“The greater part of human pain is unnecessary. It is self-created as long as the unobserved mind runs your life.” ~Eckhart Tolle
For a very long time fear has controlled me. It has paralyzed me, kept me living in desperate situations, and stopped me from living the life of my dreams.
It has only been with age and the practice of mindfulness these last few years that I have come to recognize the fear within me, having finally begun the process of facing it.
By facing fear, I don't mean that I've started base-jumping, purposely trapped myself in elevators, or allowed tarantulas to climb all over my body.
I mean that I've sat in meditation, watched the fears arise, and rather than react to them or allow them to become part of the stories that make up my life, I've observed them in my mind from a distance.
I've felt how they've manifested in my body, and I've moved into that physical discomfort in order to pay attention to fear in a way I've never allowed myself to do before.
When I think about the compulsive and addictive activities that have kept me stuck in a place of fear in the past, they all come from stories that play through my head everyday. For example:
I shop to feel better about myself. I believe that the pair of celebrity-endorsed high heels I’ve just bought will make me glamorous enough to fit in with the goddesses I see around me and therefore help me feel accepted.
Interestingly, I don't feel bad about myself unless I'm comparing myself to others. Therefore, in the comparing, I'm looking at others who have what I don't have and as a result, fear that I'm unstylish, lacking in physical appeal, or not beautiful enough.
When the new pair of high heels I've been wearing to work everyday go unnoticed, start to slowly destroy my feet, and still haven't prompted an invite to the “right” parties, I give up and start to search the fridge.
I discover a tub of ice-cream or pack of cookies that may not make me more beautiful or accepted, but help me to fill my stomach up and create a fullness in the exact place that fear is beginning to dig a deeper and deeper hole inside of me.
When that sick feeling deep down in my stomach starts rising again, but this time from a mix of cookies and cream and a base of fear, I sit in the comfiest chair I can find and reach for the remote control.
Rather than listen to the personal derision that I’ve switched to repeat in my mind, I watch re-runs of my favorite reality show. I can then cheer the reality star on as I would a friend. Or, I can sit and degrade them to make myself feel better by utilizing the meanest thoughts I have going through my head, now targeted towards them.
I would love to say that after this fear based self-pity and hatred party I would choose to hit the shore with my trusty long board to work off that ice-cream, but unless that board comes with a qwerty keyboard, I'm more inclined to stay at home.
Only after watching other people live their busy lives does it actually register that I should reach out and connect with my friends.
And having destroyed my feet in high heels, eaten an entire quart of ice-cream all by myself, and vegged out in front of the TV in my PJs, I hardly feel like getting dolled up to go out for some face to face time. Therefore, the next best source of connection is my new best friend—the Internet.
After returning a few pokes, commenting on a couple of friend's pictures, and then checking my homepage incessantly to see if anyone online has responded to my posts, the night drags on.
I continually stare at a glowing screen as the minutes tick by, unable to disconnect myself from the cyber world and face the fear of being alone with my self-pity and self-hatred.
Reality Check Time
Can you believe that this entire fear-based cycle of self-pity and hatred grew from a simple comparison of what I was wearing to those around me? Unbelievable, right? Not really.
Having observed my mind, I’ve come to understand that a good amount of my daily fear-based suffering starts by making comparisons and then creating stories in my head.
Encouragingly, I am not unique in what I do. However, it is unfortunate to realize that many people who suffer in the same way I do will never learn how to curb their own suffering. They will never give themselves the time to sit, reflect, and watch what comes up in their minds without becoming involved in the stories.
If you would like to take more control over your mind and your suffering, the best practices I know are meditation and mindfulness.
1. First, accept that in order to become more mindful, we must recognize that we are solely responsible for the thoughts our minds produce.
While we can’t stop our minds completely, we can take control over them and create moments of peace for ourselves.
2. Second, when thoughts or fear arise, try to do the following as soon as you are aware of what's taking place in your mind and body:
- Take a long, deep breath in and out. In your mind say “in” as you breathe in and “out” as you breathe out in order to ground yourself in the present moment.
- Then, feel the ground beneath your feet. Notice the way your clothes feel against your skin, the wind against your face, the sun on your cheeks. Listen to the birds singing, the rain falling around you, or the ticking of a nearby clock.
All this will ground you in the present moment. Even if thoughts want to drag you away with them, coming back to recognize the breath will give you the control you need to prevent this from happening.
Follow these steps until you feel that the thought or storyline in your mind has moved on, or until you feel that the pull of your thought or fear has dissipated slightly.
At this point, you can return to whatever you were doing, and hopefully you will have prevented yourself from suffering in that moment.
Unfortunately, these steps are by no means a quick fix in saving you from the suffering we all encounter every day. In fact, at first it will take all your energy and resolve not to react to what your mind and ego are doing.
It’s also quite possible that even once you’ve covered these steps, you will still get lost in your thoughts and fears by comparing yourself to others.
Whether you do this or not isn’t the point. The point is that you’ve finally managed to sit back and look at your thoughts and fear. Once you have done this, you’ve begun the process of taking back control of your mind and your life.
No doubt, occasionally you'll also stop and find yourself right in the middle of buying something you don’t really need or switching on the TV without thinking about what you're doing.
But, as long as you notice you’re mid-way through handing your credit card to the lovely sales person at the cash register, then you’re on your way to conquering your mind.
The more you practice, the better you will get. The key to all this is not giving up.
I’m not saying you’ll be able to climb to the top of the Burj Al Khalifa on your next trip to Dubai or take a shower with eight beady spider eyes hanging out on the shower head above you.
But you will be able to stop the stories in your head instead of feeling a pull to distract yourself from all the pain they cause you.
So why not give it a shot. Can it really hurt? Well it might, but it’ll hurt for all the right reasons.
Stressed woman image via Shutterstock