[You can ask your own question here.]
I have often heard people say you have to “face your fears.” What does that mean and how do you do it? Fears plague me enough as it is. Why would I go out looking for them?
In Autobiography of a Yogi, when Master asks Sri Yukteswar to tell him stories from his boyhood, Yukteswar tells only a few, each with a moral.
“My mother once tried to frighten me, with an appalling story about a ghost in a dark chamber,” Sri Yukteswar said. “I went there immediately and expressed my disappointment at having missed the ghost. Mother never told me another horror tale. Moral: Look fear in the face and it will cease to trouble you.”
Sri Yukteswar included this in the handful of stories he told because fear is something that plagues most people. You are not alone.
Unfortunately, most of us lack the courage and clarity to do as Yukteswar advises. As a result, our lives are often ruled by forces we can’t name, and, in many cases don’t even know are there.
When I was eighteen years old, just before I was given my first book of spiritual teachings, I looked at the world around me -- the college campus where I was a freshman -- and came to the conclusion that the only entirely negative emotion was fear. I couldn’t see anything beneficial about it.
Whether or not that insight was true, it was a useful truth for me at the time. I was strongly influenced by fear, although startling less so than many of my classmates.
Just a few months later, I was given a book by Swami Vivekananda. It included, among other life-changing ideas, the statement, “Love casts out fear.” It was from the Bible, but I didn’t know it at the time. Since I had already focused on fear as the obstacle to be overcome, I was thrilled to have a method now for doing it.
It took me much longer to understand that it is love of God -- and God’s love for us -- that finally chases all fear away.
Kriya meditation dissolves fear by working directly on the vrittis in the chakras where subconscious tendencies are stored. Those who are tormented by unnamed fears, often come to the spiritual path in the hope that those fears will be dissolved by Kriya. In itself, this is fine. Too often, though, behind that hope is the fear of facing those fears.
“Just give everything to God,” is, for such people, another way of saying, “I’ll do anything but confront the ghost!” The primary ghost is the fear of seeing ourselves as we actually are. We are afraid of being judged unworthy, especially unworthy of God’s love.
This is ironic in the extreme, because God’s love is unconditional. Nothing we do can diminish His love for us. Love God and you will cease to fear His rejection. Receive His love and all your fears dissolve. “If you knew how much God loves you,” a French saint said, “you would die for joy.”
“Love casts out fear.” Meditate on that. It has endless depths of wisdom.
I have noticed over the years that even when the intention is a little off -- “Please, God, I’ll do anything You ask, as long as I don’t have to confront the fear!” -- I have found that Kriya still works. Eventually, we are brought face to face with the closet door, with no alternative but to open it. Sometimes this happens gradually and harmoniously, sometimes through sudden, even dramatic, karmic developments. If the person is sincere in his spiritual aspiration, inevitably it will happen.
This is often a deciding moment on the spiritual path. How much do we trust God and His love for us?
Swami Kriyananda tells us that when Paramhansa Yogananda was living at Mount Washington, many people came to be his disciple, stayed a short time, and then left. Often they justified their departure in terms of what they weren’t getting from Yogananda and what they would get by returning to a worldly life, or going on to another teacher.
In fact, Swamiji said, most of the time people left Yogananda not get away from him but to get away from themselves, or rather the necessity to see themselves clearly. In the presence of Yogananda, everything about each person was revealed. He was a pure light, a flawless mirror. Many people weren’t ready to see themselves that clearly so they moved away from the light.
The first step in facing a fear is to become aware of it -- to have the courage even to admit that it is there. The next step is to transcend it. Yukteswar did it all in one fell swoop. Usually it takes the rest of us a little longer. We have to try and fail and try and fail and try, try, try again. If we don’t give up we will succeed. Light always triumphs over darkness. Love casts out fear.
Merely keeping these fears below the conscious level does not erase them, or diminish their hold over us. Darkness is the natural habitat of fear. Rather than losing strength, the more we try to hide fear from our awareness, the more powerful it becomes. Finally the suffering it causes us is greater than our fear of facing it. That is the karmic moment I refer to above when God puts us in front of the closet and we have no choice but to open it.
I’ve noticed an odd fact about karma. If we have a negative tendency, rather than being born into circumstances that will help eradicate it, often we are born into families and conditions that make it worse. Until it gets so bad, as I have said about my own journey, that even I notice. In God’s infinite mercy, though, that realization seems to come only when our awareness of Him is great enough to give us the wisdom, grace, light, and love to get through it.
This is what Mother Theresa of Calcutta meant when she said, “God never gives us more than we can handle.” I have always enjoyed her further comment, “Sometimes I wish He didn’t trust me so much!”
In other words, we don’t have to go digging about in the darkness. Just do your positive spiritual practices with an open, receptive heart and mind. Not half-heartedly, though, but with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. God will show you what you need at the time you need to know it.
This doesn’t mean I am against psychological counseling. If you are a complete mystery to yourself, you may need the help of an impartial third party -- a counselor or therapist of some kind -- to help you sort out truth from fiction. If you feel this is appropriate for you, seek someone who is solution oriented, who sees therapy as a means to a goal, not an end in itself, who believes in God, preferably in the same way you do, or close enough that his or her guidance will be consistent with the teachings you follow.
If you feel your self-understanding and capacity for self-honesty have reached a functioning threshold, then on-going introspection and self-observation may be enough, perhaps assisted from time to time by meeting with someone whose impersonal wisdom you trust. If you don’t already have such a person in your life, go find one! We all need help!
Pay attention to your reactions to situations and to people, and how people react to you. Be especially attentive to anything that seems out of proportion, or unrelated to the apparent causes. Look for repeating patterns of disharmony, anxiety, resentment, or anger. See what triggers it.
If you know you have a major issue -- anger, for example -- see how it plays out not only in the big situations or relationships, but in all the small ones, too. I’ve noticed that the big disharmonies are almost always supported by a series of small ones. Often the big one is too much to tackle, but we can dismantle it brick by brick rather than trying to knock down the whole structure at once.
For example, if you are furious at the person who raised you, you may notice that anger is a response you have even when “it doesn’t matter,” like when someone cuts you off on the freeway, or fails to wash the dishes. It is all on the same wire and if you begin to snip it anywhere it will weaken it everywhere.
Be interested in what is true. Not in what you have always believed, or wish to be true, but simply what is.
Don’t, however, in the name of self-honesty become self-centered. Another truth I learned from that first spiritual book was, “Don’t think about yourself and you’ll be happy.” At the time, I couldn’t conceive of anything but a self-concerned life! I thought I was being spiritual by worrying all the time about whether I was doing well or badly in my efforts to be good!
I used to think that Self-realization meant perfection of the ego. It is a great trick the ego plays on us. The perfection we seek is impossible as long as we remain identified with the ego. Only when we forget the ego-self in the contemplation of God do we find what we are seeking.
I have a theory which I don’t think is actually valid, but it is a pleasant half-truth that serves me well. Instead of worrying all the time about how my ego-self is doing, I have accepted the fact that my ego-self will always be something of a mess. So just forget about it and love God! Love casts out fear. And when fear is gone, suddenly we know ourselves as we are -- One with the infinite spirit. And whatever little foibles the ego has seem as nothing compared to that enormous truth.
Ask God and Guru to guide you. Pray all the time. Don’t go near that closet door alone! Always take your divine friends with you. And when you put your hand out to open that door, be sure the other hand is gripping Divine Mother’s hand. In the presence of Her love, all fear vanishes.
[Questions and answers from other Ananda ministers worldwide can be found on the Ask the Experts page of Ananda.org.]