“Nine out of ten people I talk with about retirement,” our family accountant remarked not long ago, “are afraid they will run out of money.” Most of his clients, he went on to explain, have sufficient resources to enjoy a secure if not affluent retirement, but that doesn’t keep them from believing otherwise or fearing future hardship.
The entangled relationship of fear and belief was one of the themes of a retreat I recently conducted at the Olean Meditation Center in Olean, New York. Around thirty people attended this retreat, whose aim was to explore how mindfulness might help us recognize, accept, and release our everyday fears. In this three-hour period we did not purport to address traumas or their aftermaths. That is the job of a qualified therapist. Nor were we attempting, in one Saturday morning, to allay such profound apprehensions as the fear of death. Rather, we had convened to examine whether, in the words of the Zen teacher Zenkei Blanche Hartman, we might “turn toward our fears with warmth and compassion”.
During the first hour we focused on the recognition that fear is present. To initiate that recognition, I invited participants to settle into an upright comfortable posture, bringing their attention to the sensations of breathing. A few minutes later, I asked everyone to observe the thoughts crossing their minds, first by counting the number of thoughts that arose in a three-minute period (the average was around fifteen), and, second, by noting the kind of thinking they were doing (remembering, projecting, analyzing, fantasizing, etc.). Last, I asked them to examine the content of their recurrent thoughts. How many pertained to the immediate present? To a past event? To something that might happen in the future? How many were based in fear?
In the ensuing discussion, participants reported on their findings. Many of the thoughts reported had to do with the past or future, and only a few with the present moment. And many were indeed based in fear. The most nuanced account came from a man who had found himself thinking repeatedly about his son, who in that very hour was driving on the New York State Thruway. Although this worried father’s thoughts had centered on the present moment, they were rooted in fear for his son’s safety.
During the second hour we focused on accepting recognized fears. Difficult as it can be to admit we’re afraid, it can be even more challenging to accept our fear, once it has come to light. To facilitate that process, I once again instructed participants to assume a stable upright posture and settle into meditative awareness, but this time I asked them to recall a situation in which they had experienced moderate fear. Reliving that situation, they then explored means by which they might allow their fear into their field of awareness. Some people have found it useful to implement such words and phrases as “yes,” or “I consent,” or “this, too.” Others have found it helpful to focus on the physical sensations attendant to fear. By so doing, we can gain awareness of both our constrictive resistance and the openness of heart that comes with accepting what is present.
This active acceptance leads naturally into the third stage of the process, which is to investigate the ways in which our fears comingle with our beliefs. During the third hour, we undertook that inquiry by once again bringing mindfulness to a remembered experience. In this case, however, I asked participants to recall a fearful experience while asking themselves two questions: “What am I believing?” and “Is this belief real, but not true?”
This simple exercise produced some remarkable results. The most dramatic was reported by a participant who had chosen to contemplate an experience from her childhood. One day in school, she recalled, she had sung a song with her classmates. Afterwards, her teacher had told her it would be better if she not sing with the group anymore, because her voice didn’t really fit in. She had accepted that judgment, and over the years she had generalized it beyond its local, original context. It had become a personal belief, which she had carried with her until that morning.
“How do you feel at this moment?” I asked.
“Free,” she quietly replied.
To be sure, the contemplation of fear is not for everyone. It is easier in the short run to ignore, deny, or suppress our fears, or to distract ourselves with busyness and entertainment. But as Jack Kornfield has observed, “A fearful situation turns to anger when we can’t admit that we’re afraid.” By learning to stop and look into our fears, we can increase the likelihood that our future choices will be based on clear seeing, emotional stability, and alignment with things as they are—three of the fruits of meditative practice–rather than on fear, anger, or fear-infused belief.
In designing this retreat, I drew upon the practice of “R.AI.N.,” as developed by the Vipassana teacher Michele McDonald, and especially on the pioneering work of Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield. I am indebted to these teachers, both for specific methods and for general inspiration.