Mindfulness Practice for Fear

Mindful observation is a skill we can use in our daily lives at any time, not just in a quiet meditation. And fearlessness is not the absence of fear; Fearlessness is mindful observation that results in the awareness and perception of fear. 

When we practice meditation or any mindfulness practice, there is an awakening of self knowledge. Unfortunately, not all that knowledge is pleasurable or expected.  In self study, we may discover that fear is not only present, but controls our lives to some degree. Fear can be misunderstood and mislabeled. We may not realize our decisions are made by feelings of fear disguised as worry, apprehension, dread, or distrust. In some spiritual traditions, fear is the basis of suffering.  An important aspect of a mindfulness practice is to study fear—to understand and accept it enough that we do not live under its influence. Fears are obvious when they prevent us from engaging in normal activity. But sometimes we don’t recognize the ways in which we avoid, ignore, or resist fear. Part of spiritual awakening is identifying fear in its different stages and forms: the fear itself, shame, guilt, embarrassment, excuses, discouragement and anger.

 

Buddhism gifts us the Four Immeasurables:

Metta- Loving Kindness

Karuna – Compassion

Mudita –  Sympathetic Joy

Upekkha – Equanimity

These powerful mindset manipulators are also included in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. I.33 “To preserve openness of heart and calmness of mind, nurture these attitudes:

Kindness to those who are happy

Compassion for those who are less fortunate

Honor for those who embody noble qualities

Equanimity to those whose actions oppose your values.” – Nischala Devi, The Secret Power of Yoga

 

You Become What You Practice

The brain does not differentiate between thoughts and feelings. Practicing these four virtues, particularly Metta, changes the way the brain is wired (the neuroplasticity thing mentioned below). Metta is the heartfelt intention for the well-being of oneself and others. We start with loving-kindness because it is all encompassing and makes the other Immeasurables more accessible. In addition to changing the brain, loving kindness develops a calm, protected heart; we increase the heart energy vibration (www.heartmath.org can tell you more about this).  When used together, the Four Immeasurables can replace not only fearful thoughts, but those of jealousy and righteousness among others.

The Metta meditation is simple and can be used as an antidote to fear:

May I be happy.

May I be well.

May I be safe.

May I be peaceful and at ease.

If you have difficulty being mindfully present with fear, start by offering yourself this meditation as a way of finding some calm in the storm. You can substitute any verbiage to suit you. Then offer the same loving-kindness to others in your fear response scenario; this can include both those who you worry about and those who cause the worry. When working with fear, we don’t have to confront the fear directly, especially if it seems overwhelming. Just the intention of loving-kindness changes our course and keeps us afloat above the water. When you feel stronger, split your awareness between loving-kindness and investigating the fear.

 

Breathe

Repeating the words, thought or feeling of loving kindness is a portal through fear. Another course to find calmer waters can be breath observation. The more fully the mind engages with the breath, the less it thinks about the fear, and so the fear loses some of its power.  Feel the temperature and movement of the breath on the face, the edges of the nose, in the throat, around the heart or maybe in the abdomen. There is no need to direct or control the breath or do any fancy pranayama; just observe the natural breath.  Keep it simple and if breath observation sinks you deeper into a fear response, go back to Metta.

Once the breath calms us enough that we are not gripped by the fear, we can openly observe the the fear itself. In mindfulness practice we do not get rid of fear by denying it – that would only strengthen it. Instead we explore it, sense it, and become the captain of our ship of fears. In doing so the troubled waters become more tranquil.

 

The Issues are in the Tissues

Interoception is our ability to feel ourselves on the inside. By being the observer of thoughts and breath, we prepare to be present in bodily sensations. Fear can cause us to disconnect  from the body and disassociate from an experience and the subsequent sensations.  One of the primary ways to investigate fear is through the felt sense where we consciously feel ourselves. When we step outside of the fear and into the felt sense, we are less likely to be sunk by the other forms of mislabeled fear.  There might be sensations of butterflies, heat or cold, changes in heart rate, tightening in the chest, sighing, or clenching in the stomach or face. When the fear is strong, it can be difficult to be with the sensations directly. In that case, return to the Metta meditation and breathe with and through the discomfort, as though the breath is the whole ocean and the fear is only one big wave. The wave will crest and trough. Guided the mind to float in the ocean of the breath.

 

Feel To Heal

Breathing into bodily sensations can allow us to move through the fear without drowning in it. It is helpful to discover what sensations are associated with the fear.  When we are ready to anchor the attention on the sensations that signal fear, the fear loses its wind. We recognize when we begin to tell ourselves or others stories that manifest as fear and shift back to the present moment. Mindfulness teamed with loving-kindness and the breath allow the bodily sensations to compassionately move through us.  Eventually we begin to notice the samskaras or mind loops we unconsciously course through and learn what triggers them.

 

Trust Yourself

From the time we are children, we are told what we need and when: when to be hungry (“it’s time for dinner”), if we are hot or cold (“put your jacket on”) how to feel (“stop crying” or “don’t  pout or your face will stay like that” ), when we are tired (“go to bed”) and even when to urinate (“go to the bathroom before we get in the car”).  We turn away from ourselves and our instinctual, intuitive voice. To everyone else, you are a bio-mechanical model – only you have the ability to get to know yourself as a soma – a being of internal sensation. It is from this unique space that we slowly learn not to destroy, disassociate from or control our feelings. We discover them and can be present with them in order to discharge them. We begin to see how they work when we enter into them and give them room to express and release.

 

Shit and Shift Happen

Remember the slogan “shit happens”?  Shift happens too, and at the same place in the brain.

“The very mechanisms in the brain that allow adversity to get under the skin are the same mechanisms that enable awakening.  We can harness this power of neuroplasticity for the good by cultivating certain types of virtuous qualities.”  – Dr. Richard Davidson, Neuroscientist

The time it takes to recover from “shit” is termed resilience. Mindfulness can strengthen our resilience and disempower fear. Exploring fear begins by being aware of how it manifests in our lives using witness consciousness. We don’t analyze it, but rather take the role of the observer: make no comparisons, make no judgements and delete the need to understand in the words of W. Brugh Joy. Have a relationship with the fear without living in the power of it’s stories. When working with fear or any other emotion, mindfulness is initially a disciplined practice. As the brain rewires, mindfulness becomes more automatic and we wake up sooner to the fear and change our perceptions around the fear.

Peace,

Megan

As another option to mindfully work through fear, you can access my free guided meditation “Navigating the Waters of Your Mind” below.

 

Yoga for Behavioral Therapy

This blog is in response to the hopeful article “How Yoga and Breathing Help the Brain Unwind” that is in high circulation in the yoga therapy community. To summarize the Psychology Today article, a study was recently shared showing that the neurotransmitter GABA, which suppresses the stress response, increases with yoga and breathing techniques. The study included individuals with depression, anxiety, PTSD and substance abuse.  In the very least, this is one more evidence based study that yoga and breathing techniques should be integrated into treatment plans. The real power of the study remains to be seen, however, as it is suggested that yoga and breathing techniques could potentially be used as a stand alone therapy for behavioral diagnoses that involve imbalance in the autonomic nervous system.

So that is the gist of the landmark news… but…the article is shared with a cautious reminder of the importance of choosing  yoga and breathing practices that are appropriate for the individual. Sadly, what prompted me to write this is that in the same week I read the study (not just the article in Psychology Today, but the actual study because I’m geeky about good news), I heard another disheartening story about someone who was ‘prescribed’ yoga for pain care, and reported that the yoga increased the pain and caused emotional distress.  If yoga or any of it’s facets, such as meditation or pranayama, have been recommended to you by a doctor or mental health expert to help treat PTSD, substance abuse, depression, anxiety or MDD (a combination of the two), or chronic pain, seek out a yoga therapist or teacher with the appropriate training. Unfortunately, medical professionals often put yoga under one big umbrella. Unwittingly, their advice can send someone to a class that is physically exhausting or overwhelming (sympathetic arousal). All yoga heals, but yoga to heal requires the proper guidance and a willingness to do the work.

Yoga is an accessible practice. There is no reason to participate in what I think of as the American version of super-sized, fast-paced upside-down asana if it does not relieve suffering.  There are many different traditions, styles and teachers; the postures are not a requirement for healing. A translation of Yoga Sutra 1.3 summarizes the use of yoga for behavioral health: “In a state of yoga (or wholeness as I call it), the different preconceptions and products of the imagination that can prevent or distort understanding are controlled, reduced or eliminated.” Yoga recognizes that relieving suffering is different than finding joy. Relief is a cold fist finding a warm hand to hold it.  It is small steps up a mountain, sometimes with blisters, but we don’t need to climb alone.

My initial purpose in taking up yoga was to manage anxiety and panic attacks. Some questions I learned to ask myself when seeking out new teachers or classes:
Does the teacher empower me?
Am I practicing loving-kindness yoga or trauma yoga?
Do I feel safe?
Can I just be myself?
Does this practice help to change my perspective?
Am I challenged and can I successfully meet some of the challenges?
Can I let go of self-judgement?
Am I appreciated?
What knowledge am I gaining?

If we choose asana (physical postures) we hold poses to leave the mind and enter the body. In this way, yoga helps us to cultivate our somatic or felt sense where we notice bodily sensations and stay present in them.  We shift from thinking (except and reject) to awareness (observation); or from the head to the heart.  This can be an entirely new experience in itself.  When we understand that our behavior is a blend of instinct, emotion and knowledge, witness consciousness wrapped in love enables us to feel pain and still go forward, staying focused. Eventually, as our bodies remember what relaxation is (parasympathetic system- that GABA creator,) it gets easier to stay in alignment. Our intuitive bodies remember their natural state.  We get the green light even when the difficult stuff comes. It takes time to fix ourselves, but in addition to having confidence in our care givers, we have the tools built into our bodies to help.

Yogi’s like to use the term enlightenment to describe a feeling of wholeness.  My favorite explanation of enlightenment comes from Judith Lasater: “One way to view enlightenment is a radical shift in perspective. Nothing outside you has changed…you have changed, and rather paradoxically, you have not changed, but have become what you already are.”

Namaste, Megan

PS – This is a photo of a parhelion or sun dog as it is commonly called. Parhelion means “beside the sun” in Greek and forms as a result of the sun refracting through hexagonal ice crystals . When I saw this the other morning, it reminded me that just as the sun can bend the light, my mind is like a prism that can bend my own Light to make it a bit brighter.