“Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” –Frank Herbert, Dune
I’ve had some opportunities recently to work with fear. Watching autumn shadows lengthen, noting difficult anniversaries, facing various firsts, venturing into brand new levels of relationship with self—all of it has brought new depths of work. As I watch and feel and breathe, I’ve been learning that fear is like water in its natural ability to trickle downward into the lowest crevices. Perhaps you know the phrase “water always wins.”
I learned the phrase when I was 26, back when a single social worker could afford a first home in Seattle. I had decided to buy my first house—or, more specifically, a percentage of a house and a big, sometimes queasy education on mortgages and home inspections. My home inspector, Ray, was a down-to-earth builder type, who, over the course of looking at a few different houses, took me under his wing in a way that eased my fears about the plunge into home-ownership—at least a little. It was outside of the 98-year old, 700 square foot, Sears catalogue cube that became my first house, that Ray taught me certain tricks that home-owners might use to try to sell. We looked through real estate records to see if anyone knew of buried oil tanks in the yard. We tapped walls to listen for whether or not that last insulation had been cheaply installed, in which case it’d be settling low by now. But most of all, we talked about water.
Ray taught me how to look over the entire landscape of the property with an imagination for how water would flow. I assume the fact that this was Seattle, famous for it’s rain, played into his psyche, and in fact, that any good Pacific Northwest builder or inspector keeps water in mind as Enemy Number One. Moisture is the culprit for moldy air, warping floors, and cracking foundations, and I learned quickly that it would be the biggest threat by far to the entire structural integrity of this old cracker box I wanted to buy. In the end, though it wasn’t a perfectly situated house, it was dry enough; Ray advised me about what to watch for over time, and gave the house his stamp of approval. I owned the home for over a decade, and while it stayed dry and safe the whole time, I stayed alert for the intruder of water. The phrase “water always wins” must’ve embedded itself into my subconscious; it hones in on water’s natural gravitational ability to find the lowest places. You can try to block it. You can divert, sometimes, to some degree. But the natural power of water is to trickle low, and to build power if it finds other trickles. Trickles becoming stream. Stream becoming river. River carving even the hardest rock, with enough time. As I’ve watched my mind throughout recent challenges, I’ve noticed fear’s ability to do the same: to go low, to gather strength, and to move faster than my ability to stay mindful. Without careful attention, fear will always win as well.
Culminations of fear are never what we would wish for ourselves, especially when they show up in real life, with real texture, involving real loved ones, becoming less vague than on the page of a spiritual text. They’ve snuck up on me, visiting me with unwanted energy at 3am, bursting into an unexpected impatience, ushering fatigue into the spaces behind my eyes. Just as water follows the path of least resistance, the emotion of fear travels all throughout us, and braids into our thoughts, joining other emotions and thoughts, then gaining in strength. Before too long, the mental-emotional cocktail of fear is barreling its way through, carving into our choices, our interactions, our futures. If we are to cultivate any resistance to fear, it will take practice and preparation. We’re dealing with an ancient, primal force, like water itself.
As I’ve watched, I’ve noted that there seem to be layers of what I’ll call “dirty fear”—stories of shame, notions of unworthiness, tangles of rage—that shroud our “clean fears.” The clean fears are our root level, universal fears—we share them with all of humankind. Dirty fears are packaged in stories of blame or anger at self or other. If you can sense a tone of indignancy, or the feeling you’re mired in he said/she said details of minutiae, you’re in dirty fear. Universal fears, on the other hand—fear of isolation or death, of scarcity, of powerlessness—are what we might call base. There’s nothing more underneath them; they are the lowest common denominator, connecting us to every other human on the planet. Dirty fears will convince you there is something to figure out, to do, to say… Universal fears, in spiritual terms, simply demand to be felt. What helps us understand the difference between dirty and clean fear? A mindfulness practice. What helps us work through the dirty layers: peeling them back, laying them out, seeing them for what they are until the urgency to “fix” erodes? A mindfulness practice. And what gives us the courage to feel the sometimes extreme discomfort of the universal fears? Yep, a mindfulness practice: a routine effort of discernment between the mind and the witness.
I’m a firm believer that this practice can take many forms. While formal meditation is priceless and part of my own routine, a mindfulness practice can also look like journaling, running, processing with a trusted friend, or ecstatic dance. It can look like a “living meditation,” simply being as mindful as possible in our interactions with ourselves and others throughout our days. One client of mine uses her photography practice to find deep presence. Another reports that he’s learned the most about the difference between his busy mind and his witness consciousness on his surfboard. For me, it’s usually yoga, which seems unusually swift in its ability to burn away the impurities of dirty fear, the veils which have built up over time, leaving us with base-level fears at their universal root. Whatever our practice is, once we can taste this universal fear, which resides deeper in the body than in the static of the mind, our work is to acknowledge and feel it. Acknowledging root fear has a way of bringing us into relationship with it, rather than being ruled by it. I am reminded of how my father taught me as a little girl to talk to the monsters in my nightmares; they didn’t disappear but they became less threatening, and sometimes even friendly. From here, we can acknowledge, converse, understand. Where does this fear live in the body? What is it like to bring breath to it? Is it heavy? Thin? Moving? Fixed? Once we are in conversation with the fear, we can see it as part of this human web of life, rather than allowing layers of dirty fear to accrue into panic. Once we are in relationship to it, we may notice when it is coming, when it is staying awhile, and lo and behold, when it lessens, passing through us, dissipating.
Thankfully, I teach breath work and self-calming to others for a living, which means I teach breath work and self-calming to myself, over and over again. Thankfully, yoga has taught me to use my moments of awareness for all they’re worth, and to return again and again to the physical body and energy body—the realm of breath and prana—to quiet the chaos of the mental-emotional. Exhale the shoulders down. Create warrior pose and act out a fiery courage with calm breath. Find child’s pose and breath into the dark cocoon of the back body. Choose a difficult posture in which to grow repeatedly longer in the inhale and softer in the exhale. Feel the challenge of a hard pose and stay soft anyway, watch the mental-emotional sheath scream to come out of this pose now, and remain the higher sheath, the witness, soft in the gaze for just one more breath. Feel the two split apart: the agitated mental-emotional and the calm body and breath. With practice, we can choose where to hang out: the chaos of swirling thoughts and feelings, or in a witness consciousness, grounded in the body, the breath, and being itself. The blessed gift of my yoga practice is that I become more and more able to tell which is which. I grow my access up to the ever-present witness the way I might cut vines from a hiking trail—each cycle of breath my blade.
Fear, like water, trickles to the lowest places, sometimes with force. But unlike water in the mind of the builder, fear does not always win. If you’re a practitioner of mindfulness, and you keep at it, practicing with persistence, fear, in fact, will not win.
And so, my brave friends, get your practice time in and know that, as yoga master K. Pattabhi Jois told us, “all is coming.” You’ll be ready with your witness consciousness when fears arise. You’ll see stories for stories, flimsy and unthreatening, and you’ll feel what’s left. You’ll watch universal fears, almost as old friends, visiting town once again, connecting you to all beings. Sometimes these guests stay for but a moment, fleeting. Sometimes they move right in and unpack, ready for a long visit. Our work is the same, and the fruits of our practice—ineffable peace and connection—reside on the other side.