Fear is optional… (pt4 – the options)

Pay Attention! This Is Important!

What We Can Do

Learn to recognize fear and what it has to tell us. The best place to start is by finding ways to dampen fears that come from things out of our control, such as other people’s thoughts, feelings, or actions. Unless we’re dealing with a small child whom we could physically control, feeling afraid of what someone else is thinking, feeling or might do is background noise that interferes with our ability to actually “hear” what needs our attention.

Within the din of a multitude of fears, our amygdala goes into over drive and increases the volume of our fears. Over time, this volume damages the organs in our bodies that are responding to our fears, like our hearts, spleens, and joints. Just like hearing loss caused by too much noise, we can lose our ability to “hear” and respond to fear, to our detriment. By dampening fears that are manufactured – by ourselves or others – we will open up space for fear to do its job of drawing our attention to what truly matters for us. Listening to fear will make it possible to hear a wind chime rather than only klaxons.

Watch our language. Our words shape and define our reality. Conditioning ourselves with phrases like “be fearless,” “no fear,” “overcome your fear,” “I’m too scared,” or “fear is a destructive emotion” will create realities in which fear is a monster, rather than a helpmate to our survival. By changing our words, we can begin to honor fear as an aspect of a healthy, thriving life: “This new project really scares me! What’s causing that? What’s important for me here?”

By asking real questions of our fear, we can learn how to navigate daily events, long-term relationships, and incidental surprises. Our culture is filled with stories of heroes encountering monsters that turned out to be, after a few good questions were asked, beings of great power and help. Calling fear a “power tool” rather than a “monster” makes it no less powerful and far more approachable. And, remember to always say “thank you” for what fear has taught you. An attitude of gratitude in regarding fear goes a long way toward turning down the volume.

Ask fear “why?” five times. This is more than getting in touch with our inner two year-old. When we can take time to evaluate our fear alert – which is more often than not – we need to ask “Why is this scaring me?” five times to really get to the heart of the matter, because each answer will likely dissolve into another layer of truth. (As a brief aside, courage is actually a mixture of heart/love and fear.) This is a good practice as we start to work with, rather than against, fear. As we become more practiced with listening to our fear, we won’t need to do this as often.

Use fear to focus our efforts and activities. Once we have dampened the background noise of anxiety (“free-radicals” in the fear realm) and engaged with what is actually scaring us in the moment, we can use feeling afraid to guide our attention and actions toward what really matters. Heart racing when approaching the airport gate? Feeling a bit nauseous on your way to the job interview? We can listen to our actual, possibly pre-cognitive fear (i.e., there’s something wrong on the plane; this isn’t the right job) and access our six fear responses to act appropriately and in our best interests.

Fear is our gift if we treat it as an aspect of a healthy life. It can alert us to new discoveries, let us know what risks to take and what risks to avoid, stir the pot of creative soup, and it can lead us to releasing what is no longer working for us so space is opened up to new integration and growth. We need to appreciate that we can care through fear, that we can make connections with fear present, that we can hold fear without having to do anything about it, and that fear can fuel us to battle that which truly threatens us.

We have options, far more than we’ve been led to believe, when we’re scared. We can successfully move with and through our fears by embracing them with awareness, gratitude and compassion.  We can condition ourselves – our brains! – to learn and grow from fear without having to fix ourselves or anyone else.

We are not broken! Our fears are not bad!

They are there for a reason.  And if we let them, they can actually serve us and our planetary home.

Semi-permeable membranes…part two…

So many of us are expecting to be judged and very fearful that we’ll be found wanting or, even worse, repulsive. We live in a culture where incel-identified men take out their fear-fueled rage on others, and women continue to spend more and more time and resources on being outwardly attractive while taking out their fear-fueled rage on ourselves. For those of us who want to reclaim our fear for our true happiness, retaining the “semi-” state that allows for protection and change is very difficult and needs lots of intention and support.

When we lose the “semi-” we become defensive and closed-off; we become passive and untrustworthy. Openings for new learning decrease exponentially in these states. While judgement is something we fear, we need to reclaim this, too, in order to dance in the possibility of “semi-“. We may want to invoke some Trickster energy to help us reclaim fear and judgement as allies rather than continuing to feed the energy of enemy.

In a conversation I had with Larry Daloz, author and co-founder of The Whidbey Institute,  he shared his approach to  judgement in learning and change:

It [a judgement] depends on the person, their world, their context. You have to be judgmental and not judgmental at once! I get frustrated with people for whom the greatest sin is judgment, is making judgments; but not necessarily. You stop making judgments and you walk out in the middle of traffic! I mean come on! That’s what your brain is for, we’re constantly making judgments, analysis, distinctions, all of that evil cognitive stuff; we’re constantly doing it and it’s a damn good thing we do. The question is when to make them and when to suspend them.

Balancing and negotiating actions and suspensions of judgement is a big part of how Larry creates conditions for transformational learning in the presence of fear. His work in classrooms, workshops, and individual mentoring has developed his acute sense of learning environments as holding conflicting elements in harmony:

I think that settings in which that kind of opportunity for both separation and connection is made readily available are the kinds of settings where more powerful learning can happen. At least that’s a part of the ingredients. We talk often about a mentoring environment, … I think that one of the key ingredients of a powerful transformative environment is a rich mix of differing voices within a safe context, in which the learner can engage with voices different from one’s own, can try them on, ideally can try on the different voices, and step back into what they thought of as their own several different ways in which it’s safe to do that. I think that this process of trying on a voice different from one’s own is probably a powerful transformative action, particularly if the voice is speaking, is trying to say things in a slightly different way that are still meaningful to the learner.

Larry has a sense of welcoming the “other” as other – and honoring difference that keeps the “semi-” in place. There is bounded openness that invites us to become porous to learning.   Larry has thought a lot about semi-permeable membranes and our paradoxical relationship with welcoming and boundaries:

So there are boundaries but there are semi-permeable membranes and that notion of semi-permeable membranes is essential to life; life exists because of semi-permeable membranes…My point is that life is about semi-permeable membranes; it’s about the capacity both to keep out and to take in and always the process of discernment, of discerning what comes in, what goes out and who I become as I do that. That’s what, as far as I’m concerned, the value in transformation…We have to recognize that there are recognizable points of equilibrium at which transformations rest.

The capacity to both keep out and take in is how life functions. We exist between movement and rest, between change and status.When we stop, when we close-off or lose ourselves to the vagaries of fashion and manufactured desire, we stop living. When we recognize and honor the resistance, rather than try to regain some former state of comfort, we can notice it and let it go so we can compassionately engage with “others.”

Learning and changing happens from the inside out, and sometimes the “other” is within; when we ignore, deny, or demonize fear we are neglecting what needs our attention.  Larry helped me to notice the many characters within our psyches that vie for dominance (see the movie, Inside Out), all with different perspectives on what is best for our whole selves to flourish.

Creatively forming an environment of recognition and acceptance of difference and emotions extends from commitment to living in complement with diverse, contradictory, and conflicting elements, emotions, and people. The fear inherent in this world of conflict can guide us to connection, and separate us from what we desire. As long as we numb our fear and judgement of this world through violence to ourselves and others, we perpetuate the very things that keeps us separate and miserable.

Even if your voice shakes…

This blog may get a little shaky. I’m a well-trained academic and woman, which means that my voice has counted for very little as I’ve stayed in the lines. Forays outside the lines (of inquiry, comfort, marketability, expectations, etc.) have been exhausting and painful. Still, I persist and now I’m venturing into the territory of publicly personal that is nothing like the Facebook-esque reality show. I’m also going to attempt to embody experience via digital means, without implants or jacks. Living with intentional inquiry and fear means – eventually, even if I really really don’t like it – speaking up and out.

I’m an optimist, as you may have guessed from my stance on fear. It’s a necessary and mostly good thing. I’m also a realist and listener. I listen to stories because they are what is real, regardless of any facts. Stories are our experiences, our identities, and our values – and they are FULL of emotions. Facts are dry and distant – and will never drive a decision. Doubt this? Just look at the U.S. presidency. This didn’t start in 2016; stories slathered in fear and vengeance have imposed our most influential presidents on the world, to our collective detriment. In my lifetime (a little over half a century), the socially progressive movements in the U.S. of the 60s and 70s have all fallen under the juggernaut of militarism in the 80s and 00s (the 90s seemed somewhat “restful” as we watched, self-satisfied and vindicated, the fallout of the Berlin Wall). The greatest man to hold the presidency in my lifetime only served one term, losing by a landslide because he sought peaceful resolution to the quagmire his predecessors had made in the Middle East which had put American lives on the, very public, line.

All of this while overall violence was declining worldwide, livelihoods were improving, and disease was being routed from entrenched positions. Technology has brought us greater connectivity, more access to education, and means to end massive suffering. These are the facts, but they aren’t the stories most of us hear.

In schools we are taught about war and conquest, about the success of the current system and our place in it; we are not taught about unions, let alone why we ever had them. We don’t learn about the Native American holocaust or how the U.S. military attacked – with bombs! – American citizens in America desperate for better working and living conditions. I wasn’t even required to read the Constitution; I chose to read it after achieving two college degrees beyond high school. Public schools were designed as factories to produce workers to serve the U.S. economy; all the tinkering to prop up “liberal education” and creativity will not change this. These are facts without stories, or stories that have been shouted down by the engines of consumerism.

Consumers. In the U.S., we consume vastly more than we produce – it’s the American Way. I read stories about working lives a century ago and am impressed by how much has not changed, it’s just gotten very quiet. Instead of burning sweatshops with locked doors and windows, we now have workers leaping from office buildings without any fire. Workers no longer have to be locked in to squeeze out every drop of work, we are now tethered via devices that we are expected to attend 24/7. Balancing the demands of work and life still eludes us, and working conditions are still hazardous – just less photogenic.

Our stories instruct us on the right and proper way to be successful, beautiful, admired (maybe loved), and free: shop. Shop more, buy bigger. With just a few clicks, we instigate a vast serious of events that results in our desired thing appearing almost instantaneously on our desktop or doorstep. Everything you are or have is wrong or not enough; you need to buy more to fix yourself. Boredom is to be avoided at all costs, and only rest when exhausted. We have become black holes of need, while the engine keeps burning through our ability to live.

What if we stopped? What if we changed our collective story?

The United States of America was founded on good ideals that got lost – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. After 250 years, Americans saw their “great experiment” failing to produce the desired results. We were enslaved to corporations that had more rights than human beings, and no responsibilities. We had to pay more and more for clean water, food free of poison, and devices to clean and cool air that had become dangerous. We were lonely, angry, sad, and terrified most of the time. As our government became a tragic farce, we collectively said, “Fuck this shit.” At the tipping point of the early 21st Century, Americans stopped shopping. We stopped pursuing profit, freeing ourselves to live abundantly. Americans finally embraced the value of “enough,” and we are richer for it. Slowly, then suddenly we could then produce what the nation’s founders imperfectly imagined: off the scale happiness.

How does that feel?

Let’s shake things up.