How to transmute fear

I awoke in terror. Today was the day of my operation.

I shuffled to the kitchen, and in the dim light of the early dawn, I could see an affirmation written in pink glitter pen and stuck to the cold steel of the refrigerator: ‘All is well.’

All was not well – I was gripped by terror. Leading up to this day I had tried to swaddle my mind with fluffy sweet marshmallow thoughts like ‘all is well’, ‘every cell in my body is bathed in light’ and ’everything is working out for my highest good.’

But here I was, at the big day, and I was terrified. And I was disappointed in myself. My attempts to attain inner peace had failed.

As I numbly made my preparations to leave for the hospital, it suddenly occurred to me that being terrified was a very, very good sign.

Being terrified meant that I cared what happened to me.

Being terrified meant that I wanted to live.

For so many years I had been mired in depression and didn’t care if I lived or died. I hadn’t been capable of being afraid for my life, or feeling indignant that my body might be mutilated. For decades I had been numb, unfeeling and apathetic.

Living this way for years had possibly contributed to me developing cancer in the first place. The fact that I was now uneasy, with a tight knot in my stomach and breathing shakily as I buttoned my blouse – surely that was a good sign that I could feel again and that I valued my life. What person who values their life would be calm and nonchalant in the face of cancer and surgery?

Suddenly I was overwhelmed with gratitude that I finally valued myself enough to feel afraid.  I welcomed that fear with open arms as if I were meeting a long-lost relative who looked strange and scary at first, but now I knew who they were and why they were there for me.

And then, as I embraced the fear, something strange happened. I no longer felt afraid.

Transmutation, not destruction

I used to think that the expression ‘thoughts create your reality’ meant that our thoughts alone can zap away all our unpleasant surrounding circumstances. If I say that I’m not scared, then I won’t be scared. Or if I think I’m healthy, my illness will somehow automatically evaporate.

But this is not how it works. I can tell you from bitter experience this is not how it works!

Telling yourself you are not afraid (or disappointed or hurt) when you really are, is simply denial and stuffing down your feelings.

Once an emotion such as fear has begun making itself known to your nervous system, you can’t wish it away or dissolve it with logic. But it can be transmuted.

How to do this is completely counterintuitive. But I unwittingly stumbled on some ancient wisdom that morning when I embraced my fear with gratitude and love. 

In that moment, I wasn’t just going through the motions of saying I loved the fear because I thought I should. I genuinely saw my fear for what it was – a sign that I loved myself. So then I really did accept and love the fear. I made the fear welcome in my heart.

Later I remembered a Buddhist teaching that we each are a guesthouse, and feelings are guests. We can welcome our emotions graciously just as we would guests in a guesthouse, knowing they will stay a little while and then move on.

While I was familiar with the guesthouse analogy (there is a very famous poem by Rumi about it), I had never really understood nor practiced it. It wasn’t obvious to me how I could feel love and acceptance for difficult emotions that turned up on the doorstep of my heart. So I had never discovered the transmuting power of doing so.

Accepting feelings, not situations

The day in hospital was long and arduous. I was poked, stabbed, squashed and scanned in a big metal tube before the actual surgery and it was all quite unsettling and unpleasant. But I was no longer gripped with fear. I was not bracing against my reality. I made it through the day calmly, without panic, without terror. It was awful, but I was okay.

That evening, as I waited to go home, I even found myself flipping through a Mills and Boon looking for the racy bits and realised I must be in pretty good spirits!

Lately I have noticed fear frequently returning to my guest house. My reaction to recent world events has been a looming feeling of fearful resistance and non-acceptance. A feeling of ‘I don’t want this’ and not knowing what to do with that feeling.

I have a vague awareness that I need to accept reality, but I don’t want to. And now I can see that this is where the misunderstanding happens.

It’s not the situation that we are asked to accept and love. It’s not the circumstances we are asked to welcome and entertain in the guesthouse of our heart.

We are not asked to love and embrace injustice, cruelty, forcefulness, economic hardship, or anything else that impacts us or the world. Changing our thoughts about these things doesn’t change them. But it changes us.

We don’t accept these rotten situations, we accept our feelings about them. And then the paralysing effects of the difficult feelings dissipate.

Peace in place of fear

As I write this, I am living in one of a series lockdowns and feeling constricted and insecure. I can feel the pain and desperation of thousands of people around me losing their businesses and jobs. Thousands who, having just sighed with relief at scraping through the last lockdown, have now been delivered the final blow with this current one. I feel the pain keenly because this time my own job is in jeopardy too.

And somehow amidst it, I have remembered that if I don’t like what is happening around me, that means that I can feel and am alive. It means that I have love and compassion within me. Love that can be poured out on the pain I see around me. Love that can be used to heal and soothe myself and others. Love to fuel the vision of a world that works for all of us.

So I’m afraid? I’m indignant? That’s great! Come inside, fear and have a nice hot cuppa. Come inside anger, you beautiful majestic beast. Fear, you have every right to be here. Anger, you have every right to be here. Come on in, there’s a light on for you, your bed is freshly made and turned down.

I’m not required to do mental gymnastics trying to justify how the current circumstances are wonderful. I don’t have to accept them. I am just accepting and loving my difficult feelings about everything.

And just like in a guesthouse, you make the guests comfortable for the night, but the next day the guest departs. In the absence of fear and anger is love and peace. Now you can think and see clearly.

Does that mean that you now have no motivation to help others or to contribute constructively to creating a preferable outcome? Not at all. It means that you are now no longer distracted by house guests like fear and anger. The house is quiet and clear now and you can get to work.

A transmutation practice to try:

Scan yourself at least once a day. Ask yourself how you’re feeling. You may not be able to think of a word for the exact emotion you are experiencing. Without giving any thought as to what external situation is feeding that feeling, just bring it into your awareness.  Observe the feeling, especially how you perceive it in your body, the sensations you experience around it.

Do you feel fluttering in the chest, tightness in the throat, jittery, shallow breathing, clenched jaw, closed posture, clenched buttocks, etc.? Focus more on your physical experience of the feeling in that moment than words to describe or justify it.

Most of the time we experience uncomfortable feelings, it is as a result of maladaptive attempts to find safety. Your body and subconscious mind are trying to give you what you need to survive. A shot of nervous adrenaline or some heart palpitations aren’t usually very useful in the situations we find ourselves in, but they arise with the intention to help you. So welcome them. Welcome your fear, anxiety, panic and dread into the guesthouse of your heart.

Remember it is a guesthouse, not a permanent residence. Even if the guests seem rowdy or obnoxious, you can welcome them and provide hospitality, knowing they won’t be there for long.

Take a deep breath, smile, open your arms, and welcome fear, welcome indignation, welcome anger as sacred messengers. There are many instances in the Bible and mythology in which angels (messengers) disguise themselves as travellers, sometimes rather objectionable ones. Those who offer them hospitality are blessed, and so are we when we welcome difficult emotions with a willingness to hear their messages.

Worse before it gets better

The feeling will probably intensify uncomfortably as you allow it fully into your awareness. You may not enjoy its presence, but treat it just as you would treat an obnoxious guest in a guest house – keep smiling, be attentive, be accepting, give good customer service knowing they will be gone soon. Try to see past the difficult feeling to what the it represents. What are its intentions as a sacred messenger? Be grateful it has come to bring you its message and blessing.

Shortly afterwards, you will probably find the feeling gone, replaced with a lightness and clarity.

In these times, (or any times!) it is valuable to be able to manage our difficult emotions so that we are not adding energy to unwanted situations. This is how we become beacons of calm in troubled times. This is how we have the energy to show up for others, because we are not tied in knots of anxiety ourselves. This is how we create our own reality and contribute positively to the collective reality.

Have you ever tried anything similar to this ‘welcoming the guests’ process? What was your experience of it? If you haven’t, I encourage you to give it a go. I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments.

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