Every once in a while, I come up against something that just won’t leave me alone and simply has to be dealt with. In the past there have been times when I would have turned away at the first whiff of something I’d rather not give my attention to – and often as not these will be things that I’ve long ago swept under the carpet or pushed to the back of a dark cupboard in my mind.
But they lurk there, like skeletons in the closet, and then from time to time some dark and nasty fear will come rising up from the depths until it reaches the surface.
We are not born afraid (or at least, with only the fear of falling and of loud noises, or so I understand). We learn to fear things, and the fear sticks. As a survival mechanism our human brains evolved in such a way that we pay far greater attention to fear, pain and anything unpleasant than to the things that bring delight and pleasure – so it’s remarkably easy to end up with the balance of our minds weighted towards fear. It came as a great relief to me when I learned that I’m not wholly responsible for my tendency to slip into a state of fright – and why over the years it had become so much of a habit. The fact that my brain, like everyone else’s, is wired this way was comforting to know – but it’s better still to know that the wiring doesn’t have to stay like this, and that repeated patterns of loving thought can literally create new neural pathways and new natural spontaneous patterns of thought and response.
I have never been afraid of the dark, of being alone, of walking on my own in the woods or even in the cemetery and even at night (due diligence observed, I’m not foolhardy). I’m not afraid of snakes, or mice, or many of the things that a lot of people fear. I was very fearful of spiders – and I probably learned this from my mother – but it seems that we have both outgrown our phobias and can co-habit with them when necessary, though neither of us would be able to pick one up in our bare hands. Fear is tremendously contagious, as anyone who has ever worked with horses or dogs will know – and can spread quickly and easily from person to person – but the opposite is true as well. A calm still mind and a heart full of love can produce amazing results.
I am afraid of illness, my own and other people’s, which is ironic considering I have a history of chronic illness; it’s taken me a long, long time to start to come to terms with that one. Thinking about how I came not to be so frightened of spiders, I realised that when faced with a large hairy long-legged specimen in the bath, or by the sight of one galloping along the edge of the living-room carpet I would begin by talking to it, not because I thought it would understand or even be able to hear me, but just to make both of us less afraid. I don’t know about the spider but it worked for me.
Not long ago a read a book called Living Well With Pain And Illness by Vidyamala Burch, which helped me to see that a lot of the things I fear are in fact imaginary, and that this fear is self-perpetuating. A lot of what we suffer comes from what we think or imagine about events, and not from the events themselves. It goes against instinct, but it’s actually less painful and less frightening to turn gently towards the pain, or fear, and explore it for what it really is, rather than to run away from it or to try desperately to distract yourself from it.
There are still things I am afraid of, and I am still afraid of fear, but now when I find myself face to face with a skeleton from the closet I don’t immediately turn tail and run, and I don’t always inwardly collapse. I can see that at the very least, it doesn’t have to be something to panic about. I’ll look at it, size it up, try to get to know it a bit better and see what it’s all about. Like talking to a spider, I can talk reassuringly and lovingly to the part of me that is afraid, and find myself calmer and more able to put things into context, knowing that fear like every other emotion is a fluid, changing thing like the seasons and like the weather, that changes like the rain and the wind and moves on.