Midweek Faith Lift
June 30, 2021
Open Heart in the Face of Fear
Part 1- Seeing Fear & Making Space
Rev. Deb Hill-Davis
In the school of life, difficult people are the faculty. They teach us our most important spiritual lessons, the lessons that we would be most unlikely to learn on our own.
— Mark I. Rosen in Thank You for Being Such a Pain by Mark I. Rosen
To Practice This Thought:
Figure out what you can learn from the most difficult person in your life.
I love this quotation because it is most often, for me anyway, that difficult people elicit a fear response. And fear is a really tough nut to crack, so we are going to take it smaller doses, over two Sundays! Our first crack at this nut is to define it in very human, real terms. Fear is the anticipation of future pain. The basic function of fear is to assure survival. That is why our first response to fear is visceral, in our body with increased heart rate, increased blood flow, tensing of muscles or freezing, staying motionless which also takes a great deal of energy. Like animals, we have a physical response and drop the head, lift the shoulders, round the back and contract the chest…..we are guarding our hearts! This biological response to fear is called “affect” and it is an automatic response. You have heard it called the “flight, fight or freeze” response in psychology.
Acute danger causes a one pointed focus on self-preservation that we maintain until the danger passes. What is true of humans is that we have cognition and memory that interact with affect to create the emotion of fear. The affect or physical response of fear lasts a few seconds. The emotion of fear persists as long as the affect is stimulated by fearful thoughts and memories. The emotion of fear is the accumulated experiences of personal history plus our memories of past events. That is why some of us are terrified by things that others can just ignore. That is also why the real cause of our fear is not always evident! That is the blessing of difficult people….they offer us the opportunity to uncover the real cause of our fear.
Fear has a positive aspect in that it alerts us to real danger and empowers us with adrenaline to take action to preserve life. As Tara Brach says on p. 168 of Radical Acceptance:
The problem is: The emotion of fear often works overtime. Even when there is no immediate threat, our body may remain tight and on guard, our mind narrowed to focus on what might go wrong…..We are caught in the trance of fear and our moment-to-moment experience becomes bound in reactivity. We spend our time and energy defending our life rather than in living fully.
When the danger subsides, the adrenaline falls and our body has the tiredness of
the adrenaline crash. But we can remain caught in the trance of fear because of experience and memories we have are tightly connected to the affect or body reaction to fear. This results in constriction and contraction of the mind and tightness in the body that can become so familiar we don’t even recall what it is to live without it.
This is when the idea of “the story I am telling myself” about the experience can begin to take over and drive the narrative that we begin to believe….there is much to fear, I am not safe and I have to be vigilant, lash out, be wary of others and well-defended. These strategies only serve to reinforce the fear. We feel flawed and vulnerable so we have to armor up to be safe and the very fact that we feel this way proves to us that it is true! We have just bought some prime real estate in hell without even knowing it. If we begin to see all of life through what can become a subtle but habitual lens of fear, then all that is good, true and beautiful just fades away. What is the road out of hell?
The road to safety is a sense of belonging, being part of something bigger than yourself. We move from a sense of disconnection from each other to a sense of connectedness. We all had varying degrees of fearful experiences as children, times when our parents, in their humanness fell short, shaming us, criticizing us or ignoring us when we needed love and support. That has happened to all of us! We made up stories about why things happened to us and tell them often enough that we believe them. Many kids tell themselves that they are the reason for their parent’s divorce. These stories then feed our sense of shame and not fitting in or belonging, the fears we want to hide or ignore.
I’ll share a quick one about that! I had a lot of body shaming by my mom as a kid and the narrative was that I was a fat kid and would always be “chubby.” Never mind all the tension in my home and my parents using food as a way to cope with it! Like that didn’t matter! OY!! Well, in cleaning out my Dad’s house, we found old home movies and had them transferred to digital CD’s. And lo and behold, I watched young Deb with her peers, the Girl Scout troop, at family events and even swimming, and I could hardly believe my eyes! She wasn’t fat! She wasn’t even chubby! There were other girls more chubby than young Deb! Wow! What script was I incorrectly living all these years?
Tara Brach says, “The thoughts we have are not the truth.” I was gob-smacked by this one! And the thoughts others have are also not the truth, even when proclaimed as such with great urgency and intensity. It is the thoughts spoken aloud by the really difficult people that trigger the memories and fear responses in us. Because we have believed a lot of untrue thoughts, we can be easily “dismembered” by fear. It can literally feel like it is tearing us apart, like we have a pack of fierce wolves living in our mind and heart, just below the surface. How do we tame them? How do we “Re-member” ourselves? Where do we find strength and wholeness in the midst of this dismembering fear?
We find it in taking refuge and finding safety in the sanctuary of one another and in the assurance of an energy of love that is greater than we are that is always seeking us even as we are seeking to feel, express and be that love.
Jesus as our teacher and Way Shower had a lot to say about this path of refuge. He began by calling together a specific group of disciples who would learn, love and lean on each other and he too, would ask to lean on them. He continually sought refuge in what he called “the Father,” his higher self, that from which he came. He called “the Father” Abba which is term of great affection and endearment. In using that term, even in the midst of great suffering, Jesus was showing us that we are never alone in our suffering, the energy and love of God is always with us. It doesn’t matter what we have done or failed to do, the love of God is always with us. And even more specifically, he states that it is with us both in consciousness, in Spirit and in our human lived reality. Here is what he says to the disciples:
18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (NRSV)
What we bring together on earth is bound together in heaven, or consciousness and what we loosen in our human experience will be loosened in consciousness. How wonderful is that? We can loosen the grip of fear from around our hearts and when the two of you agree….you know what that is, right? When your head and your heart agree, then whatever you ask will be done because it is from a place of love. And finally we are assured that when we gather with one another in that energy of the Christ, of Love, then that Love is there among us, within us and as us.
Myrtle Fillmore tells us the same thing in Chapter 16 “The Overcoming of Fear” in How to Let God Help You. She reminds us to be assured that God never puts anything in the way of our progress. If we experience obstacles, they are not God’s doing! She then tells the story of David, the young boy who faces and slays the giant Philistine, Goliath with a sling shot and 5 smooth stones, a very powerful story that is part of our Christian heritage. And finally, Myrtle tells us this on page 94 of How to Let God Help You:
If you would overcome all your enemies and find your freedom, you must be true to your one defense. There is only one Power and one Presence—the Good. All scheming and falsity must fall before the consciousness that there is only one power—God. The power of darkness will vanish before it….I cannot be afraid, for God is omnipresent Good. God is omnipresent protection. “I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.”
We are not denying our fear, we are making space for it so that it loosens its grip on us. In those moments when we encounter someone who triggers a strong visceral reaction of fear in us, we breathe and open to that which is greater than we are, that which is greater than our fear, greater than the perceived power of this person to harm us. My prayer in these situations is “God is solving this, God is solving this!” Or “God is present here, speaking through and as me; God is present here, speaking through and as me.” “God please do for me what I don’t know how to do for myself” is another prayer for those moments of fear.
In planning to speak up to someone who elicits that terror response in me, that member of the faculty in the school of my life, I pause and pray. There is great power in that pause; power to breathe, to grow more spacious in your heart and mind, to unclench your muscles and allow both God and fear to be there, with God leading the way. May you find your way to the freedom and spaciousness of an open heart.
Blessings on the Path,