Fear: defined as an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.
I’ve been thinking a lot about fear these past few weeks. Many agree that the months leading up to last week’s election were centered on it. Indeed, the candidates were counting on it, leveraging it for their own particular party. Fear of losing jobs and the right to bear arms from one side, fear of taking steps back for human rights and the environment from the other, just to name a few.
Now that it’s decided who will be leading our country, the fear has unfortunately not subsided. We are all still consumed by it. And if you look at your newsfeed, we are all raw, even if our candidate won. Fear is still winning.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who authored “Death and Dying,” asserts that there are only two primary emotions: love and fear, “…for we cannot feel these two emotions together, at exactly the same time. They’re opposites. If we’re in fear, we are not in a place of love. When we’re in a place of love, we cannot be in a place of fear…We have to make a decision to be in one place or the other. There is no neutrality in this.”
The bible endorses the same idea. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” ~1 John 4:18.
One can presume, then, that all emotions can be traced back to either love or fear. Anger, jealousy, envy, hate all stem from fear, if you dig deeply enough.
Much of yoga involves working with students around the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. One of my many goals as an instructor is building awareness of these two systems and increasing students’ abilities to activate the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is our “fight or flight” response. Its purpose is to assist us when we sense danger. Our blood vessels open, sending much needed blood to the extremities from the center, giving us the adrenalin to flee from the perceived attack. The heart races and the breath becomes more rapid. Activating the parasympathetic nervous system brings the blood back to the gut, lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and activates the “rest and digest” response. If you see a cougar on the trail when you are taking a morning jog, the former is helpful and potentially life-saving. However, when we perceive “danger” in the form of a deadline, too many commitments, too many self-imposed expectations, a family gathering (Hello, Thanksgiving), or even a presidential candidate we do not like, this creates trouble, in our bodies and minds.
Many of us are, sadly, in a perpetual “fight or flight” state. Not only is this incredibly detrimental to our physical health, causing disease (and dis-ease), it also necessitates that we react as though anything outside of us is a threat. If we think we are under attack, we will react accordingly.
In the case of our newsfeed, our words have become our weapons. And how we wield them is in direct proportion to perceived size of the threat. Remember, fear is defined as an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous. That someone or something may not be dangerous until our mind believes it. So, so many of our brothers and sisters believe they are under attack, that their families are under attack, that their very lives are at stake.
So what to do?
Practice being a yogi. I’m not suggesting that touching your toes or sitting cross-legged chanting “Om” will take away your fears. I’m talking about self-awareness, noticing sensations in the body, and recognizing how emotions and the body are connected. When you feel threatened, either by words, or ideas, stop and notice where you feel it in the body. Does your gut tighten? Does your jaw clench? Do your hands squeeze into fists? Begin to notice where you feel the fear. You may not even be aware that your body is reacting. Start there. And breathe into that sensation, where you’re feeling it. Feel the breath in the belly, allow the jaw to relax, open your hands and feel the breath at the tips of your fingers.
Next, see if you can tap into what is specifically creating this fear, and recognize that it is probably perceived. It does not need to be a part of you and you have a choice, always, of how you will react to it.
Consider this: “Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.” ~ Rick Warren
Choose love. Recognize that we are all afraid. Of something. We all want what’s best for ourselves, our children, our families. Remember that hate and bigotry almost always stem from fear. When you consider responding to someone whose views are different from yours or offend you, stop and check in. Choose love.
Once again, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: “If you don’t actively choose love, you will find yourself in a place of either fear or one of its component feelings. Every moment offers the choice to choose one or the other. And we must continually make these choices, especially in difficult circumstances when our commitment to love, instead of fear, is challenged.”
This is a challenge, folks. Our country is being, and no doubt, will continue to be, challenged. Half of us didn’t want to go in the direction we are going. But how we rise above this challenge starts with us, in our own hearts, with our ability to recognize our fears and make the choice to respond with love.