Fear was spoon-fed to me in my childhood. I recall a family gathering when danger became the topic of conversation around the dinner table. An aunt talked about the horrors of kidnapping. An uncle talked about his fear of heights. Each family member took a turn but my mother won the contest when she said quite simply, “The whole world is dangerous.” And she went on eating.  

My mother was afraid of so many things that stopped her from
living a full life. When I was growing up, she and I were out shopping one afternoon and we were about to cross the street. We looked both ways, there was nothing coming in either direction so I stepped off the curb. Suddenly my mother’s hand flew up against my chest and she yelled in a high pitched panicked voice, “Watch it!”

She startled me and I frantically looked around, expecting to see something hurtling through the air toward me. There was nothing. My mother stood paralyzed on the sidewalk, she looked like a frightened little girl and I took her hand and walked her slowly across the street.

When my first celebrity book hit #1 on the bestseller list in one week, a publisher offered me a six figure deal for the next one. I’d never made that much money and I called my mother to tell her. I thought she’d be proud since she was obsessed with counting pennies, but I could hear the upset in her voice when she said, “You’ll have to be very careful.” I’d hoped she would be happy and tell me to buy myself something nice for myself, but her reaction was no surprise. Success meant fear of loss to her and she instilled that in me.

Fear shows up for all of us in various ways. One of my writing
students gets sweaty palms before she reads her pieces. She’s afraid of being judged. Another student’s mother is an English teacher and he’s afraid to get his punctuation incorrect. A cousin of mine lies about his report card and sometimes I don’t tell the truth about how I feel because I want people to like me. Then I take it one step further by beating myself up for being afraid in the first place.

If someone says they’re not afraid of anything, I don’t think they’re telling the truth. Fear is a primal emotion that helps us identify and avoid threats to our survival. The Dalai Lama himself, a man who is considered the highest spiritual leader and the head of Tibetan Buddhism, has aerophobia, fear of flying.

American modernist painter, Georgia O’Keeffe, said bravely:

I’ve been absolutely terrified
every moment of my life,

And I’ve never let it keep me
from doing a single thing

I wanted to do.

The trick is not to get stuck in it by facing it head on. At four
years old, I had a dream that I was sitting on the black and white diamond shaped kitchen floor tiles in my childhood home,
staring down at my white lace-up shoes. I heard a guttural growling sound. I looked up and there was a massive lion on the other side of the room. I covered my ears with my hands to block out the roar. His thick yellow and brown mane that encircled his powerful neck was wet with drool, his eyes were inky and a tuft of thick black hair stood upright at the end of his long bushy tail.

I rushed over to the kitchen door behind me and grabbed upwards for the doorknob. It was just out of my reach. I began to panic, it felt like a trial by fire, when I realized that I was dreaming and I needed to wake up. I rolled my body into a tight little ball on the floor, covered my head with my hands and waited for the beast to attack. I heard the raspy inhale, I felt a blast of hot air and I smelled the musky scent as he flew into the air. A moment later, I woke up in the kitchen, standing barefoot at the Formica table, fingering a pink plastic placemat. I had surrendered to the formidable dream foe that wanted to eat me alive. He was the embodiment of danger but I had faced my fear and I had awakened and survived.

From a Buddhist perspective, fear is a journey of courage. Remember the old adage, you can run but you can’t hide. As we live our lives, sooner or later, we’re going to have to face off with that lion: the blank page, telling the truth when it’s unpopular, being the object of bullying. You can run away and give up, or you can stay with it and break out of the prison of a fear-based life.

During a Buddhist gathering, the facilitator went to sit beside a woman who was trembling on her meditation cushion. “Stay. Stay,” she whispered. The meditator understood and said quietly, “I’m afraid. I’m afraid.” She kept her attention on the truth of what she was feeling, she breathed deeply and eventually the trembling stopped.

Worry and distraction escalate fear. Acceptance shrinks it. The Dalai Lama says, “If you have fear about anything, you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If you can, there is no need to worry about it. If you can’t, there is also no need to worry.”