22. Observe What You Fear

Good morning and welcome to your twenty-second meditation. What are you afraid of? We all have one or many answers to this question. Fear is part of being human. But very often our fears are baseless or irrational or radically exaggerated. These are what we know as phobias. Some common ones include fear of heights (or acrophobia), fear of flying (or aviophobio), fear of snakes (ophidiophobia), fear of spiders (arachnophobia), and fear of close spaces (claustrophobia). The odds are that the majority of us experiences at least one of these phobias to some degree. And their effects can range from discomforting to incapacitating, even when we acknowledge openly that they are irrational. So what should we do about it? How can we work toward dispelling these imaginary monsters, or, failing that, how can we make their effects on us less debilitating? A good place to start is to acknowledge how truly common it is to experience these fears. It would seem there’s something in the human condition that makes us prone to them. So don’t worry: you’re not alone, it’s not madness, and it’s perfectly natural to feel that way. Second, you may have heard of something called exposure therapy, where you deliberately confront the stimulus that incites your fear, thereby availing yourself of the opportunity to change how you respond to it. This can be done by degrees. For example, if you are afraid of snakes, start by thinking about snakes, next watch videos of snakes, and so on, all the while training your response to those largely innocent victims of social demonization.

“Ok”, you may be asking, “but how do I train my response?” If you experience severe symptoms as a result of your phobia you should certainly talk with a specialist if that is an option that is available to you, but here are a couple suggestions and an anecdote that may help. Breathe. Deep slow breaths. This has the effect of both slowing your heart rate and providing us with something to focus on that is not your fear. Once you have calmed yourself, think about the thing you fear. Have a good look at it. Turn it over in your mind and imagine it as something completely indifferent to you, unconnected to and distant from you. Listen to it. Hear what it has to say. Admire it, even. There is a story about a man who didn’t even realize he was claustrophobic until he was put head-first in an MRI machine. The close space, the mechanical sounds, and the thought of the weight of the machinery on top of him made him feel suddenly trapped, and as though he would be crushed. His heart-rate shot up, he started sweating, he thought he might involuntarily begin to flail, all the while knowing this was a routine procedure and totally safe. In the midst of his panic, however, he became determined to beat it. He closed his eyes. He began breathing deeply through his nose. And he began to listen. Those mechanical sounds that seemed so threatening before started to form interesting sonic shapes. He listened more closely. What had been a robotic death knell just a moment before, was now beautiful and intriguing music. Far from inducing anxiety, it calmed him, even to the point of lulling him to sleep. Exactly the same set of stimuli, two diametrically opposed responses within a matter of minutes. So try it! Welcome whatever it is you fear. Observe it. Listen to it. Not only might you ultimately conquer your fear, you might discover a whole new genre of music while you’re at it. Keep it up. You’re doing great. Have a wonderful day.

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