How Wisdom Can Counter Fear

How Wisdom Can Counter Fear -  Deepak Chopra, MD

In anxious times the focus on fear seems constant and yet extremely unhelpful. Neither the body nor the mind can adapt to fear for long stretches of time without causing bad effects. If you feel fearful and you want to feel differently, what path should you take? 

People tend to be unsuccessful at finding a way out of anxiety.  That’s because the two most common responses to anxiety are denial and distraction. By ignoring your anxiety or doing something that takes your mind off it, you might find temporary relief. But is there something more permanent and effective? 

The secret is to make conscious choices that cause fear to shrink away because you no longer need it. Fear likes to overstep its usefulness. It roams the mind and bullies healthier responses out of the way, and no matter how hard you try to ignore it, it lingers like a bad smell in the room.

To make the right choices, you need to be conscious of what fear is doing to you. Self-knowledge is the beginning of wisdom. Fear is closely tied to stress, and you can choose to be unstressed. The methods aren’t a secret. You just need to follow them. Begin with relaxation, and here I’ll offer an effective and very simple Yoga pose called Shavasana, metaphorically known as the corpse pose, but don’t let the name put you off.

Lie on your back on a carpeted floor or yoga mat. Place your feet 18 inches apart and your arms at your side palms up. Close your eyes, settle into the position and breathe naturally.

Put your attention on your breath feeling your chest rise and fall. On the out breath let your lungs deflate with a sigh. Easily breathe in, then deflate with a sigh. Sense yourself becoming relaxed and continue for 5 to 10 minutes. Now lie there and sink into this relaxed feeling. To exit the pose, don’t just jump up. Easily turn and stretch as if you were waking up in the morning. Open and close your hands, then open your eyes and get up without moving quickly into activity.

Besides stressing us out, fear knows how to grow and spread. It goes viral when reinforced in three ways. The stressful situation is 1. uncertain, 2. repetitive, and 3. outside your control. I imagine you’ve experienced all three of these aggravating factors recently, as has the whole world. 

To counter fear, consciously examine uncertainty, repetition, and lack of control. If you follow a regular daily routine, you can bring some certainty back. Routine means that you know what you are going to do today, in the next hour, and the hour after that. Your routine should include stretching and moving around at least once an hour, along with contacting people close to you so that you hear them and preferably see them also, even if only remotely. Routine also includes a regular time for going to sleep, a regular time for meditation or the relaxing Yoga pose you just learned. There should be inner time, down time, and playtime every day. Include something enjoyable and something meaningful, too. In these ways routine can become a source of life-enhancing experiences, not rote or boring ones.

Repetition, the second thing stress feeds on, is created by receiving the same stress over and over. Watching all the bad stories on the news is a good example. Repetition is defeated by not obsessing over every detail of a current crisis, being glued to TV news, and constantly bringing up the topic in conversation. Once or twice a day gathering information for a few minutes is enough. Here you have to consciously stop fixating on stresses, because inertia and habit will try to draw you back in.

Lack of control, the third element that feeds stress, is countered by setting aside whatever you can’t control and focusing on what you can control. You can control choosing things that interest you, being helpful to others, finding a creative outlet, and so on. These are things we take for granted usually, but which become anchors of stability in a crisis. Anything that keeps you stable and grounded takes away the free-floating nature of fear.

Once you have absorbed these facts about how fear operates, there is another level to explore. Modern life makes room for many external rewards but less room for inner rewards. A stark fact in modern life is that more money, power, status, and position don’t bring inner fulfillment. Inner fulfillment is found along a different path. In ancient India life presented two paths, the path of pleasure and the path of wisdom.  Every wisdom tradition, East and West, is based on waking up, which means in practice getting over your unconscious behavior and adopting conscious behavior instead.

You’re already becoming more conscious by learning how fear works. You are waking up to discover that fear doesn’t have to be in charge. You might not think of this as wisdom, but it is. Every moment of inner wisdom is simply a moment of becoming more conscious and aware. Fear is a holdover from our early evolution. The fear response lies in wait, ready to spring into action, as it did for our hominid ancestors over a million years ago. But for the last ten thousand years the higher or conscious brain has evolved, and with it came infinite resources of thought, feeling, creativity, and choice-making. 

Recent evolution set us free from primitive fear. All we have to do is to choose the path of consciousness, which is the path of inner wisdom. This is a theme to focus on as often as you can, because the true secret of making tomorrow better than today is to choose to wake up. Your purpose for being here is to become more human, and the first lesson of inner wisdom is that becoming more human is accomplished with every step of waking up.

Reprinted from San Francisco Chronicle with permission

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