Growing up, I always wanted to have the blinds closed in my bedroom at night. I felt afraid that I would see a face in the window. My mother told me that when I was an infant in my crib by the window, someone came up and surprised me so much that I shrieked for hours. Even with this plausible explanation for my feelings, the fear remained a big ball of shakiness in my stomach. Fear doesn’t vaporize because we know the cause. That is why telling a child there is nothing to be afraid of, i.e., there is no monster lurking in your closet or under your bed, doesn’t sooth the fear. Fear is soothed by feeling it. It is understood by making friends with it. It is through acceptance and honoring that we can engage with our fear as a powerful resource for courage.
Moving Beyond the Judgement of Dark Feelings
Fear – along with anger and sadness – is a much maligned feeling. In her brilliant article, The Wisdom in Dark Emotions, Miriam Greenspan says, “By dark, I don’t mean that they are bad, unwholesome or pathological. I mean that as a culture we have kept these emotions in the dark – shameful, secret and unseen.” When Miriam had lost a child and was searching for healing, she went to a dharma talk. The teacher essentially told her in so many words to “get over it”. Move on. Be present. She found that even in that environment where people practiced for a more engaged consciousness, there was a phobia of feelings and an intolerance of grief, despair, and loss. There is judgement of these dark feelings.
What Greenspan found along her healing path was mindfulness with those feelings. Discovering where the feeling is in your body. Being aware of the thoughts that might accompany the fear, such as “I will be alone”, “Something will hurt me”, “I won’t know what to do”. Taking the time to, as Pema Chodron says, lean into the feeling and the thoughts. This is where we move beyond the judgement.
Feeling Your Feelings
Even with what are termed positive feelings, such as happiness, we often don’t fully feel them. Brene Brown found in her work on vulnerability that parents feeling great joy when observing their infant child quickly shift into fear of something happening to that child. I have found myself shifting from a feeling of sadness immediately into action or instantaneously making a decision to feel the feelings later. That can be helpful in some circumstances, and it can also be dishonoring, especially if I do not come back to feel the feeling later.
Pam Dunn of Your Infinite Life Training & Coaching Company has a wonderful mindfulness exercise about feelings. By first finding where the feeling is in your body, placing your hand over that spot, allowing the feeling to expand to fill your entire body, and then letting it go through the top of your head and the bottom of your feet, you can fully feel any feeling – mad, sad, afraid, happy, or hurt.
Watch Pam’s video, Feel Feelings Before Expression, and then feel where fear resides in your body. Allow it to expand and then release it. When you feel fear all the way through and out, you can experience the birth place of courage. You have mindfully made friends with fear.