Often, books find me when I need them most. They jump off book shelves into my arms, friends pass them on to me with raving reviews, or they stand out on library shelves and something inside me demands I pay attention. Recently, such a book, Fear: Essential Wisdom For Getting Through The Storm by Thich Nhat Hanh, called to me from a garage-sale table, insisting it was meant for my eyes and would open my heart. It was a lovely hard covered edition costing only a dollar.
I’d just been laid off from my job of six years, and was starting to feel moments when fear bubbled beneath the surface of my confident and optimistic surface. “I trust the universe,” I told myself and my friends,” and I do, sort of, sometimes, except when I don’t, and become afraid.
So it seemed Zen Master and Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh had some wisdom and practical advice on how I could deal with that powerful and challenging human emotion that we all face on a daily basis – fear.
Whether we’re fearful of what is happening in the present or afraid of what could or will inevitably happen in our future, we all struggle with the demon of fear. We try to stuff it down and frighten it with our bravado. We try to ignore its demands for attention by eating Oreos, or watching mindless television, or shopping, or whatever drugs of choice temporarily distract us away from our disturbing feelings.
Thich Nhat Hanh invites us to start a practice of mindfulness by saying “hello” to our demon fear and inviting him in for a hug, for a gentle embrace along with a bit of non-judgmental chit chat: Hey fear, tell me more. Why is my sky falling? What am I really wound up about? Will death really kill me? Let’s get to the heart of the matter.
The first part of looking at our fear is just inviting it into our awareness without judgment. We just acknowledge gently that it is there. This brings a lot of relief already. Then, once our fear has calmed down, we can embrace it tenderly and look deeply into its roots, its sources. Understanding the origins of our anxieties and fears will help us let go of them. Is our fear coming from something that is happening right now or is it an old fear, a fear from when we were small that we’ve kept inside? When we practice inviting all our fears up, we become aware that we are still alive, that we still have many things to treasure and enjoy. If we are not pushing down and managing our fear, we can enjoy the sunshine, the fog, the air, and the water. If you can look deep into your fear and have a clear vision of it, then you really can live a life that is worthwhile.
-Thich Nhat Hanh
The book draws on the author’s years of spiritual practice of mindfulness in action, a practice that invites us to live in the present moment, acknowledge and embrace our fears, recognize their origins, and render them powerless. Never trite or simplistic, it offers a deep exploration of the facets and origins of numerous aspects of fear – from childhood abuse and psychological traumas to the universal and existential varieties.
I first learned of Tich Nhat Hanh a number of years ago when I stumbled upon his beautiful book, The Energy of Prayer: How to Deepen Your Spiritual Practice. A Vietnamese Buddhist Zen Master, poet, scholar, and peace activist who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. he offers simple and powerful practices to move us into a more peaceful way of living in the world and facing our adversaries. All of us confront those adversaries, sometimes called human weaknesses, such as anger, hatred, and fear in unique ways often determined by our backgrounds and upbringing. This gentle, strong, and humble monk offers profound insight our potential to transform our pain, embrace fearlessness, and discover joy in living in the now.