling like we’re dying, well, no sane person enjoys that.  But tolerance is also terrible in this situation.  I don’t want there to be any part of my life that I am wishing to be over sooner.  I want to live my life, not rush through it to get to something else.  What is between enjoyment and tolerance?  Acceptance.

As I’ve touched on before, acceptance is not passivity.  Acceptance is an active openness, a friendly engagement, that uses curiosity to allow us to experience something.  If we accept something we are much more able to change it, if needed.  When I journaled about practicing gratitude for my fear I had to accept the presence of the fear, I had to be friendly and curious in order to find the reasons for my gratitude.  When I made myself vulnerable to my fear I seamlessly transitioned from gratitude into personal responsibility and was soon well-equipped to change the things I was feeling the fear about.  My acceptance was not passive in any way and prepared me for action much better than the struggling against and the denial of my fear.

(Man, it’s weird how much of life is about figuring out how to do the opposite of what you would think would work in certain situations.)

Practicing gratitude for my fear (or any other difficult emotion) was a really amazing experience.  Fear shows us exactly what is going on, if we’re willing to look past the panic and really listen.  The thing I’ve noticed is that I have to practice and practice and practice!  I successfully worked through that moment with my fear.  And now I am afraid again and of basically the same thing!  But each time I am able to slow myself down enough to practice again it gets a little bit easier.  So far, anyway.

In an effort to practice a higher level of friendly engagement with my fear I sat down this week, set my meditation timer to five minutes, closed my eyes and basically said, “Okay, fear, hit me with your best shot.  For the next five minutes you are allowed to yell your crazy head off as much as you need to.  I won’t try to stop you.  I won’t try to reason with you.  I just want to get to know you.  Let’s go.  Make me afraid.  Make me feel like I’m drowning, or being eaten by a lion or my hair is on fire.”

I intentionally thought of something in my life that has been scaring me.  I felt my fear.  I just let it do it’s thing.  I thanked it for showing up.  And then I thought of something else that scares me.  And I felt my fear.  I held on tight.  If you’ve ever been around a little kid just totally losing their marbles and all their parent can do is hold onto them and let them cry and cry, it was kind of like that except I was the parent and I was the kid and the fear was the kid and just a little bit the fear was the parent, too.

I continued on for five minutes (trust me, that was totally enough!) and when my timer went off I thanked my fear again for showing up.  And then I did something I’ve been doing every day since, I put my hand on my heart and I said,

“You are so strong.

“You are so brave.

“I love you.”

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I’m going to keep practicing my fear meditation and I’ll be reporting back on it in a follow-up entry.  Please let me know if you have any practices that you use to navigate your fear in the comments below!

Elias Gross