In some ways, COVID-19 has been a great equalizer. It has shown those of us who have known relative safety our whole lives what others in more challenging circumstances have always known: not even our next breath is guaranteed. Death can happen at any time. Of this, we have no control. The question is, knowing this now, how will we choose to live: in openheartedness, or in fear? As we experience the ups and downs of an ongoing pandemic that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands, we are being asked to look at the world with fresh eyes and consider the role fear plays in our inner and outer worlds.
As you may know, I made a life-changing journey to the North Pole a few years ago that ultimately inspired the creation of Parvati Foundation and the Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary (MAPS). During the preparations for the trip, I had visions in my morning meditations of danger awaiting us, specifically that our plane could crash. With poor visibility due to increased fog from rising temperatures and melting sea ice, I knew it was a real possibility. Even so, I needed to go. I chose to not let fear interfere with the surrender I felt the trip was asking me to practice and the sincere calling it felt to be. And so, I sat with this for a few days, making peace with the possibility of death on the journey.
When I met Inuit elders in the High Arctic who told me they had known I was coming, I shared with them what I had seen. The older of the two women said to me, her dark eyes stern, that she had seen it too. But she added, “Now that it has been spoken, it has no more power.” I felt the truth in her words.
Fear is one of our strongest emotions, and the hardest to hide because of its physical impact. When our minds anticipate a threatening situation, our bodies go into a fight/flight/freeze reaction. As our adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol into our bloodstream, our heart rate and breathing intensify, and glucose is diverted into our muscles to give us a boost of energy to fight off a predator or flee for our lives. These changes can also lead to a wide range of symptoms that include sweating, trembling, flushing of the face, dry mouth, gastrointestinal upset, short-term memory loss, a quavering voice or stammering speech, and in the extreme case disorientation or hyperventilation.
Fear is natural and can be an ally. It heightens our awareness and can keep us safe from danger. When met with wisdom, fear ensures we do not stick our hand into a hot fire. Similarly, because we don’t want to get sick or give disease to others during a pandemic, we put on masks, wash our hands and follow other guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19. These are expressions of compassion and responsibility.
But just as fear can debilitate us physically, it can harm us mentally. When fear becomes so loud that it consumes our minds and becomes fuel for a sense of life “happening to me”, or we talk ourselves out of living our highest good, we must stop, regroup and change the way we deal with this emotion.
Life will always be unpredictable. The wise teachers in many spiritual traditions remind us that the only moment we can live in is the present moment. Some mystics even go further to express how fear is an illusion based on a false perception that we are limited beings. In essence, we are timeless energy, only temporarily inhabiting human form. Not even death itself is to be feared. For one, it will happen eventually, and two, it is not the end of who we are, but merely a change from one state to the next. Whether we take a spiritual or psychological view of fear, how we manage it makes the difference between those who are taking wise actions for a meaningful life, and those who are still feeling stuck in a fight/flight/freeze pattern.
I am personally fond of a popular reverse acronym for fear: False Expectations Appearing Real. I find it quickly puts into perspective that fear is just a misperception. Based on unresolved past experiences, we tend to form ideas—sometimes catastrophic ones—of what may happen in this moment. In our journey to inner peace, we have a choice. We can give power to fear or we can let it go. If we are to let it go, we must learn to see it as it is: a reaction based on old stories that have no real power other than what we feed them. We must learn to work with fear in the present, rather than push it away and act with false confidence or succumb to it out of reserved trepidation.
To overcome deep fears takes humility, resolve and self-kindness – a softening. It means looking within to understand your inner patterning and make different choices. When you can accept that you feel afraid, you can treat yourself with the appropriate patience and tenderness.
Just as with any emotion, when we try to run from fear, it follows us. When we sink into it and become identified with it, we lose ourselves in it. Either way, it grows. Instead, we can learn to welcome fear and simply be with it. When we are present and stop fighting it, the energy that feeds it subsides. Like the vision that I had of a plane crash, fear loses its power when it is openly acknowledged. We understand the falsehood of our expectations. We can then witness our tendency to cling to them. Eventually, as we no longer feed our fear, we find the wisdom and compassion to let it go altogether. When we do so, the energy that was once trapped in it is liberated for creative, joyful purposes, and inner peace flowers in our hearts and minds.
• In this moment, what am I afraid of?
• Is it real?
• Is it happening?
• Is there any benefit in this fear?
• Is there anything this fear is costing me?
• What healthy action can I take in this situation?
• Am I willing to practice the three steps of transformation (understanding, witness and release) to overcome the fear?