Fear is the natural response to loss that might happen in the future. If I walk through that grass, I might get bitten by a snake. If I jump out of this airplane, my parachute might not open. And I may lose my life. If I ask that girl to marry me, she might say no and I will lose my dream. If I stand up in front of the crowd and make a speech, I might make a fool out of myself and lose the respect of everyone.
One of the purposes of meditation is that you have accurate fear. Only accurate and useful fear, about immediate situations. This comes from facing your fears in meditation and learning to relax into greater contact with the natural forces of life.
Washing the Fear out of Your Body
During meditation, a lot of time is spent in what I call "washing the fear out of the body." Because meditation is a rest and healing state, the body will review every time that the panic button was pushed. Usually the body starts with a review of the just-passed action cycle – whatever you have been doing since the last time you meditated. While sitting there relaxed in meditation, you will find your brain and body bringing up little video clips of encounters, audio clips of conversations, in which some element of anxiety, fear, worry, or dread are present.
How to Deal with Fear
The body's purpose in bring up all your fears and anxieties during meditation is so that you can be free of them. What better place to mull over your fears and let go of them than in meditation? If you suppress this process, because it is uncomfortable, then when – when? will you take the time to go through the process of filtering out the excess fear?
The key to working with fear during meditation is to cultivate safety. Let meditation be a bath in safety. You do this by customizing the process so it is about that which you love and feel safe with – Jesus, or Nature, or Rhythm, or Love. You train yourself such that meditation is a resourceful, therapeutic state, in which your love of life is a guiding force. Then you can welcome the fear, and let it wash through you, play itself out, and let your brain and body review and extract any useful lessons.
Debriefing and Briefing
The after-action review is called debriefing. That is where you go over the mission you just were on, and review what happened, what mistakes were made, what successes were achieved. Planning an action for the future is called a briefing. This is where you go over the maps, choreograph the events, alert yourself to the signposts and navigation guides. People with families and jobs usually spend about half of their meditation time in briefing and debriefing. You can't help it, the brain just does it on its own. Although this may not feel like meditation – it just feels like you are sitting there planning – this is a really important part of meditation.
Before I started meditating, when I was a teenager, I used to get nervous before tests, particularly writing assignments and calculus tests. I was anxious, but actually I got good grades, so it was wasted energy. Then during the test, I would be nervous and when I would walk out the door, I would suddenly realize the answers. Then when I started meditating, I noticed that I would worry about the tests during every meditation, for days prior to the test. Worry, worry, worry. I would see the little film clips of walking into the classroom. Then, because I had devoted (unwillingly) a whole bunch of meditation sessions to worrying, I noticed that I was not worrying about the test as much during the day. And then I started noticing that I was relaxed during the test. The meditation had washed the fear out of my body.
Over time I noticed that I functioned better on tests – I had become a pitch hitter, able to function well under pressure. I started to walk around the university with a sort of empty head – no thoughts in my mind, no worries, just looking at the sunlight on the trees. It was only when I would actually pick up the piece of paper in the classroom that my brain would start to do calculus or writing. And then the ideas and principles just flowed.
Letting go of fear is usually quite uncomfortable – the body first accesses safety and relaxation, so that there is a resource state, then suddenly hits you with a memory of something you are anxious about. This is unstressing, and if you allow the process, you will find yourself being less afraid as you go about your life.
Fear should be like a fire alarm that only goes off if the building is on fire – never at any other time. To thrive in life, you need your fear to be accurate and immediate, to come as a gift, a useful warning, of something wrong right now. If you have unrealistic fears, then you really can benefit from learning to let them be massaged, washed, processed out of your body in meditation.
The Epidemic of Irrational Fear
Scientific American has an interesting review of a new book about fear – (link to Scientific American Online)
"Recurrent or unremitting fear has the same deleterious effects on the human body that running persistently at 80 to 100 miles per hour has on a car. Many illnesses are more likely to occur as a result, including heart disease, stroke and depression. Thus, we should focus our efforts on avoiding the ordinary killers such as heart attacks that develop as a result of our unremitting worries rather than extraordinary occurrences or exotic diseases. Consider: in 2001 terrorists killed 2,978 people in the U.S., including five from anthrax attacks. That same year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease killed 700,142; cancer, 553,768; accidents, 101,537; and suicide, 30,622. Murders (not including 9/11) accounted for only 17,330 deaths. (Link to Scientific American article)
So what can be done about irrational fear? There is no one standard treatment in part because symptoms vary from one individual to the next. A person may feel destined to a given bad outcome and have a greater sense of foreboding because of a certain family tendency. Some people's bodies more easily release the fight-or-flight hormones than others. Time-consuming therapy and the resulting reeducation, to avoid triggering our fears, have been the chief solution to date. Now research also suggests therapy could be supplemented by a simple pill that blocks the reception or production of fear signals or even by a fear "vaccine." The fear research does not seek a traditional vaccine--in which the immune system develops protective capabilities in response to the presence of an injected (inert) disease agent. Rather the immune system might be chemically primed with a shot so that it is as healthy as possible--making the body less susceptible to hyperreacting to threats."
I find this relevant because part of what people experience in meditation is washing the fear out of the body. As the body settles into the restfulness of meditation, the nervous system goes through a process of accessing any feelings of anxiety or fear that are floating around, re-evaluating them, and then unwinding. This dynamic is the main thing people complain about – it feels as hard as cleaning out a closet or the garage.