Danger is to adventure what garlic is to spaghetti sauce. Without it, you just end up with stewed tomatoes. – Tom Robbins
I’d like to fashion myself an advocate of doing things that scare us. In today’s world of guard-rails, antibacterial soap, and well-meaning regulations, there are more precautions set in place to make sure people live comfortable, protected lives than ever before.
Yet despite the efforts of mainstream media to convince us otherwise, the truth is that the world is a much safer place than it ever has been in all of human history. Most of us will live long, happy lives. This is great news! Except there’s a catch.
The drawbacks of never having to face our fears or navigate danger are starting to impact us as a generation, and as a culture. Always feeling safe; always opting for the comfort of the known, over the daunting mystery of the unknown, offers only one side of the human experience. The result is one-sided human beings.
These days, real fear, and real adventure is hard to come by. I say, seek fear out, take a deep breath, and learn how to make fear your friend. You will be a changed person.
Fear: The Portal of Initiation
I once heard renowned West African author and teacher, Malidoma Somé, tell a story about when he was initiated by his tribe, the Dagara. He spoke of the challenging and potentially dangerous nature of their rituals, and what he and the other young men were being faced with.
After the elders informed him of the terrifying (and secret) ordeal he had to endure, he mentioned to one of them, fearfully, that this ritual, if failed, could be fatal. “Life is fatal,” quipped the elder.
Life is fatal, and truth be told, none of us will make it out alive. To hide from life’s dangers is to hide from life’s fullness. This is a betrayal not only to ourselves, but also to our entire community – be it nation, generation, or tribe.
Be cautions, but don’t be complacent. Fear is the portal to initiation, signifying the precipice of personal transformation. Because of that, you must make a friend of fear if you want to grow. Where there is fear, there is power, and where there is power, there is growth.
The Two Faces of Fear
Fear occurs between the known and the unknown, between the past and the future, between self and other. Fear always has two faces, a light and a shadow, an inside and outside.
But first and foremost, fear exists between your mind and your body. In fact, this is the only place fear exists. Understanding this is the first key towards facing it.
But first, a story: On my first extended international journey in 2013, I found myself on a 3-day train ride through East Africa. Through a twisted series of events, the local Tanzanian military police took an interest in my presence. Three stone-faced men in army fatigues decided to throw me into an empty train cabin, demanding my passport, and everything else I owned.
A huge man screamed at me in Swahili, while his comrades chuckled to themselves in the corner. I felt the fear rise in me like a frantic animal. I knew that if I showed any sign of fear, these men would be on it like a pack of hyenas on a fresh kill. I simply looked through the dark eyes of the man in front of me, showed no emotion, and breathed through the fear – feeling it, acknowledging it, and befriending it.
I was more scared than I have ever been in my life.
After enduring this for what felt like hours, I was finally let free. All I had to do was look fear straight in the face. And pay the equivalent of about $8.
Fear in the Body
Many of us have heard of the classic ‘fight or flight’ response that occurs when we face a stressful situation. We still retain this primordial process, and it operates in us just the same as it did in our earliest ancestors when they were facing down animals that could use our bones as toothpicks.
Here’s how it works: Fear triggers a stress response in our limbic system – a deep part of our brain that deals with emotions, old memories, and the associated cocktail of neurotransmitters and hormones.
Some of these, like cortisol, norepinephrine, and epinephrine (or adrenaline,) course through our spinal column and bloodstream, raise our blood sugar levels, increase our heart rate, alter our immune system, and change our breathing patterns – creating the sensation we all know as ‘fear‘. Medically speaking, this is referred to as a ‘stress response’. Fear is actually a psychological concept, confirming that this complex emotion really only exists in our mind.
The limbic system also stores the memories we associate with a fear-triggering situation, creating the psycho-emotional experience we are all familiar with. This can often take the form of stories, images, or thoughts that are almost always irrational.
There are plenty of great articles out there about how to deal with fear, stress and cortisol. Here’s the quick version:
- Recognize you are stressed, or ‘deregulated’.
- Regulate your breathing using techniques like the ‘box breathe’ (inhale for 3/4 counts, hold 3/4 counts, exhale for 3/4 counts, hold 3/4 counts).
- Adopt daily practices like exercise, yoga, and meditation to condition yourself to have a lessened response.
- Practice detachment – press pause on the stories playing in your mind.
Here’s the truth: Fear has no concrete existence. By cultivating your willpower, learning a few simple techniques, and practising detachment, anyone can be strong enough to make fear an ally and teacher.
The next time you are facing down something that scares you, take a few baby steps towards it and see what happens. Use caution, of course, but realize that fear is a negotiable experience – it can be altered, transmuted, and befriended. As you shine the light of your awareness onto a shadow or a fear, it will reveal its true nature. Inside every fear is a lesson that will help you grow. Keeping this in mind, you can make the choice to befriend fear with a fierce knowing that inside this heart-pounding sensation lays a gift that will make you stronger.
If you hear a voice within you say, ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced. – Vincent van Gogh
Fear is Our Teacher
The other side of fear is empowerment. Facing our fear is the most potent gateway we have to learn about ourselves, grow from that experience, and become a stronger, more empowered person. In traditional cultures, this was a foundational aspect of every young person’s life, known as initiation.
Ancient European, and many other cultures, lost their indigenous traditions through imperial conquest, starting with the Romans, and continuing all the way up to today. Thankfully, there are still cultures all over the world that have retained the understanding that making a friend of fear can produce profound transformation.
Fear is a raw mirror reflecting our deepest wounding, weakness, and shadow. Yet every time you choose to confront your fears, you are making a choice to learn more about yourself, and the world around you.
As psychologist and mystic, Carl Jung, famously said:
Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.