To Fear or Not to Fear

– That is a Very Good Question

Living beings NEED fear. One of nature’s great gifts, its purpose ensures the continuation of life. Fear, like pain, is not pleasant, but it let’s us know something is wrong. Spontaneous, natural fear is healthy, such as the cat’s instinctive reaction to the cucumber (mistaking it probably for a snake). It may seem funny to us—and many practical jokes are played like this on humans as well—but it’s actually a very important and serious gift that keeps the cat safe.

Your brain stem works well when it protects you from dangers to ensure your survival. The fear response is perhaps the most basic and oldest wisdom of physical existence. Even a single cell amoeba has an “irritability” factor that causes it to withdraw from danger.

However, when you allow yourself to be stirred up into a state of fear by politicians, pundits, the media, social media, or your friends and family, so that you are reacting as if you are in actual, present, in-the-moment danger, you are being hoodwinked. You are terrorizing yourself for no good reason, because in that moment you are not in actual life or death danger. Nevertheless, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in and stress chemicals cascade through you, altering your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, muscle tone, and thinking ability, as if you were currently being threatened.

Somebody or something has put a cucumber in your path.

And you let that happen over and over again, to your own detriment.

We humans have, like the cat above, instinctive fear reactions, one being the startle reflex. When something suddenly appears in the field of vision, or unexpectedly touches from behind, or there is a nearby, sudden, loud sound, these sensory (informational) stimuli, if intense, may cause a heightened response in which we jump, shriek, run away. Or if it is a milder surprise, less dramatically, the reaction is to freeze, withdraw (contract) and often touch the center of the chest, and focus attention. If we are mature, we quickly assess the danger, decide if it is real and how to react: to stay put (freeze); to engage the danger (fight); or to get the heck out of there (flee). Or, in the case of the cucumber, or someone playing a practical joke on us, relax or even laugh as we realize there is no danger here. A less evolved animal (like the cat) or an infant will react without immediately assessing the danger. But even the cat will eventually figure it out and might even start eating the cucumber.

Don’t let a cat be smarter than you!

Stop jumping every time somebody tries to manipulate you.

In cases of real—rather than imagined danger—fear is your friend. Your reflexes are designed by nature to respond to immediate, in-the-moment threats (or a perceived threat until it can be evaluated). When the proprioceptive system (literally “perception of self” or body in space) and the vestibular (balance) system are functioning well, and reflexes are well integrated, there is generally a physiological sense of safety—enough comfort in the body to go about daily routines without giving them a second thought. In the present moment there is no need for fear. The unconscious or subconscious awareness effectively says, “I’m OK. I know how to take care of myself.”

When we feel safe, life is generally easier, healthier, and more pleasant.

Sometimes, when we are bored or want an adrenaline rush, we seek fear, perhaps in order to feel more alive. Halloween scary houses, practical jokes, or watching horror movies are examples of our desire to experience fear as a thrill. That’s OK if it is not routine. But putting ourselves into a steady fear state May be likened to addiction. Adrenaline and cortisol might be natural drugs, but they are not meant by nature to be used so much so often.

Ask yourself: Do you experience real fear—leading to positive, natural reaction responses—or unhealthy states that mimic fear (bad fear)? In the case of bad fear, the word “fear” is actually used inaccurately, and covers up or clouds the real, underlying condition. There are many better words to use to distinguish between fear (the unconditioned, innate, mechanism built into our neurophysiology) versus learned, and usually dysfunctional, conditioned states that come from memories or projections about the future.

The Importance of Developing an Emotional Vocabulary

Let’s call “bad fear” what it is: insecurity, worry, anxiety, preoccupation, trepidation, nervousness, dread, distress, dismay, unease, foreboding, angst, apprehension, unrest, perturbation, disquiet, discomposure, concern, malaise, or even, in the extreme, paranoia, etc. And, even though anxiety, as an example of one of these, like the others is usually considered an emotion, it is not. It is a repeating thought that becomes a state of sensation that masquerades as emotion.

The above conditions cause sensations such as shivering, twitching, trembling, shuddering, quavering, quivering, jerking, fluttering, “butterflies in the stomach”, etc. None of these sensations function to protect us. They are not healthy reflex reactions, but rather symptoms of an uncomfortable state and are not natural or healthy responses to actual situations.

These thought-derived past memories or future projections run along as subconscious programs that can feel like emotions and then cause unnecessary stress resulting in biological and physiological reactions. These undercurrents of imagined or remembered dangers become dysfunctional patterns and habits that often hold the body in unnecessarily tight, protective postures. Such apprehensive states do not allow for the kind of ease and stillness from which peace, joy, and ease arise.

Think of the animal kingdom or even human infants. They exhibit innate fear, but not “bad fear.” For example, perhaps your dog hates thunderstorms and reacts with shaking, hiding, whining or other symptoms of distress; but when the thunderstorm is over, the behavior stops. It is very unlikely that your dog then spends any time or energy “thinking” about future thunderstorms or “remembering” past ones. The dog’s fear is bodily/sensory stimulation; but that human’s “bad fear” is from mental activity. Animals and infants have no vocabulary for their experience, only the experience itself in its raw form.

Just as the word “fear” is used inexactly, many of the above sensation words are mislabeled as emotions in mainstream psychology. Regardless, it’s truly important to have a highly developed vocabulary for these experiences, sensations, patterns and habits of thought and behavior. Imagine going to your doctor and saying, “I have a pain.” The doctor says, “Where.” You reply, “In my body.” “What part of your body?” “In my leg.” “Which leg?” “My right leg.” “Which part of your right leg?” “The lower part.” “Which lower part?” … until finally the area of the ankle is identified as the problem area. Then the doctor asks, “What kind of pain?” “Bad,” you answer. And so on and on. Being precise in definition requires a vocabulary that correctly isolates and accurately identifies and details the issue.

Please realize, however, that with an adequate understanding and vocabulary, these states masquerading as fear can serve—IN THE SHORT TERM—to accurately identify a problem and to be used consciously as a valuable protective mechanism.

If you have been threatened by a hurricane or tornado, for example, worry about future hurricanes or tornadoes would make you more likely to take necessary and beneficial precautions. Perhaps you need to buy insurance, to have fire drills, draw up an escape plan, or to check that tools and machinery are working properly.

If you have been diagnosed with a serious illness, worry or concern can make you change your behaviors, have regular health check ups, get your affairs in order. These kinds of thoughts and sensations can focus you.

However, continued worry without taking appropriate action, serves no purpose, other than to wreck havoc on well-being, depleting the intrinsic pleasures of being alive, and impeding personal growth. If we allow a concern to serve as an impetus towards positive action, it too can serve as a positive, so long as it does not linger beyond its functional value. Once we have taken whatever precautions we deem necessary, it is time to let the worry go. Once we have taken appropriate action, we have essentially trained our conscious mind to tell our subconscious mind and our neurophysiological system, “It’s OK. I know how to take care of myself.”

There are no guarantees. From the viewpoint of anxiety, none are strong enough. From the viewpoint of the natural state, none are necessary.

Thinking as Spiritual Activity

“Our brain is a spiritual instrument and the science of spirituality is the textbook of how to properly play it.”

Melvin Morse, M.D.
MONKEY MIND

Meditation is a way to stop the “monkey mind” (a Buddhist term for uncontrolled and confused thinking) and to learn how to “properly play” this great “spiritual instrument”: the brain. But, many people struggle with meditation (and its many forms) because if they try to stop thinking they crave thinking even more. Thinking then takes them over. Thinking controls them and not the other way around.

When we attempt to exert conscious control, a subconscious horde of arguments rise up fighting our resolve. This is why New Year’s resolutions are usually so short-lived and ineffective. Sometimes resolutions and affirmations backfire and make the habit or pattern worse. You intend to go on a diet and exercise and almost immediately become tired and hungry, thinking of all the “wrong” foods you want to eat. The fact is the 5% of the conscious identity is fighting the 95% subconscious, unconscious self that directs and thrives on repetitive thoughts. The conscious, full-of-itself-self (ego) thinks it’s the CEO but ideally would be the  perfect Administrative Assistant to the wiser, healthier Higher Self. But the ego hates and fights that demotion.

ROTE THINKING

My philosophy professor at university called the constant, non-stop chatter that generally passes for thinking, “grocery list thinking.” I understood that he meant by this the repetitive, rote nature of thoughts that deal with everyday “taking care of business” and the thoughts that are a bunch of already-been-thought thoughts. What we call thinking is often just repetition of thoughts already thought over and over again until they become thought habits, thought patterns, and thought belief systems. Ultimately they become thought addictions. To not think these thoughts or to have someone challenge them is painful and can cause strongly adverse reactions such as hurt, denial, anger, argument, aggression, or internal stress.

When I realized that thinking is probably the addiction that underlies all other addictions, I had a “Eureka!” moment, only to stumble onto Eckhart Tolle addressing the same condition of addictive thinking.

Repetitive, out-of-control thinking is stressful and impairs life because it fails to listen to anything but itself. It’s the thing that keeps people awake at night and causes knots in the stomach.

Stressful Thinking

To remedy this common problem, spiritual teachers and healers have over thousands of years created techniques to calm and master thinking and gain awareness of other ways of being. Some techniques are designed to stop thoughts. Others, because it is so difficult to stop thinking, are designed instead to give distance from thoughts. Centering Prayer for example works by witnessing thoughts. An example would be, “I am worthless.” [implied statement of fact, but really a belief]. In Centering Prayer, one might witness the thought and think, “I am having a thought that I am worthless.” (This begs the question who is thinking and who is observing the thinking).

[Next blog: different kinds of mediation and the subconscious saboteur.]

In my last blog I said, “I do NOT think—Therefore I am Aware” (boldly taking on Descartes’ proclamation, “I think, therefore I am.”).

Am I saying that thinking has no value? Of course, I’m not saying that. Of course, thinking has value. It is, along with the opposable thumb, one of the great gifts of humanity. But thinking has been elevated to an importance that exceeds its purpose; and now what often passes for thinking has fallen into a state that often renders it far less valuable than intended because it lacks insight, creativity and wisdom, and is merely a “laundry list.”

As I stated in the last blog, we do not need to think in order to BE. We do need to BE in order to think. The higher value goes to BEING. When I switch off my workaday thinking and enter into the silence then the thinking that follows is fresh, new and creative. The empty mind is open to inspiration—to creative thought. The brain becomes then the spiritual instrument it was always intended to be.

Nature is a constant process of creation and destruction only to create again and destroy again–an exquisite cycle of being. Empty becomes full only to empty – over and over.

This ability to be in Silence and Stillness was made easy for me by a profound near-death experience when I was 27. During that experience I lost my identity as a temporal being (and consequently returned with partial amnesia). Admittedly, it left me ill-prepared for daily life. It took me years to remember words, personal biography and to be able to read and write again. The challenge also contained a gift. The gift that has remained is being able to be at one with all that is. Despite the practical necessity of a persona (which took me years to re-establish), I did not and I do not possess a spiritual, emotional or intellectual desire for a separate ego identity. My persona (ego) is an instrument that serves me.

Close your mouth, block off your senses, blunt your sharpness, untie your knots, soften your glare, settle your dust. This is the primal identity.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (56)

In my “meditation” (which is really just showing up to Being) the result goes way beyond watching the thoughts drift by like clouds. My experience informs me that we are meant to transcend the clouds—the appearance of forms—to emptiness where Silence and Stillness resides, to Rumi’s field (see last blog). To say it another way, at the point between light and dark, true and false, good and bad, there is nothing to judge or interpret and therefore no need to think.

He who defines himself can’t know who he really is.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (24)