Fearlessness Is Not the Absence of Fear

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I just read a column by Laura Huckabee-Jennings titled, “Mindful Leadership Is Fearless Leadership.” It got me thinking about the following question: Is it counterintuitive that the route to fearlessness is to open yourself up to fear?

At the risk of giving away the punchline, I think the answer is no. I understand how one might ask, “Isn’t fearlessness a state of being free of fear? If you open yourself up to fear, how can you be free of it?” My view, however, is that freedom from fear is not the same thing as not having any fear. It matters not what we do, we will always have fear. It is a normal and inescapable human emotion, intricately wrapped up in our awareness that all things change and that our lives are finite and, all things considered, startlingly brief.

My definition of fearlessness is “not controlled by fear.” I believe, therefore, that the path to fearlessness does not lead away from our fears but, rather, directly toward them. Instead of fleeing our fears, we need to take them on and embrace them.

The first step toward fearlessness, in this view, is acknowledging that you have fears. Everyone has fears, but not everyone is afraid. Fear is normal; living in fear is not. Because fear is a natural part of being human, there is no way to rid yourself of it. so be mindful that there is nothing wrong with feeling fear. It is no better or worse than any other emotion.

Thus, the second step: treat yourself with compassion. Feeling fear does not make you defective.

Third step: open yourself up to your fears, be mindful of them, and allow yourself to consider them as dispassionately as you can. Like other emotions – and perhaps even more, because it is so vivid and visceral – fear has a way of floating to the surface when you meditate. Don’t force it away! (At least, not right away.) Try to sit with it for a while, focusing on how fear makes you feel, how it affects you physically. Is your pulse quickening? Breath becoming shallower? Sweat breaking out on your forehead? Face flushing and heating up? True, those are not “pleasant” physical feelings, but they are normal. Your meditation practice can help you cope with them so that you can examine the fear itself: Where does it come from? Is the source of the fear real or imagined? In other words, is something else going on under the surface that is the actual source of these feelings, masquerading as something else?

Treat this exercise like getting into a cold lake – dip your toe in first if you’d prefer, rather than diving in headfirst. The first time, maybe just sit with the fear for a minute and then move on. Next time, maybe sit with it a little longer. In this manner, you arrive at a time when you can face the fear head-on without the urge to flee. 

That is fearlessness. It is not the absence of fear, or freedom of fear. Fearlessness is freedom from fear.

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