They may have even been vital to our survival. The problem arises when attachments to these ways of being persist beyond their utility. Observing my daughter interact with the world as an infant gave me insight into how these patterns form. No one had to teach her greed, restlessness, or discontent; those are inborn. The moment she figured she could control her limbs she was driven to grasp, move, and learn. Fear, on the other hand—fear was glaringly absent when my daughter was a newborn.
Yes, my daughter was easily startled, like all infants. She would cry if she got surprised, hurt, lonely, or overwhelmed. But, she did not exhibit the heavy sense of dread associated with fear. She reacted to unpleasant experiences, but she didn’t anxiously anticipate them. She did not navigate life cautiously avoiding what she was afraid of; she was steered toward what she wanted with reckless abandon. She was not born fearful. Fear was something she learned over her first year of life.
Shortly before my daughter’s first birthday, I flicked a spring doorstop she was sitting next to, and she was so startled she scurried behind my legs and hid. I’d never seen her do anything like that before. After she’d calmed down, I reached toward the spring again, and before I even touched it, she clung to my legs and buried her face in my calves in apprehension. It broke my heart a little that her capacity for fear had been realized. Based on one surprising experience she formed an aversion that caused her more suffering than an unexpected sound ever could. As adults, our lives are often shaped by these exaggerated fears, and they are deeply limiting. Often, fears of love, trust, commitment, aspiration, and speaking up stem from just a couple saliently painful experiences.
In “Opening the Door of Your Heart,” Ajahn Brahm writes,
“Fear is the major ingredient of pain. It is what makes pain hurt. Take away the fear and only feeling is left.”
A monk Brahm knew needed a tooth pulled, and chose to do it himself with this explanation:
'When I decided to pull out my own tooth — it was such a hassle going all the way to the dentist — it didn't hurt. When I walked to the workshop, that didn't hurt. When I picked up the pair of pliers, it didn't hurt. When I held the tooth in the grip of the pliers, it still didn't hurt. When I wiggled the pliers and pulled, it hurt then, but only for a couple of seconds. Once the tooth was out, it didn't hurt much at all. It was only five seconds of pain, that's all.'
You, my reader, probably grimaced when you read this true story. Because of fear, you probably felt more pain than he did! If you tried the same feat, it would probably hurt terribly, even before you reached the workshop to get the pliers. Anticipation — fear — is the major ingredient of pain.
How did my daughter overcome her fearful anticipation of the doorstop sound? It was not me who had the fortitude to guide her. After I recognized her fear, I sheltered her and avoided the doorstop so as not to scare her—I essentially took on her fear as my own. My husband, on the other hand, took time to sit with her over the next couple days, show her the sound the doorstop made, and lovingly reassured her that there was nothing to fear. After enough of these positive experiences her fear disappeared. As adults, we can unlearn our limiting fears too. Similarly, we may need caring support to do so. If facing your fears too heavy to do on your own, please seek help from a qualified counsellor or therapist.
Commit time to sit in meditation and examine some of the the big choices you have made in your life. Were you running toward something or away from something? Or both? If fear played into making a decision, what exactly was the fear? Name it. How did you learn this fear? How has it affected your life? Visualize how your life would change if you overcome this fear. Find a calm steady breath focusing on completing your exhales, and visualize yourself calmly and effectively moving through a situation that would normally be muddied with fear. The only way to unlearn a fear is to meet it repeatedly—to be exposed to a trigger so many times it becomes boring. What makes you feel bold, courageous, and unstoppable? Do that, then step into your fear. It can be little doses at first: meditate on a photo of a spider, jump off the lowest diving board, or speak in front of a crowd of two friends. Notice how apprehension and avoidance often cause more suffering the moment you face the object of your fear head on. Make it your mission to do something brave every day, and notice how your deepest fears begin to soften. Set an intention that one day you will reclaim your natural state of fearlessness.
When she was born there was a wisdom, purposefulness, and fearlessness about her. As I’ve watched her develop from that newborn sage into a cute, pudgy three-month-old baby, it’s seemed as if she had to slowly forget her innate understanding of her place in the universe in order to learn how to smile, babble, and bat at her hanging toys. It’s like she’s doing the eight limbs of yoga backwards: letting go of samadhi (transcendence) so she can learn how to do asana (poses). Before she was born, I bought her a copy of, The Little Soul and The Sun , and this heartwarming children’s parable has come to my mind many times over the last twelve weeks. My hope for my daughter is that one day she will remember who she is; she is an ember with the potential to one day ignite a firestorm.
I hope the same for you.
Written by Barbie Levasseur ,
Bay Area writer, yoga teacher, and mom.