Just when we thought it was safe to go back on an airplane, or down into the subways, or travel abroad, fear is back in America big-time. The government raised its "alert" status to orange, and people began stockpiling emergency supplies. The media continued its nightly litanies of what we should and should not be afraid of, and millions tuned in gladiator-like "reality" shows in an effort to avoid reality.
It's not just terrorism that has us spooked. The economy is a major worry. In February 2003, U.S. consumer confidence is at a 10-year low; unemployment is higher than it's been since 1994. In the world at large, security and economic concerns are joined by fears of war, ethnic conflicts, famine, sickness, environmental disasters, and more.
Clearly, dealing with fear is a major spiritual challenge of our time. Considering all the mentions of this potent emotion in spiritual texts, it has always been so.
Our readings this week look fear in the face, showing us how to turn this challenge into an opportunity for spiritual growth.
- Miriam Greenspan on Mobilizing Your Fear and Using It for Life
"If fear is only telling you to save your own skin, there's not much hope for us," Greenspan writes. "Conscious fear" reminds us of the power of compassion and connection — it mobilizes us to act on behalf of others. The heroes of Flight 93 on September 11 are our mentors here. They used their fear to help others live.
- Cynthia Kneen on Going In and Coming Out of Fear
Kneen, a student of Tibetan Buddhist master Trungpa Rinpoche, explains the Shambhala warrior's approach to fear. "The way to develop courage is not to cast out fear, but to find out more about it by looking directly at fear." Using a wonderful story about a Tibetan yogi who found a demon in his cave, she encourages us to lean into what frightens us. The spiritual practice of going in and coming out yields a "pragmatic tenderness."
- Yitzhak Buxbaum on Joy as the Antidote to Fear
Here is a teaching story from the collection "Jewish Tales of Mystic Joy" edited by Yitzhak Buxbaum. When a certain Jew slips and falls in the swift current of a river, he is understandably afraid. What does his rabbi say? "Give my regards to Leviathan" (the legendary giant fish). Sometimes we have to laugh in the face of fear.
Fear is addictive. Once it is triggered, we keep coming back for more. Spiritual practices, however, can be used to interrupt the compulsive cycle, helping us stand back and evaluate our fears or use them as suggested by this week's readings. Sometimes the most important practice is to stay in the present moment.
Recovery programs say it takes three weeks — 21 days — to break a habit or start a new one. After September 11, we created a 21-day program of Fear Busters — nuggets of spiritual wisdom paired with practice suggestions. We suggest you commit to doing this three-week program. If this is too much, go through the whole collection and choose one practice to work with this week. Next week choose another, and the next week, still another. In your journal, make a list of fears you are currently feeling. Notice any shifts you experience during your practice.