Global Pandemic!! Economic Devastation!! Explosive Racial Tensions!!
There are so many reasons to be terrified right now. Take your pick…or you can be like me and just go ahead and worry about all of it, plus the dark political climate, global warming, wildfires, hurricanes, hurtling asteroids, and the insidious evil of TikTok. Yes, my friends, it’s 2020, and as my teacher likes to say “Fear is in the house!”
Unlike vampires or the police, Fear doesn’t need to be invited in…it comes oozing in through keyholes, slithering through cracks. Sometimes it kicks down the door. Once it’s inside the question becomes, “What do you do with an uninvited guest who threatens to tear your house apart?” Easy, you ask it to leave. But Fear doesn’t follow the rules of polite society…it just flops down on the couch, kicks its feet up on the freshly polished coffee table, and starts screaming, “Oh my God, Oh my God!!! It’s time to PANIC!!!” You beg it to quiet down, but it won’t be silenced. “I know you don’t like me, but you needme!!!” Fear implores. And maybe it has a point.
The Sanskrit word for fear is Abhinvesha.Literally translated to “moving towards, and liking life,” Abhinivesha includes our resistance to change, general insecurities, and ultimately, our fear of death. The trio of current crises speaks directly to primal, biblical themes of annihilation: Plague! Famine! Bloodshed! Such fertile ground for Fear to take root! It’s uncomfortable and often paralyzing, but like all unpleasant emotions, Fear arrives to get our attention, spur us to appropriate action, and provide us with an opportunity to reconnect with our center.
When discussing Abhiniveshain the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali tells us: Even the wise sage clings to the familiarity of life. (PYS 2:9)This is important because it reminds us that fear is a perfectly natural response to threat. It’s not something to be ignored or rejected, but rather invited in, accepted, and ultimately transmuted. We are encouraged to put down our distractions of choice (the glass of wine, remote control, Cheetos, and to-do lists, etc…), sit across the table from our unexpected guest and listen to what it has to say.
Abhinvesha wants to spur us towards actions that can help keep us safe: wear a mask and social distance, adjust our spending and explore new income streams, uncover our blind spots on racism and work to increase social equality. Excellent advice we’re wise to heed. But why does Fear stick around after the message has been delivered, often leading us to freeze or lash out? Because, on a deeper level, Fear also shatters our single-paned illusion that we are completely in control of life’s circumstances. We are reminded once again that life is impermanent and unpredictable, and that the only thing we truly have control over is how we respond to everything else. And that’s where the Yoga comes in.
Our work on the yoga mat prepares us for dealing with discomforts we encounter in life. As we dive into a forward bend, perhaps a little deeper than before, our hamstrings contract, “Whoa!!! We haven’t been here before! Scary!” In that moment we feel the urge to come out of the pose. But as we acknowledge our hamstrings’ limits, and stay and breathe, respecting the edge of the stretch, they slowly begin to let go. This is how we expand the envelope of comfort in our forward fold. We open up, little by little, day by day…through practice and consistency.
And so it is with Fear. Fear IS contraction. You can feel it in your body as everything clenches up ready to fight for your life or run like hell. And what do those of us on the Yoga path do with contraction? We stay and we breathe. Left unattended, fear will lock us in the cellar and/or set our house on fire. Either way, it will not be ignored. Perhaps it’s time we pour a cup of tea and give our guest the attention it deserves.
The next time Fear comes barreling into your house, find a quiet spot and take a seat. Close your eyes and scan your body. Fear should be easy to find in there (check your jaw and your solar plexus). Once you’ve located it, breathe deeply into the places Fear has set up shop. Feel the contraction, hear the alarm bells, and get curious. “What do you want me to know? Are your concerns legitimate, or are you just trying to freak me out? What rational steps can I take with the information you’ve given me?” Keep breathing, asking and listening. As this becomes a practice, little by little, day by day, Fear will start to let go. As we sit with and breathe into Fear, its screams begin to fade into whispers, until we can once again hear the placid voice of strength, divinity, and wisdom within. At this point we might like to thank our gatecrasher for reminding us of where our true courage, power and serenity lie.