December 1, 2011

Can Fear Be Good for Your Yoga Practice? Part 1.


Fearlessness! The process of becoming fearless is one of Yoga’s most forceful teachings. To actually experience that state is one of its greatest gifts.

Yet somewhere between taking your first class and graduating teacher training naked fear has grappled with you.

Even well into our teaching careers long suppressed fears will spring up to bite us in the butt. Mine still bears the tooth marks of old and recent skirmishes.

Fears are like any chronic condition—they didn’t come on you overnight so you won’t necessarily get rid of them all overnight either. Whenever I have finally let go and surrendered into an asana, holding longer, plunging deeper, finding physical/mental openings unnoticed before, shifting balance, upending my world fearlessness arises. Likewise when meditation blossoms into pure awareness we’re given quantum experiences, glimpses of infinite possibility, epiphanies, hallelujahs.

Perhaps you’ve experienced similar excursions into fearlessness in the midst of practice or elsewhere in your life as a result of becoming a yogi. Maybe you’ve sat in meditation or spiraled into a seated twist and then raised your right hand, palm facing outward and slightly upward in the mudra of fearlessness. Your hand now on the same latitude as your heart, surrendering to that grace-filled moment you can awaken into fearlessness or at least consider the idea of it. Given such portals into ecstatic release and blissful emptying what purpose could fear possibly serve in Yoga practice, other than being something we’d like to stamp paid?

In examining that question, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the Theravadin Buddhist monk who is abbot of Metta Forest Monastery in San Diego, Calif., relates this brief story in his essay, “Freedom From Fear.” (You can read the complete text here.)

“An anthropologist once questioned an Alaskan shaman about his tribe’s belief system. After putting up with the anthropologist’s questions for a while, the shaman finally told him: ‘Look. We don’t believe. We fear.’”

Some of those whom Thanissaro Bhikkhu told the story to saw the shaman’s comment as pointing up the difference between “primitive” religion founded on childish fear [of wrathful deities] while “civilized” religion is based on higher values of love and trust. Still others believed the shaman connected to the source of true religion. Looking more deeply at their divided responses, the abbot arrived at this insight:

“…the first response views fear itself as our greatest weakness. If we can simply overcome fear, we put ourselves in a position of strength. The second sees fear as the most honest response to our greater weakness in the face of aging, illness, and death — a weakness that can’t be overcome with a simple change in attitude. If we’re not in touch with our honest fears, we won’t feel motivated to do what’s needed to protect ourselves from genuine dangers.”

Three Key Questions

Then he poses three probing questions: “To what extent is fear a useful emotion? To what extent is it not? Does it have a role in the practice that puts an end to fear?

While we’d often prefer to sweep our fears under the rug and move on in our practice, the fact is that it’s not really possible for us to get very far. Sooner or later that same fear will just pop back up, forcing us to examine it or some aspect of it.

Five Elements of Fear

Thanissaro Bhikkhu lists the five elements that are more or less present in every fear: confusion [or delusion], aversion, a sense of danger, a sense of weakness, and a desire to escape. These are primal instincts. A sense of danger and a desire to escape are symptoms of “fight or flight” syndrome that lies at the heart of disease-causing stress. Feelings of weakness in the form of low self-esteem can lead to aversion. Wanting to avoid confronting a situation, another person, our own vulnerability and the resulting desire to escape can lead us into unhealthy attachments—overeating, workaholism, drugs, sex addiction and the like.

EJ intern Lauren Baity summed it up when she wrote in her post, Green At Going Green, “Fear is a funny thing. It holds us back from what we really want to be doing by making us imagine the worst about ourselves and other people.” By only allowing us to see the worst, it keeps us from recognizing our inherent lovableness or seeing lovableness in others. It stops us short from achieving the goals that burn deep in our hearts.

But the weaknesses that cloud our vision are real, as Thanissaro Bhikkhu tell us.  “If we don’t see them clearly, don’t take them to heart, and don’t try to find a way out, there’s no way we can put an end to the causes of our fears.”

The Buddha’s Technique

The Buddha approaches fear as a delusion. Then he makes a two-pronged attack on delusion itself, Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains, by getting us to think about its dangerous role in making fear unskillful, and getting us to develop inner strengths leading to the insights that free the mind from the delusions that make it weak. In this way we not only overcome the factor that makes fear unskillful. We ultimately put the mind in a position where it has no need for fear.”

Part 2 of this post will look at the way out of fear through the Five Mental Strengths.

Do you see fear as having a useful place in your practice? If so, how? Share your thoughts!

Images: Red Hair Masker by Lea Atiq


Quotes excerpted from, “Freedom From Fear,” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 5 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/fear.html .



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