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Don’t Try to Get Over Your Fear; Go Through It Instead

Woman with lantern

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” ~Frank Herbert, The Bene Gesserit “Litany Against Fear,” from the novel Dune

When I was very small, my grandmother would watch me while my parents were at work. Nana often wanted a break, and her house held very little to stimulate a pre-schooler, so she’d put a VHS tape in and sit me down in front of the TV.

The movie she put in most? La Bamba.

Maybe you’ve seen it, maybe not. I’ll give you a bit of history. It’s the life of Ritchie Valens, leading up to that fateful night he, Buddy Holly, and the Big Bopper all died in a fiery plane crash in Iowa.

So that was my introduction to air travel.

I probably watched that movie twice a day for months at a time. I can still vividly picture the opening scene’s fiery mid-air collision.

I haven’t seen La Bamba since I was seven or eight, but the deep, primal fear of flying it instilled in me lived on until I was almost thirty.

Now slide forward to my teenage years, and the first time I gave up a free trip to New York City, and then a class trip to Australia, because I was afraid. Then to my early twenties, when I passed up vacations and travel outside the country. I limited the colleges I wanted to apply to based on whether or not they were in driving distance.

And then, somehow, when I ended up moving all the way from Georgia to upstate New York for school, I drove that distance in a U-Haul, and didn’t see my family for years because it was too far to drive again. When I finally did see them, three years later, I drove the fifteen-plus hours (one way), most of it in snow.

Not everyone needs to fly to have a happy life, but I think I did. I wanted to travel all over the world, but most of all, I hated that something so mundane was holding me back from anything. I needed to get over it, but I didn’t know how.

I tried self-hypnosis and guided hypnosis. I tried just “sucking it up.” I tried learning the mechanics of flight so I’d understand, rationally, that it was safe. I considered drugging myself with tranquilizers and having my family haul me onto an airplane while I couldn’t think about it. But the fear lingered on for fifteen years after I decided I wanted to end it.

The One Thing That Finally Helped Me Move Past My Fear

I first bought the book Dune, by Frank Herbert, when I was in high school. I first read it about eight years later, when I could find interest in more than the cover art. Since then, it’s become my favorite book. My husband and I are reading it together now, me for the second time and him for the first.

It’s a huge book. Epic, engrossing, transcendental—just like my fear of flying. If you haven’t read it, do. I can’t recommend any other book as highly, and not just for the literary value or entertainment, but also for the lessons it teaches—not overtly, not preachy.

Dune teaches environmentalism, politics, race and gender issues, religion, and philosophy without saying it. When you read it, you internalize all of those issues without even realizing it.

And that’s where I found the beginning of the ending to my fear.

There is a mantra repeated several times, taught to the Bene Gesserit, a sect of women who are highly trained in physical and mental arts that skim the border between possible and impossible in our world. That mantra is the Litany Against Fear, quoted at the top of this essay. The Bene Gesserit, and the son of one, our hero in Dune, use the mantra to remind themselves not to bother with fear.

It goes beyond looking in a mirror and telling yourself “you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you,” as Stuart Smalley said on SNL.

In Dune, the Litany Against Fear can change the entire mental space of the character reciting it. Its value is that it allows a person to defeat the chaos fear brings to our minds. If they defeat that chaos, Dune’s heroes can get through suicidal situations, or mentally slow their life processes down so they don’t need air for half an hour. While that kind of physiological control is probably outside of our human abilities, the value is still apparent:

We can alter our response to fear.

How Fear Causes Chaos

Fear is a natural response, but it brings chaos with it. Our heads fill up with black, chaotic thoughts, and depending on how strong the fear is, we’re left stuck, unable to act. This is what happened to me with my fear of flying. I was stuck, constantly, in a state of indecision: I wanted to go places. I wanted to accept invitations. I couldn’t.

Maybe if I wait a day or two, I could, I would think. But I never did.

What Dune teaches us with the Litany is that humanity can overcome fear where animals can’t. Our primal urge when confronted with fear is to run, hide, escape. But as humans, we don’t have to do that. We don’t have to react just because fear acts.

The second half of the Litany reads:

I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

There is the answer to the chaos fear causes.

There is no inherent problem with fear. The problem comes when the fear remains because then that chaos lives on, affecting our minds and bodies with its insidious, chronic destruction.

When I first read the passage containing the full Litany, I got chills. I realized I was facing this fear of flying over and over, day after day, without resolution, when I could just face it once, let it pass over me and through me, and once I’d landed, I could look back and there would be nothing.

“Just face your fear,” is way easier said than done. We all know that. But what if you looked at it differently? What if you didn’t tell yourself it would be okay, that it’s not actually as scary as it seems, that everything would be fine?

I’ve heard that fear kills you over and over, when instead you could die just once at the end of a good life.

What if you told yourself: I know I’m afraid. This is really scary. But, I’m doing this anyway because every time I fear this thing, it kills me over and over—just as much as if the plane really did go down. I may have to face the fear again in the future, but each time I do, I’ll be better at it and stronger than it.

Because you can’t go through life letting fear stop you, or you’ll never start anything. And you’ve got a life for a reason. You’re meant to start something amazing with it. But you’ve got to accept your fear first.

Don’t try to get over fear. Go through it instead.

Let yourself be afraid the first time you do something that scares you. Let yourself feel the fear for a moment, and then acknowledge it and let it flow past you.

Destroying the Chaos and Moving Past Fear

When I fully internalized that realization, I knew I would never let fear dominate me again. I was afraid of flying, but so what?

I got a single line from the Litany tattooed on myself, where few people would see it, and written backwards so that whenever I stood in front of a mirror, I’d see it, read it, and remember it.

The day I first stepped onto an airplane, I stood in front of the mirror for a long time, staring at that tattoo. I told myself I was afraid. I told myself we might crash. And then I got on the plane.

Now I look back and there’s nothing there.

About Holly Ostrout

Holly Ostrout is a writer, minimalist, certified Project Manager, and the founder of www.CreateAlchemy.com, where her goal is to teach 10,000 overwhelmed, ambitious women how to destroy chaos in their lives with personal rituals so that they can focus on their passions. If you’re ready to kill the chaos, grab a free 7-day email course to help you get started here.

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  • Arpit Zala

    Thanks Holly Ostrout. It is well described and hitting the exact points of causing fears. I appreciate your way of overcoming your fears. I have heard many times that Don’t be afraid of being afraid be afraid of not facing your fears and failures that is what your story is telling here. It was well written and engaging post and looking forward more from you. I would appreciate if you write about (Your thoughts on) obsessive thinking and over analyzing thoughts and situations.

  • Hi Arpit, I’m so glad the article resonated with you! It was kind of scary putting it all out there in the wide world, but that’s what overcoming fear’s all about. 🙂

    Thanks for the suggestion! I’ll see what I can do about that. 🙂

  • This made my day. 🙂 Huge fan of Dune since the 80s. The last 4 years, my commute to work has been 60 to 90 minutes and the commute home can sometimes be 2 hours. I drive. I listen to Audible audio books. When I started the immense commuting I started back with the first prequel written by Frank’s son Brian and Kevin Anderson. While not Frank, it does the series justice. The first three are the setting, to see where the Sisterhood comes from and Guild and the Mentats. Then the School books start with the Sisterhood of Dune. Three books, then the House books which are when Paul is little, then the main 6. Two in between books and the final 7th and 8th book to end the series. I love how the series ended. If you’ve read the original 6 Frank Herbert books, you’ll love 7 & 8 and how his son tied it all together off of dad’s notebook that was left to him. As you discuss above. Brilliant. And the Sisterhood just gets more interesting as time goes by. Thanks for writing about the Litany. I recite that almost every day when I get up and when I face trials in my life. It has become a mantra for me. It helps me to take on the day and life. I actually use it as a cover on my FB page. Made out of a picture of a dune with the text across the dune. 🙂

  • badhombrebigdo

    LOL, when I was little after watcing La Bamba my biggest fear was that white people would hate me for no reason than being Latino (and being with a white girl) just like Ritchie, and that I’d end up crazy and destitute like Ritchie’s brother… I’d say pretty much both have happened, but surprise, still here. Sometimes you choose to go through your fears and sometimes they just happen to you.

    Funny how different people take away different things from movies though.

  • This was a great list of ways to get rid of fear.

  • Our experiences definitely color our perceptions. While I haven’t experienced that same fear, it’s not hard for me to imagine, especially now. And definitely some fears are easier to overcome than others, especially for fears that originate outside of your own mind, with other people. You can’t control other people, but you can tell them to f*** off and I really hope within the next four years, we in the US make a big enough stink to do that to all the bigots. Keep kickin’ a**, bad hombre. 🙂

  • Hey Dave! I am so thrilled to meet another litany reciter! Isn’t Dune the best book? I’ve been seriously eyeing the rest of the series, though I admit, I glanced through the plot outlines to see if it interested me. It totally does! I think I’ll set 2017 as the year to finish the series.

  • tqH2pz

    I’ve repeated the Bene Gesserit quote to myself many times over the years. It made my day the see it here.

    I’ve let fear stop me so many times. That way lies death.

  • monta

    Great article, Holly!
    And I admire how you worked through your fear! Applause to you! Now you’re a stronger person and it’s only the beginning. Having this strategy of just going through things instead of wishing them to go away is a key element of growth. “Don’t try to get over fear. Go through it instead.” Like you said, and I totally agree, the only way is through. It’s not only with regards to fear. It also regards anxiety, sadness, pain, frustration, grief – negative emotions on one side and positive – excitement, joy, gratitude, kindness, etc, on the other. I know that for me it’s very scary to allow sadness wash over me, because it seems like it’s never going to end when you’re IN the emotion. But it passes and then you’re on the other side feeling lighter, stronger and paradoxically, in more control. Now it’s time to go into my fear.
    Thanks for the article. I’m amazed how timely the articles on the Tiny Buddha can be. 🙂

  • lv2terp

    Beautiful!!! 🙂

  • Thanks!

  • I’m so thrilled to hear it works for you, too! Fear is indeed the way to death. And when you fear, you face death twice. 🙂

  • Hi Monta,

    Thank you so much for commenting! I can understand what you mean about feeling like sadness will never end if you let it in; I get the same way with anxiety sometimes. But the only way forward is through it. 🙂 Good luck with your fear!

  • Tania Potter

    This is wonderful, Holly! I am such a Dune fan, there is something about the Bene Gesserit that stays with you for years. Good for you for finding a way through your fear.

  • Thank you so much, Tania! You’re so right. Dune was such an engrossing book with so many lessons that have stayed with me. Happy holiday!

  • Black Bart

    I deal with fear every day due to a mental condition. The inside of my head for my 40 years on earth has been a war zone pretty much every single day. Add to that extensive bullying in high school and growing up around some majorly predatory upper middlr class a$$holes, let’s just say from age 14 to 28 was living hell with a brief furlough of peace in grad school. Then, I met the woman who’d become my wife. She was the first one who accepted the overwhelming abundance of constant creative energy I possessed and still do. We’ve been together 10 years and her limitless love and patience have allowed me to find peace enough to clean up my credit score, become a home owner with her, open and lead a business with 15 people, and lose 50 pounds. My wife is God’s grace made manifest in my life. Every single morning, I stand in my shower that has a 2nd floor window looking out over a sleepy neighborhood. The steam fogs up the window. I draw a cross in the steam with my finger and next to the cross, I write all the things I am grateful for. The shower is my church. My quiet time with God. I usually just end up chanting “thank you” under my breath over and over again as memories from years of chaos, abuse, and a tormented mind still haunt me. I am no longer afraid however because fear has been conquered by love… the love of a daughter, who will be born this May after 2 years and thousands of dollars of failed fertility attempts. God has given me redemption from the monster that lives in my head and while things are managed with medicine and doctor visits, I know the monster will always be there, so I’m learning to make him my friend, to welcome him in, offer him a beer, and get to know him. The more I do, the more I see he is me… so young, sensitive, brilliant…. a bright creative light among very conservative, materialistic people. He has been beaten up, battered, and shamed. The kids around him were confused and scared by him because they saw his light – his super-abundance of creativity and found it interesting and humorous but also were afraid when he spoke his 15 year old mind and 50 year old truths popped out. Now I joke that I’m 40 but really 75. My mind is a mansion with many rooms – some with vaulted, arched ceilings of sandalwood and stained glass windows with gorgoeous mahogany furniture and a roaring fireplace. Others are deep, dark basements with slimy stone staircases leading even deeper to secret rooms from which slow, throaty, angry growls emanate. I’ve avoided the growl room my whole life. Necessity has forced me to look. Down there, all I see is me – naked, alone, crying on the floor as a child who has discovered his addict father passed out on the ground with empty vodka bottles all around and pills strewn about him. The child sees a lightning flash and it was at that moment he was separated from God and family and flung into the far reaches of space with no space suit. He had to hold his breath for 15 years – so afraid to even look at his wound for fear that the wound might swallow him up. But now, at 40, I have the strength to look at the wound and all I see is a little boy who had an idyllic childhood in a quiet suburb where he knew every street, had every phone # of all his friends memorized, got great grades in school, and was having fun with his friends all the time. In an ideal world, innocence dies gradually. Robert Frost says “nothing gold can stay” and it’s true. It would be the death of men if we remained boys our whole lives. Indeed, for the men who do, their outward lives may appear great, but inwardly they are in chaos and hell. In my case, my inncence was ripped away….. but it was I who did the ripping for you see my friends…. we are all there is. Our consciousness creates our world. My father drunk on the floor over a failed business venture is a story that has played out time and time again throughout the course of human history. I am son # 3476556788876 to find a drunk father on the floor, so I am not in any kind of special club. What MIGHT differentiate me a tiny bit is that I found the willingness to look deeply into the wound and seek to heal it by welcoming it into my heart – by saying “I am Black Bart and this happened to me, but it is NOT me!” Our pain wins when we identify with it. When we learn to fully feel it and then disassociate with it, just as the women from Dune do, only I remain. And who we are is light, love, and beauty beyond measure. Every last one of us. My daughter – not yet born – has come to Earth to teach me this lesson… to heal so I can bring her all the love, abundance, and joy she needs to grow up into a brilliant, successful, beautiful woman who leaves a positive impact in her wake. God is good, my friends. Hallelujah. I am saved. My love to you all in your individual journies.

  • You’ll love them. 🙂 The Sisterhood of Dune is a great book, but you’ll love the Sorceresses of Rossak, where they come from in the prequel. Oh and who Jessica’s mama is. 🙂 and the Karma of House Harkkonen. There’s a lot of middle eastern religion, but a ton of Buddhist teachings in these books. I keep meaning to send Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson an email to ask them if one of them follows Buddhism. I know Frank was an atheist. Pretty interesting to know that he wrote that deep of a series about religion without following one. 🙂 Here’s to a great 2017! enjoy the books!!

  • Oh that sounds fantastic! I want to read all of these! I’ll add them to my reading list for the year, thank you! If you ever get around to emailing them about that, I’d love to know what they say. Dune is so unique in how it presents religion. I love it. Happy 2017!

  • Hey Holly! I sent Brian an email, but have not heard back from him, but I tweeted Kevin J. Anderson (who co-wrote all the prequel) He said “Frank considered himself a Buddhist and a lot of that philosophy was incorporated into our books as well because of that.” so, isn’t that cool. 🙂

  • E Moore

    Beautiful brother. Much love to you and your daughter

  • Justin Pickering

    She was born 4 days ago and slumbers 20 feet above my head next to my wife. My gratitude overflows today. Thank you for reading what I wrote. Blessings to you and peace.