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Lessening Fear

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Unlock the key to lessening fear and embracing gratitude and aliveness.

During my cancer journey, I learned a great deal about fear. When first diagnosed, I was terrified by every poke, prod, injection, and conversation with the sober doctors who didn’t know what was going on inside my body. Within months, my fear of everything exhausted me. I was forced to discern among the many sensations, both physical and emotional, that were overwhelming me. I began to realize that the first way to lessen my fear was to look more closely at it, so I could locate and inhabit the spaces in my fear. The same way that quantum physicists look into the spaces between particles or that monks meditate until they descend into the spaces between their runaway thoughts, there are waves of stillness and peace that wait in the spaces of our agitations and fear.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that when I can stay devoted to a practice of gratitude and take the risk to be tender, the habits of my fear unravel. Gratitude is the way we meet life with nothing in the way. Since no one can do this constantly, gratitude is a tender opening and closing to the life before us. When grateful, even for the difficult passages that open us, we are closest to life itself.

Every day I’m grateful for just being here. At unexpected times, I’m returned to a gratitude for simple things: the innocent stare of my dog in the morning, the quiet breathing of my wife as she sleeps, the creep of morning light up the side of the house as the coffee drips, the mystery that every person carries an unchartered world within them. Of course, I grow weary like everyone else, but it’s gratitude that refreshes me. For gratitude is how the heart opens our inner eye to the majesty of life. Gratitude returns us to the still point that exists beneath our personality.

Taking the risk to be tender can also lessen our fear. Everyone has a tenderness that waits in the center of their hardness, the way the softness of an oyster waits in its shell as it drifts through the deep. When hurt, we believe the point of life is to protect that tender spot at all cost, to never expose it to an uncaring world. But against our will and in spite of our fear, we can discover, in a moment when we drop all that we carry, that it feels quite wonderful to carry nothing. Then we might wonder why we should pick it all up. Then, we might be lifted by a sudden revelation that it’s the other way around. We need to pry ourselves open and let the tenderness we were born with meet the world. We must risk being tender if we want to truly live.

Tenderness keeps us from running. It opens us more deeply to where we are. By staying tender, life has become a practice of opening what’s before me rather than running to where I imagine life is easier.

Yet, no matter how tender or grateful we are, each of us will be broken open at some point in our life. Though this will intensify our fear, how we meet being broken open begins a deeper phase of our spiritual journey.

In spite of our fear, in spite of whether we feel safe or threatened, when we love one thing, we begin to love everything. For love is not confined to what we love, anymore than light is confined to the first thing it illuminates. When loving you, I learn to love the world. And seeing the truth in one thing, I begin to see the truth in everything. When facing my own stumblings, I learn to have compassion for the flawed beauty of humanity. When dipping my face in a pond, I honor the life of water that covers the Earth. When touched by the sweep of one chord in one concerto, I am touched by the river of music. When in awe at the workings of Einstein’s mind, I learn how to appreciate all I don’t know. And when feeling the devotion of someone praying to a face of God I don’t understand, I acknowledge that we are all on the same journey. All these engagements with life lessen our fear.

Sometimes courage is not defending what we know to be true, but letting in all that is beyond our understanding. Our trust in life returns when we can stay in conversation with the larger flow of wonder and impermanence in which our life swims.

This excerpt is from Mark’s recent book, The Book of Soul: 52 Paths to Living What Matters, published this month by St. Martin’s Essentials.

Questions to Walk With

  • In your journal, enter your root conversation with life—engaging the mystery and miracle of being here, knowing we will eventually die. Try to stay with this conversation below the initial fear it engenders and listen for the still point beneath your personality and what it has to say to you.
  • When feeling afraid, try letting in something new, or being grateful for something simple, or being tender toward yourself or someone you love. Later, in conversation with a friend or loved one, discuss if and how any of these gestures might have lessened your fear.