“The experience was both wonderful (Truth!) and terrible (Truth is Void!)”Ric Williams, from the foreword to What is Self?
“Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five
I don’t need to provide examples. We all know it. The world is terrifying. And it’s okay to be afraid.
Fear helps us know when we should take precautions to avoid harm to ourselves or the things we care about. There are things to be afraid of everywhere, and all of us play a precarious balancing act between risk and reward.
Sometimes there is so much fear, diffuse and imprecise, that it becomes anxiety without source. Or a drowned-out signal that floods us but doesn’t inform us.
And sometimes, when I feel certain types of fear, I get a little bit excited. Many of my fears live in a deep part of myself that, like a child, don’t understand the world and the risks in it that I understand as a whole. Sometimes I’ve grown out of a fear and don’t need it anymore. There are some fears that I know are worth facing.
That fear is an opportunity, both exciting (and frightening).
That kind of fear is what this post is about.
I remember being afraid of the dark as a child. The dark was full of crawling unknown horrors, horrors more terrifying than my young mind could safely handle. I avoided the dark to protect myself. But as I grew up, the things in the dark became less scary.
Our understanding grows, and over time, we have less to be afraid of in the corners of our rooms, in our minds, and in the world.
But a lot of people have a crippling fear of looking at certain hard things in the world, from death to the possibility of failure to how they sound when they speak out loud. It’s crippling because by avoiding looking, they don’t avoid reality. Instead, they create a blank space in their mental field of view where they feel they can’t go. Or they create an alternate, imagined reality that feels safer. Avoiding reality is convenient sometimes, but is not a sustainable strategy.
When the landmines of dangerous thoughts are everywhere, we stumble half-blind.
In myself, I’ve found these types of fears recur in a few areas. Sometimes I avoid looking directly at pain in myself to avoid that pain. Sometimes I lie to myself instead of finally admit what I know is true. Sometimes I avoid learning information about the world that might cause me pain.
These types of fear are examples of what I call Blinding Fear. This fear limits how we can interact with the world and what we see. When I notice blinding fear, I see an opportunity to expand the world as I see it.
The core fear is that by looking, something bad would happen. Sometimes this self-protective fear turns on because it is actually something you can’t handle. It would break you. In those cases, your fear is doing you a service.
Other times, this fear can vastly exceed the bad thing that might happen by looking. In general, I have found that actually looking is better than holding onto constant fear. Looking happens once. Blinding fear impacts everything.
I’ve been working on the skill of unblinding myself from this type of fear for years. It’s been a long run and I’m not done yet. These are quasi-dramatic guidelines I use to think about this in the hopes that it might help somebody else as well.
There is darkness in the world and inside of us. If we want to improve the world, we need to be able to understand it. To understand it we need to see it. And to see it, we need to look at it.
What if we didn’t have to hide from the way the world is?
What if we didn’t have to avoid parts of ourselves?
What if we didn’t have to look away anymore?
By practicing staying with the dark, we get better at staying with the dark.
Courage to Acknowledge
The past could be no different than it was, and the development of this flinching-away-from was the product of a compassionate wish for yourself, the wish to be free from suffering.
You are stronger now, with better information. You can face experience head on.How Precious is Your Memory, 99Theses
Our fear that once protected us might cripple us today.
Blinding fear is a useful coping mechanism, but the cost is high. Every time it’s used, it increases the distance between us and what’s out there. This is not a sustainable strategy because the truth does not care whether you look at it or not.
If it was true before, you can handle it. You have been in that reality the entire time.
But looking can be painful. There’s a reason we avoided looking so long. I think it’s good to start slow, building up trust with ourselves. We can take the time to tackle smaller things before working up to the existential challenges we face.
The first step is acknowledging that there is a fear at all. It’s okay to be afraid. Admitting fear is often discouraged in society, so we might bury our fear or deny it. Acknowledging fear takes courage.
The second step is to respect it. Why was that fear there in the first place? If it were put there with a purpose, what might the purpose be? It’s not always possible to get this understanding, but the fear is part of you. It’s good to treat yourself with respect and listen to what you are trying to tell yourself.
The third step is to evaluate the new circumstances. Are you in a different environment where the fear doesn’t make sense anymore? Has the way that you think and feel changed since then? Evaluate this seriously. Maybe today isn’t the right time to approach that fear.
One of the differences between the old circumstances and now is that by choosing to look, you are in control. You can back away if you have to. Having an experience forced upon you can be overwhelming and quickly cause a lot of damage. This is your choice.
Courage to Look
Imagine yourself like a man who comes across a poisonous snake in his path while hiking. At first, he flees from the snake, but each day he comes back a little braver, taking an extra step toward the snake.
One day he gets close enough to see that there never was a snake, it was a vine all along.99Theses on Dealing With Fear
Now that we found our fear, we have the opportunity to meet it.
Think about the last time you stubbed your toe. A common reaction is to clench your jaw, swear, make a fist, or any number of things to distract from the pain. What if you didn’t do that, but looked straight at the pain instead?
It would hurt.
With a stubbed toe the stakes are low. Looking at the pain might help you learn from your mistake faster or help you understand what different types of pain signify. But it doesn’t matter much either way.
If it’s the pain of your breakup, the dawning realization that your life is going in the wrong direction, or your fear of rejection, then this pain is not something to be ignored lightly.
Intense as this sounds, it’s important to do this with kindness towards yourself. I am a strong believer that you should not torture yourself for no good reason. (I mean, if you want to, that’s a good enough reason.)
So set yourself up for success. Find the right time and place to confront it, but don’t wait too long, either. You might never be ready.
The fourth step is to make space. Find a mental space that is spacious: free of distractions and external pressures. Find a physical and social space that is the same.
The fifth step is to look at it straight on. Stay with it. Don’t resist it, don’t fight it. Eventually, it will pass. Flight, fight, or freeze responses are natural. If you have meditation practice, try to bring your attention back to the moment and keep yourself open and relaxed.
These are my fears from the last time I did this:
No one will save me. There is so much pain and I’m scared. I want to stop. I want to rest. I’m lonely. I am afraid that I will not be enough.
When I was looking at these head-on, I felt pain and I cried. Over time I accepted these and processed them. This took several hours to complete.
The sixth step is to go all the way through. In my experience, looking at only some of the pain or flinching away will make the pain worse. More unfortunately, the pain might get stuck halfway, and can’t get processed fully.
If you don’t go all the way through, you might end up in the dark night of the soul. Dark night of the soul is where you see all the badness but can’t embrace that new understanding fully. Here is some advice on recognizing and getting out of this state.
This is a risk. One should not descend into the underworld lightly. It is a serious undertaking.
Courage to Return
The seventh step is to come back. Stronger, not dimmer.
This darkness doesn’t mean we have to be grim. Knowing the world is dark does not mean you need to be brooding. As Nate Soares writes, detach your grim-o-meter from the world. It was made for you, not you for it.
I find a lot of joy and lightness on the other side. The truth can be more reassuring than a lie, even a hard truth. Why? Because it’s not going to crumble on me.
These steps also work for other things that might be difficult to look at too, not just things we avoid out of fear. Anything that is pushed into the shadow of the mind can be looked at: shame, pain, anxiety, anger, lust, doubts.
If you came back from this one stronger, imagine what would happen if you did that again and again, facing down larger demons and integrating them as part of yourself.
You know the isolating feeling of listening to a happy song full of smiling people when you feel anything but?
The thing appropriate for the situation might be dark. Pretending it’s lighter creates dissonance. Sadness and pain are terribly appropriate when facing much of the world! They aren’t suffering. They aren’t bad. And the most soothing thing might be a reflection of my darkness, rather than a covering up.
For me, dark things make me feel less alone. I often listen to dark music. It’s sometimes scary and painful, but more often it is reassuring.
I bring this up to because our blind fear doesn’t only impact us. It also results in us trying to mute and blind others.
“Don’t cry” is something people say to push pain out of view. Other people’s pain often makes us uncomfortable, so we often blind ourselves to it and encourage others to do the same. A book I recommend on not doing this is It’s OK That You’re Not OK.
We can meet other people where they are by looking at the pain with them. We can let them know something like, “You aren’t crazy. You’re not seeing things. It is that terrible. I am here in that darkness with you.”
An additional boon to widening our eyes to our painful reality: It’s where the other people are.
It would make me sad if someone read this post and then had a psychotic break or otherwise traumatized themselves. It is important to take care of yourself. These are some things you can do:
- Make sure you’ve had enough water, food, rest, and exercise
- Don’t look at pain to distract yourself from other pain in your life
- Wait until acute stressors in your life or environment are not pressing
- Build a safe environment that feels safe for your emotional expression
- Get the support of a close friend if you think that would help
- Care about all the parts of yourself, even if they don’t make sense right now
- Stop if you feel like things will not be okay. You can try again later
Take care and don’t torture yourself in the name of growth. Choose your battles wisely and set yourself up for success.