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Alison Rose Levy
Alison Rose Levy

Smiling at Fear: Pema Chodron

Finding fear's way to teach us authentic courage.

What do you fear most--- the Swine Flu, or the Swine Flu vaccine? Airport terrorists, or airport security searches? Growing old, or the alternative?

If you answered "all of the above," you'll guess why I went to a weekend retreat on fear with Pema Chodron, the noted Buddhist teacher and author of When Things Fall Apart-- held in upstate New York at the Omega Institute. Through the yellow leaves of a beautiful New England autumn, hundreds of people flocked to this finale of Omega's fall season.

Pema (as she invites people to call her) immediately dispelled many common misunderstandings about fear:

Myth # 1: The way to overcome fear is by acting fearless

Whistling at our fear, assuming a brave stance, "vaccinating" ourselves with affirmations, seeking out the psychic police for protection, or even pole-vaulting headlong into fear like would-be Olympians are the common strategies many of us use to overcome terror. But whether we seek protection, or try to prove how brave we are, we miss fear's true opportunity to teach us authentic courage.

When people ask, "why are you afraid?" or assure us that, "You don't have to be afraid," they aim to be helpful. But invalidating our reason for being fearful, subtly implies that it's shameful to have feelings of fear. From childhood up, many of us have received these kinds of messages.

That's why we declare fearlessness, or even sky dive to conquer fear-- bypassing the creepy descent into the fearful feelings that are nature's only fear medicine.

Psychologists call it "counter-phobic" to engage in risky behavior, walk down dark alleys, or do other scary things to demonstrate courage. A woman friend and I once went on a group tour to Tunisia. Soon bored by the droning tour guide, we decided to drive off to explore a scenic region, congratulating ourselves on our spirit of adventure. That was before the ninety mile an hour road chase in a deserted rural area with a carful of screaming men racing to catch up with us.

"We don't have to put on courage like a tough protective armor," Pema told the group. Instead of banishing fear, or making ourselves wrong for feeling fearful--allowing ourselves to go into fear and deeply feel it is the way to become spiritual warriors.

Truth # 1: The way to overcome fear is to feel fear

Myth # 2: Safety first: Avoiding fear is the only way to feel safe

Loss of love, health, home, cognizance, money, power, control. Abuse, physical danger, disease, injury, and death. These are some of the things we naturally fear.

In childhood, we skulk away from the playground bully, strange people in cars, fringe neighborhoods, and rollercoaster rides. In adulthood, we may try to avoid horror films, foreigners with strange names, the news, contagious germs, bureaucracies, or even airports. I've fallen out of contact with certain acquaintances who, following 9/11, became too fearful to visit my home town of New York City. Eight years of one way visits unbalanced the reciprocity in the relationships.

Seeking safety at all costs has two obvious pitfalls:

1. We limit our potential when we fail to challenge ourselves to grow--and wind up bland, bored, addicted, and/or stuck--and yes, even overweight or obese as we stuff down our feelings with bland "comfort" foods
2. We project our fear onto outside things or people, dub them terrorists, and give them power to not only scare us but to turn us, our lives, and even our country into a padded prison, (even a cushy one) surrounded by barbed wire, our bombs tossed from a safe distance, as we turn our heads away to deny the harm we do.

If we cannot run towards fear to assert our bravery, if we can't run away and avoid what makes us fearful, how can we deal with fear? According to Pema Chodron, we can stand our ground and be with our fear. Just that is the basis of fearlessness.

Truth # 2: Be with fear

In the retreat, inspired by Smiling at Fear, a newly published book by Chodron's teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche, we practiced checking in with ourselves to experience fear right there and then. Making this a regular practice has had an astonishing effect, exactly as Pema predicted, "When you learn to smile at your fear, to be with your fear, you become an authentic friend to yourself, and thereby develop confidence."

It's not that you become confident that you will encounter a germ-free world, access the strongest drugs, possess the smartest bomb, or hold the secret to love, fame and fortune.

The confidence is that you will be there for yourself always, come what may.

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About the Author
Alison Rose Levy

Health journalist Alison Rose Levy, MA serves as Media Director of Friends of Health.

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