Most of us spend our lives running from fear. We run from the bear chasing us in the dream. We run from the vague sense of discomfort that seems to follow us on a day spent alone, in silence, away from the distractions of crowds and noise. We run from the things that scare us most, whether it be flying, public speaking, or intimate relationships.
It’s natural to run from fear, of course. It’s pure instinct to run from the wild animals and places that lurk in the underbrush of consciousness. We could say it’s the most primal instinct of all species to hide or run in the face of fear. But, interestingly, it seems that one of the paths to emotional freedom is facing the inner landscapes that scares us most.
When I attended a dream workshop a couple of months ago with Jeremy Taylor, one of the most fascinating elements discussed was how our unconscious – through the gift of our dream life – encourages us to turn to face our fears. One woman shared an archetypal dream about a bear chasing her, and the group, most of whom were well-versed in dreamwork, encouraged her to engage in an active imagination dialogue with the bear and ask what it wants. “What is it that you want to share with me?” or “How can I help you?” are important questions to ask the “scary” figures in our dreams. The overriding and ego-paradoxical philosophy is that when we stop running from the figures and instead turn to face them we realize that they are actually here to help us.
Jeremy Taylor shares a man’s fascinating dream in his book, “The Wisdom of Your Dreams”, that illustrates this point quite poignantly. In this recurring dream the man is being chased by a fiery dragon, and in a moment of lucidity he turns around and demands to know why the dragon is terrorizing him. The dragon telepathically responds, “I am your smoking addiction!” Taylor shares the dreamer’s description:
In that moment of lucid realization, the dragon suddenly seems to change. It doesn’t really look any different, but its ‘expression’ seems to change. It begins to look winsome, almost charming – ‘Puff the magic dragon’ – more like a big, old familiar, friendly family dog than a menacing, deadly fire-breather.
My lucidity allows me to look even more closely at the ‘transformed’ monster, and I see clearly that there is a nasty, sticky brown slime covering its entire body, and that noxious smoke is oozing and sputtering from every orifice, even from around its eyes, and from under and between its scales. I smell this awful, rancid, repulsive odor coming from it. My revulsion returns, and in the dream I look at it and say with all my heart, ‘Get away from me! I no longer want you in my life!’
When he awakened, Alex was amazed to discover that he no longer craved the sensation of smoke in his lungs. Perhaps even more important, the desire for the instant and reliable ‘companionship’ that smoking had always given him was also gone. He has not smoked since the dream. (pp. 181-182; for the full description and analysis please read the book)
So we ask the question: Is our fear actually a helper in disguise? If you’ve ever turned to face your fear, you know that it’s often through riding directly into the middle of the fear-storm that we grow the most; that, in fact, when we walk through fear we often have a direct, felt-sense of the divine. Since we are no longer sent into the middle of the forest alone for a vision quest, is fear, and especially panic, the modern spiritual warrior’s training ground?
From what I can see the answer is yes. Which means that every moment of fear – especially our greatest fears – is an opportunity to heighten our capacity to love. Which means that every time we can walk through the portal of panic we discover God on the other side.
If you’ve ever suffered from panic attacks you know how utterly terrifying they are, how they send us to the brink of feeling like we’re either going to die or go crazy. We then avoid the situation where the panic initially hit, thinking that, by doing so, we can avoid the fear. But this only serves to increase the fear. Just like every other emotional state, fear ultimately wants to be known and seen. When we push it aside and avoid it, it slithers like an unwanted child into the darker recesses of psyche until it has no choice but to morph and re-emerge as anxiety, intrusive thoughts, or panic about another situation. The ego believes that we can package fear up and isolate it into one section of our lives. The unconscious has other plans.
At some point, usually when the fear grows big enough and interferes with our daily functioning, we are called to face our fears directly. This requires tremendous courage, for who in their right mind would actively seek out the wild beast in the darkest part of the forest? The light and inspiration is knowing that we must walk through the fear to arrive at love; there seems to be no other way. So we gather up our courage and resources of support and walk. Or the panic hits us and we have no choice but to face it. As I quoted from Pema Chodron a few weeks ago:
“Our challenge is to train in smiling at groundlessness, smiling at fear. I’ve had years of training at this because I get panic attacks. As anyone who has experienced panic attack knows, that feeling of terror can arise out of nowhere. For me it often comes in the middle of the night, when I’m especially vulnerable. But over the years I’ve trained myself to relax into that heart-stopping, mind-stopping feeling. My first reaction is always to grasp with fright. But Chogyam Trungpa used to gasp like that when we was describing how to recognize awakened mind. So now, whenever a panic attack comes and I gasp, I picture Chogyam Trungpa’s face and think of him hasping as she talked about awakened mind. Then the energy of panic passes through me.” (p. 93)
And then she writes:
“If you resist that panicky energy, even at an involuntary, unconscious level, the fear can last a long time. The way to work with it is to drop the story line and not pull back or buy into the idea, “This isn’t okay,” but instead to smile at the panic, smile at this dreadful, bottomless, gaping hole that’s opening up in the pit of your stomach. When you can smile at fear, there’s a shift: what you usually try to escape from becomes a vehicle for awakening you to your fundamental, primordial goodness, for awakening you to clear-mindedness, to a caring that holds nothing back.” (p. 93)
On the other side of a panic is a softened heart. On the other side of resistance is an increased capacity to feel compassion. On the other side of fear is love. Every time we walk through panic with a smile we soften a layer of fear that has encrusted around our hearts. Panic is the portal to an almost ecstatic experience. Why are we never taught this?
I had this experience a few years ago when I faced my childhood fear of driving on mountain roads that was catapulted into phobia after I had my first panic attack at 21 while driving on the freeway. After that first attack over twenty years ago I could barely drive ten minutes. Eventually I learned to white-knuckle it across Los Angeles freeways, but never without panic nipping at the heels of my mind. Over many years and a lot of hard inner work, the fear of driving diminished, but the fear of mountain roads, which has been with me since childhood, never faded. After reading Jeffrey Brantley’s “Calming the Anxious Mind”, I finally decided to turn to face this particular fear and, on our next family vacation up to Estes National Park in the Rocky Mountains, told my husband that I would do the driving.
Up the Mountain
Driving into the center of my fear,
like the eye of the hurricane,
moving toward that which has gripped me for 19 years,
I finally say yes:
yes to the sensation of
hands on my throat,
my tongue as thick as wool,
throat like desert sand,
my breath stopped short.
I almost said stolen but
there is no enemy here,
it is only this:
I observe it now from the
part of me smiling from the
corner of my mind, the part that
knows that I am not this fear.
We climb higher into the mountains
and as I breathe into the fear it
swivels like a revolving door,
and I see in a moment of clarity
that fear is the door:
On one side panic and
the other side God
so that the mountains are no longer my enemy
but my deepest comfort – how could I not have seen it before –
the majesty protecting me,
the glacier gliding me into this adventure.
“Why are they so beautiful?” my son asks.
My thick woolen tongue still catches my breath,
I remind myself to connect to spaciousness:
If I am observing my fear who is the I that observes?
a thousand flowers on my tongue,
a rainbow of butterflies come to
drink nectar, to drop my
throat with dew,
Great Mother here to bring water and warmth.
as are the angels of poetry.
I’ve resisted this fear for so long that I forgot that it
can be a doorway into other worlds.
“It’s the homestretch,” my husband says
I grab his hand as tears break free.
“I did it,” I whisper.
The perfect beauty unfolds as if it’s here for my eyes only,
as if the mountains are applauding and the
lake sings its praises,
ever more blue to my soul that has walked through a layer of fear,
as if the air around me says, “I am here to support you,”
and I know
we are not alone.
When we gather our courage, walk toward the edge and jump,
we open to invisible hands.
I hear a voice:
God lives in the fear.
I didn’t know.
We all have our mountains to climb. We climb them in the middle of the night when we’re awakened by a nightmare or the dark fingers of the unconscious find their way into conscious mind. We climb them in our relationships when fear tries to steal us away from the risk of loving. We climb them every time we move toward the fear, and, in the same seemingly paradoxical breath, move toward love.