In our prison meditation circle, there’s a new member. He’s young and earnest. He keeps showing up, week after week, even though he’s scared. Recently, I had a one-on-one visit with him. Wide-eyed, he spoke about the fear he experiences each time he walks into mindfulness class. I inquired about this fear. He said he’s worried about making mistakes and not getting it right. And he’s afraid of sitting with his thoughts and emotions, especially in the presence of others.
Then he made an observation about me: “You are fearless. I don’t know how you do it. You’re fearless. You just sit there with such calm.” Inwardly, I smiled. Me, fearless(!), what an interesting concept.
I shared with him what brought me to meditation 13 years ago: intense fear and anxiety. It was overwhelming, and I had to make a change. So, I chose to stay—little bit by little bit—with the fear. Gradually, I sat entire meditation retreats embodied and curious about the sensations of fear and what’s underneath. Fear and I formed a new relationship. It still visits me daily, but it no longer overwhelms. And it no longer drives my decisions.
No, I’m not fearless. I’m intimate with fear: I know it well. I recognize its loud voice and its ploys. I understand how it manifests in my body. And if I stay present, I see how it shifts and fades.
When things get uncomfortable, we’re habituated to change the channel, adjust the temperature, fidget and squirm, numb out, or get lost in thoughts and judgments. These are Band-Aids, which don't work in the long run. Still, we keep trying old habits until we get stuck—overwhelmed and exhausted; until we realize there must be another way. And there is another way.
Next time fear arises or life gets uncomfortable, try to stay for 3 breaths. Stay put with kindness. Stay put with courage. Stay for 3 breaths. See what happens in that pause.
Here's a short practice: