Saturday, November 21, 2009

How fear can point us in the right direction

My Irish Times That's Men Column published 10th November 2009:

THAT'S MEN: Fear should act as a catalyst for action rather than instil a feeling of paralysis

FEAR IS all around us. Even Harry Crosbie of The Point/O2 fame said on the radio the other day that for the first time in his life he has the feeling that "it's dangerous out there", or words to that effect.

I thought it refreshing to hear a man in his position acknowledging the fear that so many feel.

Then I read an article on fear by one of my favourite Buddhist bloggers, life coach Sunada Takagi, on the Wildmind website. What she wrote is worth repeating because with the Budget, Christmas and the bleak month of January coming towards us, we are not short of sources of fear.

The Buddhist approach to fear and other discomforts is to turn towards what is happening instead of running away from it.

If you were a primitive man strolling through the jungle and you came across a fierce tiger you would run away as fast as your little legs could carry you. That's not running away from fear. That's running away from the tiger. Fear in this case has done its job.

Fear today, of course, is more likely to be related to money problems, threats to a job or a business, health issues or challenges in relationships than to tigers.

Back to that primitive man. Fear can save his life if he happens to meet a tiger. Even if he doesn't meet a tiger, though, fear of meeting one means that he is mentally and physically alert.

As Sunada puts it: "He's in a state of readiness – not to the point of hyper-anxiety – but a clear, focused alertness that can respond intelligently to whatever comes his way."

That's a different take on fear. If a person defines fear as bad and as something to be got rid of, he or she may run around like a headless chicken, snort cocaine (not easy if

you're a headless chicken) or become paralysed. I should add that these examples are my creation – as she is a Buddhist, talk about headless chickens would not go down well with Sunada.

Instead of running from fear, she writes, "if we tone down the intensity of fearful energy and strip away our idea that it's 'bad', we find underneath it an intrinsic motivator for actively and intelligently engaging with our world. It also has the potential to draw out our inner resources that we may not even be aware of. It's a force that can move us forward."

To experience these benefits, "when the fear temperature rises, stay with it. But don't fight it or indulge it. Recognise any doomsday thoughts that come up for what they are – just thoughts.

"In that moment, with your heightened awareness, look for what's really calling for your attention. What's one step we can take to move forward?"

Since I read her article I've been experimenting with this approach. When the fear stirs, instead of lamenting that fact, I ask what the fear is telling me I need to do. It helps me to prioritise and to get on with doing what needs to be done.

I have to confess that when I'm feeling lazy I sometimes opt to have the fear instead of getting up and running away from whatever metaphorical tiger is baring its teeth at me.

Still, this approach to fear brings a clarity to how I see things and there is a relief in just being afraid of what the fear is about rather than also fearing fear itself.

"I've grown to see fear as my ally," writes Sunada. "When I listen to it, it points me in no uncertain terms toward where I need to go."

Afraid of the expense of Christmas? Well, what's your fear telling you? That now is the time to start lowering your kids' pre-recession expectations? That you should forget flying to Lanzarote on the 27th (hey, remember that?)? That you should put a realistic limit right now on what you're going to spend?

Isn't that approach better than going around shouting at people and drinking too much cheap wine to calm your nerves?

You can find Sunada's article at

  • Padraig O'Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, That's Men, The Best of the That's Men Column from The Irish Times , is published by Veritas

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