a few months ago

Fear Is a Choice


Just the word “fear” probably triggers a fearful response.

Because it’s always there. If not overtly, it’s just below the surface, ready to bubble up at a moment’s notice.

Most of us think our goal is to extinguish fear. We think we are to get rid of it once and for all. And then we’ll be spiritually victorious!

Isn’t that so? Isn’t that the goal of most so-called spirituality? In fact, we don’t even have to be so lofty as to reach for spirituality to have this goal. It is the goal of most of human activities, isn’t it?

It’s why we try to amass more and more wealth. It’s why we try to “better ourselves”. It’s why we try to be healthy.

We want to defeat fear.

And what happens? Have we won?

Tell the truth. The more we try to defeat fear, the more it grows. It looms large in the shadow that grows ever larger as we try to ignore it.

Let’s switch gears for a moment to a biology lesson.

There’s a guy named Stephen Porges who is a fancy professor at some fancy college. I don’t remember which. It doesn’t matter.

He has a theory. He calls the theory the Polyvagal Theory, which sounds fancy.

His theory says that organisms on this planet have evolved three layers of strategies – specifically within the vagus nerve – for dealing with possible threats. Each layer can be conceptualized as being more evolved (i.e. more advantageous) than the others “below” it.

The first and least advantageous is the freeze response. Possums demonstrate this well.

When a possum is threatened, it is well-known for “playing possum”. That is, it appears to be dead. It becomes motionless. Its vital signs diminish. Poke it, prod it…it is dead as far as you can tell.

But it ain’t playing when it “plays possum”. It is in a freeze response. It is a biological reaction. And according to Porges, this is mediated by the lowest layer of the vagus nerve.

For you and me, it doesn’t matter whether this is mediated by the vagus nerve. We don’t care. I’m only mentioning it just because of the context of this explanation. But you really can ignore that part if it sounds too complicated. Just know that this is one possible reaction.

Possums do it. They don’t have a choice. That’s their biology. And I think that Porges says that reptiles do it and many fish do it. Lots of animals that have vagus nerves that aren’t highly evolved do it…and don’t have a choice.

You and I could also “play possum”. This happens to people. But we have a choice. We have other options available to us.

And for us, freeze is the least desirable option.

Why? Because it is very, very stressful. It’s not “play”. It’s for real. The body actually mimics death.

And sometimes possums and reptiles and fish…and humans if they do it…actually DO die from it. Because it is the body trying to get as close to death as possible without actually dying. Which is a fine line.

This is useful if, for example, you’ve been pinned to the ground by a 200 pound angry mountain lion who mistakenly thought you were trying to hurt her young. You aren’t going to outfight the mountain lion. So maybe your best bet is to appear dead. Maybe she’ll leave you alone then.

But otherwise, it’s not what you want.

The next more evolved option according to Porges is the fight-or-flight response. Animals with less evolved vagus nerves can’t do this (so says Porges). But you and I can.

Which means we can try to protect ourselves. We can even try to protect others.

This is great…if there is a real threat.

But 99% or more of our perceived threats aren’t real. And while this response is useful for real threats, it comes at a cost. Because it is distressing. It exhausts us. And it conditions us to expect threats, to become paranoid, to be on guard. When we are conditioned to be on guard, we are constantly churning, never truly at rest. Never actually enjoying life.

Stop now and take an honest inventory of the perceived threats in your life. Tell the truth. They are almost entirely imaginary.

Yes, they *might* come true. Of course, of course. But are they real RIGHT NOW?

Clearly they are not. No actual harm is coming to you now. No TRUE threat is upon you right now.

99% or more of your perceived threats are entirely in your imagination.

And this is why you should be glad to know that as a human you are gifted with a wonderful capacity for what Porges called the soothe response. This is (according to Porges) the most evolved response.

It doesn’t matter if Porges is right about any of the biology. We can actually just observe this in our own experience. Just observe what happens if you start to worry, get uptight, react fearfully, keep up your guard, etc.

And then observe what happens if you choose – yes *choose* – to stop that. Choose peace. Choose to acknowledge that your perceived threats are imaginary. Choose to acknowledge that you truly don’t know.

At first this may seem difficult. It may seem impossible. Because you’re not practiced at it. You may be practiced at freaking out.

But don’t give up just because it’s challenging.

This is why in spiritual traditions there have been many who have reported that they simply had to trust their teachers.

You and me, us mere mortals, us flawed and imperfect humans…we have to choose to trust out teachers when they assure us that something greater is real and true and possible.

We have to choose to believe that and to continue to choose and act in accordance with that. Because if we don’t, we will only repeat what we’ve always done.

And you know what you’ll get if you keep doing that. More of the same. In other words, more fear. More choosing fear.

So trust me. I have trusted my teachers, and I have glimpsed this truth that I tell you.

I tell you from actual experience that fear is a choice.

And peace is a choice.

When the reaction occurs, let that be a reminder. Let it wake you up.

In the moment of the reaction is a powerful opportunity to wake up now.

Wake up now and CHOOSE peace now.

The habitual mind will throw a fit. It will churn up all the images and memories and reasons why to continue to choose fear. It will scream about how there’s not enough good and life is unsafe and nothing ever works out and you’re a failure and blah blah blah.

If the reasons sound familiar, that’s a really good indication that they’re just repetitive untruths passed down from countless generations of unhappy people.

Don’t choose the same.

Choose to wake up now.

It’s not hard. It’s easy. Waking up is easy.

Choosing peace is the difficult part.

Not impossible. And not unpleasant. But I won’t lie to you…it is difficult sometimes when the habitual mind is churning up all the reasons to choose fear.

But you and I can tell the truth. Telling the truth is our great tool that gives us victory.

Simply tell the truth by looking honestly and relentlessly. Is there a true threat now? Is the mountain lion about to pounce? Is the gun to your head now? Is this your last breath now?

If not, choose peace now.

Choosing peace does not mean the intensity goes way. It does not mean the feeling goes away. It does not mean the situation suddenly looks the way you think it should.

Choosing peace is choosing to tell the truth. “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know.” Is the truth.

You can’t make that mechanical. You have to see the truth of it deeply now. Always now.

Seeing the truth of that now is peace.

It means that even if I am down to my last penny, even if I don’t know where my next meal is coming from, even if I have made terrible mistakes, even if I am in pain…I don’t know what this means, I don’t know if this is bad, I don’t even know what good or bad truly is.

Again, it doesn’t work to make this mechanical. This is not about applying some dead philosophy to try to anesthetize ourselves. It is not about getting rid of anything.

It’s about opening our eyes and hearts and minds to what is actually here and telling the truth deeply, which is that I don’t know that this is a threat. I truly don’t know.

And if I don’t know – if I can see that sincerely – then I also see that remaining with not knowing in this alive and open way, in this fully feeling way, is peace. The truth of peace. An alive peace. A peace of total possibility. A peace that knows no opposite.

This is to be completely alive.

And you can choose it.

Joey Lott

Joey Lott is the author of numerous books, including The Best Thing That Never Happened and The Little Book of Big Healing. He lives in southern Vermont with his wife and children.

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