Of the many unpleasant emotions we can experience, fear may just top the list.
But fear is more than just physically unpleasant. Fear can also keep us from pursuing the things in life that really matter -- like following our dreams, and developing and taking care of important relationships.
I have good news though. We can be free from the grip that fear often has on us.
Fearlessness is trainable!
1. How experience reduces fear.
I used to be very afraid of getting up in front of people and speaking. I would get sweaty palms and my stomach would be so tied up that I wouldn't be able to eat. I would experience so much tension in my neck and shoulders that I would almost always have a headache by the time I had to speak or shortly thereafter.
Each time I spoke though, I noticed afterword that it wasn't that bad. This is a trend I've noticed throughout my life. Things I fear are never as bad in reality as I make them out to be in my mind.
So one element of training for fearlessness is to simply push ourselves to do things that we fear so that we have more opportunities to develop the wisdom that the things we fear are always worse in our minds than they are when we actually experience them.
As I continued to get up in front of audiences and speak, my fear continued to diminish. Now I speak all the time in front of groups ranging from 10 people to 1,000 people, and there is no longer any fear associated with doing it.
2. Practicing investigation of our inner worlds.
Of course, the real question is how do we move through the fear that keeps us from acting? If we never take action, we never develop the wisdom described above.
Developing freedom from fear of our outer world, begins with facing what we fear in our inner world.
Each day, we should be taking some time to sit still in mindfulness. At least 5-10 minutes each morning and evening. The attitude we should maintain, especially during our practice of sitting still, is one of curiosity about what we are actually experiencing in this moment.
The attitude can be summed up with the question: What's happening now?
The more we practice this curious investigation of what is actually occurring in our inner world, the easier it is turn toward the things in our inner world that scare us, like the thoughts we wish wouldn't come up, the unpleasant emotions like anxiety and anger, and the unskillful states of mind like jealousy and greed.
Learning to turn toward these unpleasant elements of our inner world serves a few purposes. First, we start to see that we can face anything in our inner world. By developing freedom from fear of things in our inner world, we find that we have more courage to face things that scare us in the outer world.
Second, by consistently practicing turning towards the things that scare us, we're more likely to do so when we face a really challenging situation. This is absolutely essential for being able to transcend fear.
Freedom from Fear When It's Gripping Us Tightly
3. Creating space.
The first and most important step to being free from the grip of fear in a frightening situation is to create some space between ourselves and the emotion of fear.
This isn't accomplished by ignoring the fear, or trying to talk ourselves out of it.
Space is created automatically when we honestly acknowledge that fear is present by mentally naming the emotion, "There is fear." In fact, research at UCLA shows that by simply naming an emotion we actually begin to reverse the "fight or flight" response in the body.
4. Control the breath and investigate the fear.
Once we acknowledge the presence of fear, the second step is to control the breathing so that it becomes slower and gentler.
With each exhalation, we try to make the exhalation just a little bit longer, and we investigate with curiousity how fear manifests in the body. As we pay attention to the physical symptoms of fear, we find that the space between ourselves and the emotion increases. We see the emotion more objectively.
By paying attention to our breathing and the symptoms of fear, there is also some space created between ourselves and our thoughts, and our thinking slows down. When we're no longer caught in our thoughts about a frightening situation, we remove the fuel of the fear.
5. Visualize a positive outcome
With practice, we can create just enough space between our fearful thoughts and the emotion of fear so that we're able to replace a fearful thought with a positive one. We can visualize a positive outcome for whatever we're about to do.
For instance, before I get up to speak in front of a group of people, I visualize the people in the audience being positively impacted by what I say and the spirit of kindness and service in which I try to remain while speaking.
When we can see a positive outcome in our mind, we can easily say, "I'm doing this!" Fear no longer holds us back.
Matt Tenney is a social entrepreneur, an international keynote speaker, and the author of Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom.