Two weeks ago, I was in a large hotel ballroom with 450 coaches and spiritual seekers in Austin, Texas. We were all there to soak in the wisdom of the person on stage — Martha Beck.
While it’s impossible to accurately describe the compassion, humor and deep spirituality that are the signature of Martha’s presence, I want to share with you some of my takeaways from the weekend.
Here they are:
The pure love of divine guidance is always trying to reach you, even when you can’t feel it because you are afraid.
The thought that creates the most suffering for me when I’m going through a tough time is “God has abandoned me.”
But in my darkest moments, it’s not that the divine is no longer there, my ability to perceive the divine decreases during times of stress.
This happens because when your brain gets locked in a state of fear, depression or anxiety, your fearful or negative thoughts act like ear muffs that drown out the whispers of loving guidance.
Letting go of fear is critical to reconnecting with this guidance (see next step).
Whatever the trigger, the first two steps to letting go of fear are the same: breathe and offer yourself compassion.
Feelings of fear are triggered by any situation that your brain perceives as dangerous to your survival.
Some fears, like a fear of public speaking, don’t seem at first glance to threaten your survival. But if you fail at public speaking, your brain will view this as a rejection by your tribe, and rejection by your tribe in the early days of our species was equivalent with death.
Regardless of the specific threat, fear activates a survival response that must be calmed before you can take any rational steps to solving your situation.
Step 1: Focus on your breathing.
The first step to calming your fear is to focus on your breathing. When you are afraid, your breathing will get faster and more shallow. This breathing pattern makes you feel more anxious and afraid, which perpetuates your fear response.
But you can calm yourself and reverse this fear-breathing feedback loop by intentionally changing your breathing pattern.
While the old advice of “take slow, deep breaths” really does work, I find that when I’m really scared, I need something more specific to focus on. For these situations, I like to do “box breathing”.
Here’s how to do it:
- Breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds; this should be a full inhalation.
- Hold your breath for 4 seconds.
- Exhale through pursed lips (a small opening in your lips as if you were going to whistle) for 4 seconds; this should be a full exhalation.
- Hold your breath for 4 seconds.
Step 2: Offer yourself compassion
One of the things that perpetuates stress when you are afraid is judging yourself for being afraid.
If as a young child you were afraid of the dark, your parents likely calmed your fears by telling you that it was normal to be afraid of the dark but that everything was going to be OK.
Offering yourself compassion works on this same principle. To do this, offer words of kindness and understanding to yourself, telling yourself that you are OK just as you are.
This practice can be awkward to begin. For help getting started, I highly recommend checking out the “Self compassion/lovingkindness meditation” on Kristin Neff’s website. You can find it under “self compassion practices”.
You can choose whether you focus on loving thoughts or fearful thoughts.
Your brain is wired to produce thoughts. And the thoughts that you think over and over again will “hypnotize” you into believing them.
If you focus on fearful thoughts, you will believe that the world is a fearful place. If you focus on loving thoughts, then you will believe that the world is a loving place.
You can change your mindset by shifting which thoughts you focus on. This doesn’t mean that you ignore your fears. It means you acknowledge them and then let them go, rather than continuing to allow them to dominate your thoughts.
These three points can be summed up in this way: Love more, fear less.
This week, I encourage you to let go of fear by taking a moment to quiet your mind and offer compassion to yourself.
Then, please share how this practice shifts things for you by emailing me. Enjoy!
PS- if you know someone who has been struggling with fear, will you pass this on to them?