Michael Liebenson Grady, a longtime spiritual teacher at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, has thought a lot about fear and constructive ways to work with it. Below is a short summary of one of his excellent talks from 2008, entitled “Facing Fear with an Inquiring Mind.” This talk, grounded in the teachings of Buddhist psychology, provides 4 practical ways to work with fear, with the key point being that fear isn’t something to get rid of; the challenge is working with it in a skillful manner.
What is Fear?
Liebenson Grady defines fear as “a conditioned reaction of aversion.” When fear arises, our first reaction is to dislike it. That’s understandable, as fear is not a comfortable feeling.
Recognizing fear simply as a type of energy, Liebenson Grady explains how we turn it into a problem by how we relate to it. For example, it’s common to relate to fear by judging it, by telling one self things like “I shouldn’t be feeling this way” or that “feeling fear means I’m weak.” This self-judgment leads to feelings of shame and attempts at hiding the fear.
Other typical ways of relating to fear include:
• Trying to control it
• Pushing it away
• Avoiding the triggers
• Identifying with it, by seeing it as part of one’s core self, rather than a universal experience.
All of these strategies tend to create more emotional distress and confusion, rather than peace and clarity.
“Living with fear that is unacknowledged leads to fragmentation in life and practice. I encourage people to look at the energy of fear, for fear can limit our access to freedom.” – Michael Liebenson Grady
Types of Fear
Liebenson Grady discusses some of the most common types of fear, which include:
• Fear of pain (physical + emotional)
• Fear of illness, aging and death
• Social fears (disapproval, being judged, not fitting in, self-doubt)
• Fear of change (e.g., changing economy, political landscape)
• Fear of the unknown
• Fear of losing control
• Fear of being alone
• Fear of intimacy
• Fear of feeling afraid
Change Your Relationship to Fear
Changing one’s relationship to fear is a key part of reducing the emotional suffering associated with it. It’s important to recognize that fear is a universal experience and a reflection of our vitality as sentient beings. Seeing it as something so personal creates a sense of separation from others; feeling separate, rather than connected, tends to exacerbate uncomfortable emotional states like fear.
4 Ways to Work with Fear
Rather than trying to judge, control or push it away, it can be helpful to relate to fear in a broader, more mindful and compassionate way. Liebenson Grady outlines some specific ways to work with fear from a Buddhist psychology perspective. It’s important to note that while the feeling of fear may or may not go away by relating to it in these ways, the overall sense of suffering and distress can be reduced. While these practices may sound simple, they can actually have a powerful impact when taken seriously.
1.) Establish a foundation of calm
Do some mindful breathing or another type of activity that brings a sense of relaxation. This is an obvious recommendation, but easy to forget.
2.) Explore fear with a sense of curiosity rather than judgment
Self-criticism is like a vice that locks the experience of fear in place. Curiosity, on the other hand, opens things up, often making the fear feel less intense.
3.) Engage in practices of lovingkindness
This is something that the Buddha felt was particularly useful for people experiencing strong fear or panic. Lovingkindess, also known as Metta practice, is a structured type of meditation that encourages an attitude of friendliness toward self and others. For example, you might think to yourself, “may I be at ease,” or “may I feel peace.”
4.) Cultivate awareness of “touch points”
As you are noticing fear, focus on the contact your feet make with the ground. Or, focus on the sensation in your legs and back as they make contact with the chair you’re sitting in. This type of grounding practice can bring one more into the present, in contrast to the feeling of fear that is so future-oriented.
1.) You can listen to Michael’s entire talk here: Facing Fear with an Inquiring Mind.
2.) Guided meditations (by other teachers) on the aforementioned tools, including basic mindfulness of breath, ‘Lovingkindness’ and ‘Touch Points’ can be found here: Sitting Together – Meditations.