In regard to fear, there are two ways to go about life.
One is to avoid what you fear.
The other is to do what you fear.
I tried the first approach – avoiding what I feared – for a long time.
It was miserable. I cannot recommend it.
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Perhaps because of genetics or karma or circumstance or chance or who knows what, I developed severe obsessive-compulsive behavior.
Whatever factors contributed to that development, there is one thing I am almost certain of: avoiding what I feared made it worse.
A lot worse.
So bad that I cannot even begin to do justice to how horrible it was.
Here’s an example to illustrate how bad it was. I was living in a place with only one road in and out. I was half an hour from the nearest town.
I had developed an extreme fear of fast food. So much so that trash from fast food restaurants would produce paralysis as if I was prey trapped by a predator. Utter terror.
One day I was out of food, and I was driving into town to get food.
Lo and behold, on the singular road in and out of my home I found that somebody had thrown out a bag from Wendy’s – a fast food restaurant.
What to do?
I avoided my fear. I turned around and went back home. I stayed hungry for several more days until the piece of trash disappeared from the road and I felt I could drive on it without paralyzing fear.
It may be easy from some perspectives to dismiss this story as merely the memories of a person suffering from severe mental illness.
And it may be true.
But we’re all suffering from mental illness.
And this story – and what I learned – is relevant to everybody who ever avoids fear. Which is all of us.
A couple of months ago, I was walking out of the grocery store with my kids. I glanced over the left and saw some McDonald’s trash scattered in the parking lot.
It didn’t bother me.
Not at all.
And the fact that it didn’t bother me stood in stark contrast to just 8 years prior when I had gone hungry for days so as to avoid a Wendy’s bag in the middle of the road.
Again, you might think that not being paralyzed by fast food trash is normal – not a big deal.
And you’d be right.
But consider this: many people consider the kind of mental illness – and certainly the severity that I suffered – to be incurable.
By doing what I fear consciously, I no longer suffer in that particular way.
And I believe this is relevant to everybody who avoids fear. Which is all of us.
While in the “big picture” nothing is really a waste. From the perspective of an individual lifetime, some things are valued more than others. Meaning, some things are a waste.
Spending a lifetime agonizing and retreating from fear – a lifetime constructed around avoidance – is a waste from that perspective.
Nondual belief systems make the claim that nothing is real and nothing really matters. And that’s true.
But it’s not the whole truth.
The whole truth includes the fact that it does matter. It matters to me. It matters to you.
When I was suffering from the worst of mental illness – at least the worst I’ve been able to recognize to date – I wanted relief from that suffering more than just about anything.
And I turned to spirituality – and eventually to nondual philosophy – for that relief.
That was a mistake. Because spirituality and nondual philosophy didn’t relieve suffering. They made suffering worse.
Why? Because they offered me more hope that I could avoid what I feared.
Eventually I was washing my hands most of the day. I was counting most of the day. I was trying to blank my mind. I was trying to organize my life so that I wouldn’t have to think or see or smell or taste…or be.
I wanted nothingness.
My choices in spirituality and nondual philosophy seemed to hold out the hope of nothingness. Nothingness for me. That I could have and experience.
And so I kept trying to avoid what I feared.
Eventually I realized that my life was a waste. It was not a life worth living.
No amount of beliefs and philosophies to the contrary would counter that fact.
I could use logic to reason my way to the ultimate truth of emptiness. I could even sense it and feel it at times.
But that led to the classic “I understand it but I don’t live it” belief.
The truth was, as I have said, my life wasn’t worth living.
And when I finally saw that clearly, I realized that I had two choices: keep doing what I was doing…or do something different.
Doing the same thing had an almost certain outcome; in short order, after suffering miserably for another couple days or maybe months, I’d kill myself. Because nobody can endure that much misery without any real hope.
Once I saw that avoiding what I feared wasn’t going to work, the hope died. So doing the same thing was the most depressing nightmare. I would have killed myself.
Doing something different, on the other hand…that was the most terrifying thing I could imagine.
Which, of course, seems silly from a certain perspective. Because something different, in this case, appeared to be little more than just driving past a piece of trash and getting food. Big deal, right?
But that’s trivializing things.
None of us is that stupid. We don’t suffer because we are stupid.
We suffer because we are challenged with going against the momentum not only of a lifetime, but the momentum of all our ancestors and all of evolution.
We have evolved to avoid what we fear. We have evolved to freeze when we can’t avoid.
So the actual challenge is to stand up against billions of years and all of life.
When I put it that way, it doesn’t sound so trivial.
With that out of the way, we can dispense with the “I don’t know what’s wrong with me” nonsense. There’s nothing wrong with you or me. We’re just programmed to avoid fear.
But we have a choice. I am living proof of that.
We don’t have to be victims of our programming. We can do something different.
We can face what we fear.
No, not face. We can fully embody the fear, do it with awareness of what it feels like to be afraid, and do whatever we fear anyway.
Not just get it done and out of the way. Not gritting our teeth and bearing it.
No, no, no. That doesn’t work.
I mean to find out what fear actually is. Not theoretically. But actually.
Which is done by consciously being afraid.
Do it over and over and over.
It will not stop. You won’t reach a perfected state. You won’t get rid of fear. And each time you experience fear, you will be afraid. You will not master it.
At least not in this lifetime.
But I’m telling you this: fear isn’t what you think. I can promise you that. It is not bad.
Neither is it good, exactly.
I’m not claiming that life is all “love and light”. No. Life is suffering and pain and horror.
But the black and white thinking that wants to categorize fear as good or bad…or good or bad as good or bad, for that matter…is limited. It will never satisfy because it is not the whole truth.
You have to find out for yourself. And doing so requires a leap of faith over and over and over again.
Because each time it means doing what you feel might destroy you. You may not rationally think it will destroy you. But it feels that way. And you have to act counter to billions of years of evolution and do it anyway.
Consciously. Feeling what it feels like to be utterly terrified. And soften into that. Dive into the heart of fear.
You will not arrive anywhere.
But you will be turned around.
Of course, someone will object, raising the argument that nobody can do anything and nothing really happens.
True, of course. But not the whole truth.
Because the whole truth includes the obvious fact that things are happening.
In the course of life, things are always – at least apparently – happening.
And what I am proposing – another way to view it – is that we are conditioned to interject unnecessary effort and suffering into the stream of happening.
Or, at least, create that illusion.
In the course of life, hunger arises, and that naturally is followed by seeking food.
That is what happens when nothing is interjected unnecessarily. That is what happens without unnecessary effort. That is what happens without avoidance of fear.
If fear arises, I have a choice. Either I can attempt to avoid the fear, which means unnecessary effort, which is suffering.
Or I can embody the fear, be the fear, accept the fear – and do whatever follows naturally. If I am hungry and seeking food, what follows naturally is the seeking, acquisition, and eating of food.
The avoidance of fear is unnecessary. At least in cases (and this accounts for 99 percent of cases in most of our lives today) where there is no genuine threat to the organism.
Of course, if there is a predator standing in my path with the intention to kill me, I am wise to heed the desire to protect myself at all costs.
But that’s not unnecessary effort. That’s appropriate self-defense.
Yet take an inventory of the unnecessary effort in your life. See that none of it is appropriate self-defense.
A character/self-image doesn’t need to be defended. A thought doesn’t need to be defended. And over 99 percent of our so-called “self-defense” is not defense of the organism against genuine threat to safety. Instead, it is defense of self-image and thoughts.
And a defense against feeling states.
And a defense against emotions.
It doesn’t work, though.
It just creates a false identity. And a fantasy prison that feels very real.
And it generates incredible (and completely unnecessary) suffering.
Do what you fear.
Don’t go out of your way to generate fear and do unnecessary things you are afraid of. I’ve not suddenly started channeling Tony Robbins. I’m not advocating walking on hot coals or skydiving.
But in the course of the day, notice how much fear happens. It is natural. It is not a problem.
Then notice how much unnecessary effort goes into trying to avoid the fear.
See how much you try not to do so as to avoid the fear.
I’m saying to do that stuff. And feel the fear. Discover how you try – futilely – to protect yourself against the fear. Notice how you clench and armor yourself.
That awareness is all.
The doing is incidental. But also essential.
It is the awareness that comes from the doing – or, rather, the not doing of the avoidance – that is needed.
In some circles, the question “who am I?” is popular as a form of inquiry.
Rather than just asking the question, I am proposing that you live it.
To find out, you must inquire actively. Live the inquiry. Don’t make it a theory. Make it alive.
If you want to know who you are, find out what you are not.
Are you bound by this or that fear? Is that your limitation? Is that where you begin and end?
Do what you fear. Accept the fear. Find out if you are that boundary.
Find out if the boundary even exists independent of the avoidance of fear.