"When things upset us, we often think that something is wrong. Perhaps the one time this is most true is when we experience fear. In fact, as human beings, a huge portion of our energy is expended in dealing with anxiety and fear. Fear motivates how we act and react, and even how we dress or talk. But fear makes our life narrow and dark. It is at the root of all conflict, underlying much of our sorrow. Fear also blocks intimacy and love, and, more than anything, disconnects us from the Being Kindness that is our true nature.

"Even considering how prevalent fear is in our lives, it nonetheless remains one of the murkiest areas to deal with, in daily life as well as in practice. This may sound bleak, but what is really the worst thing about fear? Though it may be hard to admit, especially if we see ourselves as deeply spiritual, the main reason we have an aversion to fear is that it is physically and emotionally uncomfortable. Woody Allen put this quite well when he said, 'I don't like to be afraid — it scares me.' We simply don't want to feel this discomfort, and will do almost anything to avoid it. But whenever we give in to fear, we make it more solid, and consequently our life becomes smaller, more limited, more contracted. In a way, every time we give in to fear, we cease to truly live.

"The question remains, what are we so afraid of? Think for a minute about the two or three things you fear most. Keep your answers in mind as you read the following pages, so that your reading can be more experiential than intellectual.

"We're often not aware to what extent fear plays a part in our lives, which means that the first stage of practicing with fear requires acknowledging its presence. This can prove to be difficult, because many fears may not be readily apparent, such as the fear driving our ambition, the fear underlying our depression, or perhaps most of all, the fear beneath our anger. But the fact is, once we look beyond our surface emotional reaction, we will see that almost every negative emotion, every drama, comes down to one or more of the three most basic fears — the fear of losing safety and control, the fear of aloneness and disconnection, and the fear of unworthiness.

Security and the Loss of Control

"The first most basic fear is that of losing safety. Because safety is fundamental to our survival, this fear will instinctually be triggered at the first sign of danger or insecurity; the old brain, or limbic system, is inherently wired that way. This particular fear will also be triggered when we experience pain or discomfort. But in most cases, even when this fear is triggered, there is no real danger to us; in fact, our fears are largely imaginary — that the plane will crash, that we will be criticized, that we're doing it wrong. Yet, until we see this dimension of fear with clarity, we will continue to live with a sense of constriction that can seem daunting.

"Once we become familiar with our insecurities, a central component of spiritual life is recognizing that practice is not about ensuring that we feel secure or comfortable. It's not that we won't feel these things when we practice; rather, it's that we are also bound to sometimes feel very uncomfortable and insecure, particularly when exploring and working with our darker emotions and unhealed pain. Yet, there is also a deep security developed over the course of a practice life that isn't likely to resemble the immediate comfort we usually crave. This fundamental security develops instead out of the willingness to stay with and truly experience our fears, which means to enter into the physical experience of fear itself — the racing heart, the contractions in the chest and belly, the rigid face muscles, the hormones coursing through the body. Isn't it ironic that the path to real security comes from residing in the fear of insecurity itself?

"Insecurity can also manifest as the fear of helplessness, often surfacing as the fear of losing control, the fear of being controlled, the fear of chaos, or even the fear of the unfamiliar. For example, nearly all of us have experienced the emotion of rage, which is like being swept into a mushroom-cloud explosion. Think of all those days where nothing seems to go your way, or even just the last time your TV remote stopped working, and no matter what buttons you pushed, you couldn't get it to do what you wanted. The urge to throw the remote against the wall can feel like angry rage, but as we bring awareness to this experience, we can discover that the feeling of rage is often just an explosion covering over the quieter inner implosion of feeling powerless. Rage may give us a feeling of power and control, but how often is it an evasion of the sense of powerlessness that feels so much worse?

"We all dread the helplessness of losing control; yet, real freedom lies in recognizing the futility of demanding that life be within our control. Instead, we must learn the willingness to feel — to say yes to — the experience of helplessness itself. This is one of the hidden gifts of serious illness or loss. It pushes us right to our edge, where we may have the good fortune to realize that our only real option is to surrender to our experience and let it just be.

"During a three-year period in the early 1990s when I was seriously ill, with no indication that I would ever get better, I watched my life as I had known it begin to fall apart. I not only lost my ability to work and engage in physical activities but also experienced a dismantling of my basic identities. At first, it was disorienting and frightening not to have the props of seeing myself as a Zen practitioner, a carpenter and contractor (my livelihood), a husband and a father. But as I stayed with the fears, and particularly as I was able to bring the quality of Being Kindness to the experience, there came a dramatic shift.

"As the illusory self-images were stripped away, I experienced the freedom of not needing to be anyone at all. By truly surrendering to the experience of helplessness, by letting everything I clung to just fall apart, I found that what remained was more than enough. Naturally, as I got better, my identities tried to put themselves back in place, but, like Humpty Dumpty, the protective cocoon of a 'me' would never be quite the same. As we learn to breathe fear into the center of the chest, the heart feels more and more spacious. I'm not talking about the heart as a muscle in our chest, but rather the heart that is our true nature. This heart is more spacious than the mind can ever imagine."