One of the things the Internet has given us is more access to connecting and communicating with one another. This is all to the good when the communication promotes the well-being of everyone. It becomes a problem when it allows people to feed their fears. We see this phenomenon around the world in those groups that seek to oppress or eliminate other groups of people who may be different from them or in some way represent a threat.
As a trauma specialist, this got me to thinking about how important it is to be conscious of our fears and to cultivate ways to become even more conscious of, meet, and process this powerful emotion. So much of what creates division and conflict among human beings—be they in a one-on-one relationship, a family, a community, a country—is the presence of underlying, and often unrecognized or disowned, fear.
For this week’s practice, I’d like to offer a practice that can be helpful in recognizing and dealing with the presence of fear. Fear isn’t an emotion we can eliminate because it’s an important survival response that we need throughout life. It’s essential that fear can motivate us to jump out of the way of a bus we hadn’t seen, or remind us not to walk down a dark alley alone in the middle of the night. The problem is that we are often afraid of things that aren’t threatening and, when we act on these kinds of fears, we often generate even more trauma in ourselves and others.
One of the practices I’ve used over many years is a derivation of the Buddhist practice of Tonglen. One of the nice things about this kind of Buddhist practice is that it doesn’t require you to have to believe in Buddhism. Instead, it’s more akin to a Buddhist psychology practice that’s available to anyone. Here are two links to this practice on my website, and I’ll also describe it briefly here.
Sitting comfortably, bring your awareness to your heart space. Notice that your heart has, as a fundamental energy, fiery love. This is a fire that can neutralize fear and other challenging emotions. The process is that, once you recognize that you feel fear, you take a moment to acknowledge that there are countless people all over the world who feel the same thing. Breathing into your heart, you take in their fear and join it with yours. If you feel reticent to breathe in the fear of others, imagine that your body is surrounded by a beautiful white light and that this light begins to neutralize the fear you breathe in well before it touches your heart.
As you breathe into your heart, notice that the fire in your heart spontaneously burns up the fear, creating neutralized energy. Before you exhale, choose a quality you want the neutralized energy to carry. That may be compassion, ease, calm, peace—whatever quality you would like to have in you. As you breathe out, the energy of whatever quality you have chosen fills you first and then moves out into the environment. Imagine that the quality of your out-breath enters our collective human consciousness and touches all those who also feel fear in this moment, offering them compassion, ease, calm, peace—whatever quality you breathed out from your heart.
Do this kind of breathing for, say, five breaths and see how you feel. If the fear is still strong, do more breaths until you feel yourself shifting into the quality you have chosen for the neutralized energy.
This is a process I use all the time, as I find it has become a more and more reliable resource for helping me move through feelings that may get in the way of what I’m doing. Notice how it works best for you. It becomes a resource you can carry with you into any situation. I often use it when I’m on the subway if someone is having a hard day and begins to shout or generate disruption. I might breathe in anger and breathe out calm, or breathe in fear and breathe out peace. I sometimes use it when someone I’m working with describes a terrible trauma or expresses agonizing pain. Breathing in their pain and my own and breathing out ease can help me to stay present to their experience by managing my own responses.
As with all these practices, there’s no right way to do this one. Rather, I invite you to explore Tonglen and see what works for you. The key is to become increasingly aware of your relationship to fear and to find ways to manage it constructively. And, please remember to bring along curiosity as your constant companion, while you pat gently on the head any judgments that may arise. We’re all in this together and each one of us has an ongoing opportunity to contribute to our own and our collective well-being.