Fear is only as deep as the mind allows
There is a story which I have told before, but it is endlessly instructive so here it is again. Imagine you are walking along a country path at dusk. Suddenly you see, in the half light, a shape on the track ahead. It is a snake! Your heart races, your breathing becomes laboured, you break into a sweat. Should you stand still or turn and run? You reach for a flashlight and shine it on the snake. It is only a piece of old rope carelessly discarded. Relief floods through you. Much calmer now, you continue on your way.
We can learn a lot from this story. The chief lesson is that many of our fears, seen only in a sort of half-light, disappear when we shine the full light of our conscious awareness on them. Our baseless anxiety then disappears, and we can move forward with confidence and clarity.
There is no need to conduct a close enquiry into the snake - its nature, its shape, its virulence, where it came from, or where it went. There never was a snake, it never existed, so such an enquiry is unnecessary. Similarly, the rope, though real, is not important and needn’t detain us. We might spend a little time in amused relief and rueful reflection on how we were fooled, but only because this may help us gain some perspective if, in the future, we find ourselves in a similar situation.
One brief side note: sometimes something that looks like a snake, is a snake. In those circumstances fear is very useful. It triggers a flight/fight response, adrenalin floods the system and is entirely appropriate.
By way of contrast we are talking here of illusory fears, snakes that are really just old rope. Most of us have a lot of these in our life, negative reactions to dimly perceived threats, half-heard insults and other negative will ‘o the wisps, that a little light shows us are phantoms that needn’t freeze us or provoke an inappropriate response.
In my book Conscious Confidence: Use the Wisdom of Sanskrit to Find Clarity and Success, I devoted an entire chapter to what I call the “Fear Shadow”. I wanted to paint a clear picture of the shadow that many people feel they are up against, I wanted to shine a light on snakes they are meeting in the gloom.
We need clarity because one of the most successful tricks that fear, anxiety and despair plays on us is to make us turn away from them. The natural instinct to any discomfort of pain is to avert our gaze. There used to be a common phrase ‘whistling past the graveyard’ which is very telling. Walking at night past the town cemetery people would whistle a tune to distract them from their feeling of disquiet and unease. In the same way, instead of figuratively reaching for our flashlight, many of us turn away when the alternative is to look squarely at our fears.
So, to state the issue as clearly as I can, there is a cloud hanging over society and individuals, woven of unfocused fear and anxiety. This fear shadow is born of our disconnection with who we truly are at the core of our being. In a vain attempt to alleviate our fears and discomfort we often look to externals for relief. We try to change the people and things around us which we believe are the cause of our pain. We travel to distant lands, change jobs, try to change the behaviours of our friends and family and partners, complain about politicians and opinion makers, and go on crusades to change everything and everyone.
This is not to say that injustice or unfairness shouldn’t be identified and corrected. Of course they should be. It should be obvious, however, that negative emotions like fear, hatred and anger are only fed and intensified if we attack them from a place of fear, hatred and anger. To overcome these ills – division, prejudice, fear and so on - we must meet them with their opposites, and we must therefore begin to change those negative feelings within ourselves.
What I wanted to write about today is how we can take practical effective steps to meet our own fear shadow and thereby lift the darkness in our own life and therefore, perhaps, let a little more light into the lives of others as well.
The first step is not to look so much to external causes, but to look within.
So, let’s start by looking at what the fear shadow is made of. It’s not easy to analyse because, as we’ve already said, has no permanent real existence. Like a shadow it is more like a transitory experience which can be modified or even dismissed if know how to turn on the flashlight of our conscious awareness.
It is rather like the man in the poem:
As I was walking up the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away.
Like this man in the poem the Fear Shadow is a figment of our imagination. Nevertheless, that ‘man who isn’t there’ certainly has an effect on our lives. The Fear Shadow arises when we are disconnected from the strength, resilience and stillness of our inner being. We look outwards instead of into ourselves. This outward orientation is actually natural because that is what our senses – sight, hearing and so on – are designed to do. To overcome the Fear Shadow we need to turn away from the pull of the senses and look within.
In the Katha Upanishad we are told that:
God made sense turn outward,
Man therefore looks outward, not into himself.
Now and again a daring soul, desiring immortality,
has looked back and found himself.
The ignorant man runs after pleasure,
sinks into the entanglements of death;
but the wise man, seeking the undying,
does not run among things that die.
Again, we could parse this passage endlessly to plumb the depths of the profound wisdom it contains. For now, let’s just take the simple and obvious message: we must learn to turn away from the pull of the externally oriented senses and take the time to ‘look back’ and find ourself.
How do we do this?
The good news is it couldn’t be easier. You don’t need any special equipment, it costs absolutely nothing, you do not have to wait for ideal conditions. All you need is to connect with the present moment - the Now - and focus on the stillness within yourself.
It is a paradox of this inward movement to inner awareness that the external senses are the tool by which we come to the present moment.
That is because the senses don’t operate in the past or the future. While your mind, your thoughts, the imaginations of your heart, flit endlessly between memories and images of the past, and hopes, plans and dreams of the future, the eyes can only see, the ears can only hear, the tongue can only taste what is actually happening here and now. The physical eye cannot see yesterday, the ear cannot hear tomorrow.
So, we use this fact to our advantage. The best way to come into the present moment is to sit quietly somewhere where you won’t be disturbed, and connect with your body sitting in the chair. We do this by using the sense of touch, feeling the weight of the body on the chair, the clothes on the skin, the air on our face. This brings you gently into the Now. Remember the skin can’t feel last week, or next Monday. Then you connect simply and without mental comment or emotional response to what you see and hear and taste and smell.
For most people this will reveal the habitual chatter of the monkey-mind. This is not unexpected. The simple prescription is to repeat the process. When your mind wanders or your feelings carry you away from the still present moment, just keep coming back again and again to the body in the chair and the sights, sounds and smells in the here and now.
It is rather like resistance training at the gym. Repetition is part of the process in building up muscle. Here the ‘muscle’ is our ability to come into the present and step past distracting thoughts. This is an ‘inner muscle’. I can promise you that the mind will settle, and that the effort of returning to the present will pay huge dividends.
There is more to say about this process – the need to cultivate a positive attitude, what happens when we are taken to the edge of our ‘comfort zone’ – but for now I’ll just encourage you to make a daily practice, two or three times a day for a couple of minutes at a time, of sitting quietly and connecting with your senses and coming into the present moment.
Gradually you will connect with a deep, inner peace within yourself. This is the eternal, undying that the Upanishad speaks of. This is how we can be rid of all those imaginary men we keep meeting as we are going up the stair. This is how we get hold of the flashlight that shows us that the snake is just an old piece of rope.
I’ll finish by recommending that you assist this process by surrounding yourself with reminders. That is why I have produced a jewellery range of beautiful wearable Sanskrit mantras. I spoke above of how fear and other negative emotions are met with their opposite like fearlessness – abhayam; and strength – balam; and resilience – abhyāsa. These three and many more are available as jewellery collections - necklaces, bangles, keychains – from damayanti.store.
Go to damayanti.store and find the mantra that speaks to you and wear it as talisman that will help you banish the fear shadow.
I wish you every success.
- Sarah Mane