When fear arrives, when insecurity arises, when we feel groundless, what happens? Does is set off this chain reaction of aggression, which actually just intensifies our fear and our paranoia and our insecurity; or, these teachings that Trungpa Rinpoche gave – and the basic instruction was: face toward it. He also talked about it as, ‘leap into it.’ Face toward your fear, leap into your fear; and my favorite was, ‘Smile at fear.’ But you might ask, as I have over the years, how in the world to do that?
…In the Shambhala Sun, Carolyn Rose Gimian, who’s an editor for Trungpa Rinpoche, she wrote an article called ‘Smile at Fear,’ and she said something that I thought was great. She said, ‘There’s no real formula for how to smile at fear, but I’m trying lately just to turn up the corners of my mouth, when I start to panic.’ That’s probably the best instruction you could get.
Pema Chodron, Unconditional Confidence (recording)
In our culture, fear is seen as the enemy. To have fear is to see ourselves as weak, bad, as unworthy. Fear can also trigger the feeling of shame, telling us we have to hide our fear – from the world, from the people around us, even from ourselves. Because if others see it, they will judge us. We may talk about courage as ‘having the fear and stepping forward anyway,’ but as a culture we don’t really mean it. We don’t want to see the fear. We want our heroes to be fearless. We want those in charge to know what they’re doing; and if they know what they’re doing, they won’t have fear.
Yet fear is a given. As long as we are in the body, we will have, at least occasionally, the experience of fear. This is the nature of the animal self. The survival mechanism will, when it feels threatened, trigger a fight, freeze or flight reaction in our system. Nature will make us feel uncomfortable so that we will react to kill, get away from or hide from what some part of us has seen as threatening.
In truth, our animal nature almost always has feelings of discomfort to some degree – nature informing us about our surroundings and our relationship to those surroundings. This is what Trungpa Rinpoche called ‘ubiquitous nervousness’ — recognition of an underlying hum of anxiety in the human experience, always.
The Buddhist teaching is that the moments of real fear, regardless of what might have triggered them, are opportunities to change our relationship to this given circumstance, and to change our relationship to life. By facing the fear, we begin to own ourselves more completely. We stop acting as if this fearful part of ourselves is unworthy of existence. We stop acting as if our fear makes us worthless. To ‘leap into the fear,’ is to own the whole of ourselves and the whole of our experience – to stop spending time and energy camouflaging our fear to keep it hidden, from ourselves and others. To face the fear in these moments when it is big, clear and defined is to begin to have a relationship with ourselves that is intimate and loving and that carries over into the rest of our experience, that allows us to stay present to the discomfort of the underlying hum.
As we learn to stay present to the whole of our experience, we become more and more able to feel the truth of self that is deeper than the anxiety — the truth of life, of consciousness itself. And that truth is bliss. Satchitananda. Existence/Consciousness/Bliss.
When we face our fear, we are given the gift of joy.
Today I will be willing to feel the discomfort of my fear, the gnawing of my anxiety, the uneasiness and vulnerability of my position in the company of my fellows. I will feel the feelings fully, facing into the fear and, rather than to berate myself or others in my mind for my having these feelings, choosing to smile instead.