Cultivating Fearlessness through Spiritual Warriorship

“The spiritual journey: life’s journey: means working with your fear. It starts with a smile.” Pema Chodron

This is how a recent article in Lion’s Roar began. I was immediately drawn in and intrigued to find out how someone could possibly smile at fear. Even to just follow Chodron’s encouragement to know fear, touch it, and STAY with it is daunting for most of us.

When I was a new mom, I had LOTS of fears of something happening to my son and initially kept them to myself because I thought they were totally neurotic and that no one else had them. My shame kept them hidden from others, but I felt the pain of them in part because I wasn’t truly facing them. There’s a saying I heard in the inspirational movie, “The Anonymous People”:

“If you keep a secret in the dark, it grows and grows and eventually you’ll act on it. Or, you can expose it to the light and it will die.”

Fortunately, I eventually started telling other moms and to my relief, they responded, “ME TOO!”

That helped me FACE my fears more because I didn’t feel I was struggling alone on the path of motherhood. It was actually incredibly normalizing and empowering to hear that other moms who I had respected (and were farther along the journey with older children) also once had similar fears. Paradoxically, by “outing” and facing my fears, they diminished. I not only smiled at them, I even LAUGHED with other moms at the fears, which previously horrified us. I have to continually work on staying present as Chodron reminds us, “There are many reruns… but our “practice” (details below) allows fearlessness and genuineness to emerge from the very act of going into our fear.”

In this blog, I’ll be covering:

1. Some of Chodron’s brilliant ideas from this article, “Smile at Fear” as well as from her lecture “From Fear to Fearlessness” that we can draw from in enhancing healthy coping skills.

(Even if you don’t personally identify with having the emotion, fear, I think you can relate the ideas in this blog to other related emotions such as anxiety or stress.)

2. How turning away from fear/uncertainty counterintuitively increases pain & why choosing pleasure, numbing out or acting out is so common in our culture even though it weakens us.

3. An alternative, truly COURAGEOUS path that does effectively decrease fear and pain and cultivates spiritual warriorship (Bodhisattva) in you.

Many things felt out of our control in 2020 and FEAR felt rampant. How did you cope (in unhealthy ways)? Did you…

  • Turn to addictions? (drugs, alcohol, food, technology, online shopping, work, etc.)
  • Watch the news constantly? (and railed against the injustices reported, but didn’t take action?)
  • Sleep a lot?
  • Play hooky?
  • Get lost in technology?
  • Do something else that I can add to this list? (Please let me know.)

How did you cope in healthy ways? Did you…

  • Finish an important project? (ex. one of my friends finished writing her first book)
  • Volunteer? (ex. Another friend serves 300 plus meals every Saturday at a soup kitchen)
  • Get involved in a cause that matters to you?
  • Meditate, Pray, Practice Yoga, &/or other spiritual/health practices?
  • Exercise in other ways?
  • Play with your children, pets, partner, roommates?
  • Connect with other family, friends, neighbors on the phone, online or outside in person?
  • Learn something new?
  • Do something else that I can add to this list? (Please let me know.)

The Problem

At its worst, how avoiding being with fear/uncertainty can be destructive

Chodron explains that when individuals feel afraid, it is natural for us to “go inward and start to armor ourselves, trying to protect ourselves from whatever we think is going to hurt us. But our attempts to protect ourselves do not lessen the fear… the fear actually escalates. Rather than becoming free from fear, we become hardened. This leads many people into the most destructive behaviors. These include: unkindness, polarization, fundamentalism, aggression, violence, war, hatred, cruelty, etc.”

As a couples therapist, I have observed that when one partner has disconnected from their emotions (including fear), this partner may struggle with depression, and while fortunately may not act out, this partner may additionally be unable to feel a range of other emotions, including joy. The effects on the couple are a lack of attunement, emotional responsiveness and lack of connection since the partner with depression or general cut off from their inner world lacks connection with their own authentic self.

How do most people react when faced with fear/anxiety/uncertainty?

Chodron has observed that most people fall into one of two reactions:

  • speed up with frantic activity (“roadrunners”) going from one task to another appearing very motivated, but avoiding the real source of their fear
  • slow down (“couch potatoes”) because they feel paralyzed by fear and feel unworthy

Both reactions share the same motive even if it’s usually unconscious: “avoiding being present with our fear of uncertainty“. Both reactions are an attempt to distract oneself from feeling the nervousness of uncertainty and cause procrastination from facing the root of this uncertainty.

Chodron identifies the top 4 ways that people cope when in (emotional) pain/uncertainty/fear:

  1. Seek pleasure
  2. Numb out
  3. Act out (could be sexual, violence, or another way)
  4. Be with our pain

*Which way do you typically cope with fear/pain/uncertainty/discomfort?

I believe our American culture teaches us to cope with fear/uncertainty/pain through seeking pleasure, numbing out or acting out.

This is how companies encourage us to buy their products.

Even healthy ways of coping (ex. going to an exercise class) can be an outlet for pleasure or numbing out instead of facing or being with our discomfort. I’m probably guilty of this one. I’ll often listen to a podcast by a spiritual guru or a therapy trainer on my hike up a trail and I have to intentionally turn it off before I head down or I can easily stay externally distracted and miss out on an opportunity to continually tune in to my internal work.

Our culture also doesn’t encourage sharing one’s fear/pain (especially as adults) with another person. We’re “supposed to” be independent and handle everything confidently and calmly. That’s considered powerful and being an “adult”. This type of “independence” not only is a myth, it also hurts us and significantly hinders our ability to be a spiritual warrior.

Overall, most Americans didn’t learn (in their childhood) how to stay with their pain and also weren’t taught the benefits of facing their emotional pain either.

Whether you commit yourself to being with your pain by yourself and/or with the co regulation of another person, your willingness and incredible bravery at getting to know and fully accept yourself will allow you to more fully help others. Imagine how EMPOWERING it will be for you to smile at fear?!

The Solution

Choice #4: Being WITH our pain, fully feeling it is the path of the SPIRITUAL WARRIOR.

“Bodhisattva” or spiritual warriorswork on themselves by developing courage and fearlessness and cultivating their capacity to love and care about other people” in order to most effectively help other people. 

“The hallmark of this training in spiritual warriorship… is cultivating bravery. With such bravery you could go anywhere on the earth and be of help to other people because you wouldn’t shut down on them… This strength comes from repeatedly practicing staying present with yourself even when you’ve felt compelled to shut down (distract/numb/seek pleasure/act out).

Why choose the courageous (& difficult) path of becoming a spiritual warrior

“The things that unnerve us, that trigger feelings of inadequacy, that make us feel that we can’t handle it, that we are not good enough, LOSE THEIR POWER OVER US when WE LEARN to SMILE at FEAR.”

Also, if you truly desire to help others, Chodron explains, we must lead by example:

“You can’t become a warrior who helps others to find themselves if you are not making that journey yourself. The journey needn’t be completed, but you must have started down the road of encountering your fear.”

Beginning to cultivate this type of bravery (in becoming a Spiritual Warrior)

This is just a starting point in becoming a spiritual warrior. There are more practices that Chodron recommends. I am focusing on these three because she underscored the importance of these and I have also found these three to be POWERFUL practices and they take considerable time to learn.

Another brief note about the three practices below:

While all three can be done by oneself (as presented by Chodron), attachment science shows that as humans are wired to connect with others, have our nervous systems profoundly regulated (calmed) by another person we trust, and benefit greatly from the energy that comes from being in a positive community, I encourage you to consider having a spiritual warrior partner or group for support in beginning and maintaining these practices.

  1. Developing an unconditional friendship with yourself

    Chodron’s teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche taught that:

    “The very BASIS of FEAR is doubting ourselves, not trusting ourselves, not loving ourselves, not respecting ourselves. In a nutshell, you feel bad about who you are.”

    Chodron explains that “the very first step (in spiritual warriorship), and perhaps the HARDEST, is developing an unconditional friendship with yourselfgetting to know yourself… staying with yourself when you want to shut down… keeping your heart open when you feel that what you see in yourself is just too embarrassing, too painful, too unpleasant, too hateful… It takes a LOT of guts to do this.”

    “If you do stay present with what you see when you look at yourself again and again, you begin to develop a deeper friendship with yourself. It’s a complete friendship, because you are not leaving out the parts that are painful to be with.”

  2. Meditation Practice

    Chodron explains that “Meditation is the method that can help us discover the courage to smile at fear. Meditation practice allows us to be with ourselves fully and completely, allowing the time and space to see it all with gentleness, kindness, and dead honesty. It is the safest environment within which to undertake the mission impossible. And when meditation practice has helped us to be honest and courageous enough to know ourselves in a deep way, we can begin to extend out and help others, because the things outside of us that appear threatening seem that way because of the fear within, the fear we have been reluctant to look at.”

    Besides COURAGE, Chodron describes 4 other primary benefits from meditation:

    1. Steadfastness: Staying with your experience in meditation and not judging it increases your perseverance toward yourself and throughout life.
    2. Clear seeing: Meditation helps us clearly see ourselves and the habitual patterns that limit our life.
    3. Attention: Becoming awake to your life as it is and relaxing in the present allows us to relax into the unknown. Chodron’s example of the unknown or one’s edge could be “not being able to get a good cup of coffee”. Meditation helps us feel more settled, tolerant and flexible.
    4. No big deal: Avoiding arrogance and pride from making too big a deal from something good as well as avoiding making too big a deal about your difficulties since that can take you into: “poverty, self denigration, a low opinion of yourself. Meditation can help you maintain flexibility and humor.

  3. Maitri: Loving Kindness Blessing

    Connect with your heart and radiate compassion and love in this order:
    a.) Ourselves
    b.) Good friends/family
    c.) “Neutrals”
    d.) Enemy (this blessing will benefit both of us)
    e.) All Beings

    “May I enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.”
    “May they enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.” (say their names, visualize their faces, & arouse the wish that this blessing comes true for them.)                                                               “May all enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.”

    “May I be free of suffering and the root of suffering.”
    “May this person I love be free of suffering and the root of suffering and my good friend, the neutral and the one I feel negative toward also be free of suffering and the root of suffering.”
    “May we all be free of suffering and the root of suffering.”

    Wish everyone in the order above to enjoy happiness and know both the root of happiness and the root of suffering and that they are free from suffering.

In conclusion

“Fear is a part of life, of growth, and shedding very old crippling patterns. But these patterns, we’re addicted to them, so it’s going to be a process.” Chodron

I am still “in process” of learning how to STAY with painful emotions on a regular basis. What has helped me the most is committing to my self care practice (which includes individual meditation among many other activities and lifestyle choices) and turning to my spouse (& other family/friends/colleagues) for emotional support (and physical affection with my spouse) when I’m struggling.

Before I learned that attachment science highly recommended co regulation among adults and that it is healthy and extremely efficient to turn to your loved one, I did what many people do, which is to seek out other sources of comfort. In my case, it was food, work and exercise. None of those individual distractions provided the long term comfort I need to stay with pain. As one wise person in recovery from “comfort eating” said, “I learned that whether or not I ate, my problem would still be there.”

Today, my spouse and I do partner meditation, which allows us to benefit from the synergistic effect of calming our own and each other’s nervous systems. We both always notice how great we feel at the end of both meditating and deepening our connection this way. We also know how to do “Hold Me Tight” bonding conversations, which involve sharing your fears, needs and longings with your intimate partner. My spouse and I are still learning how to turn more toward each other for comfort in order to stay longer with fear/pain. We are all continually “works in progress”. 

Chodron’s guidance in teaching us the practices that plant seeds of spiritual warriorship: developing an unconditional friendship with oneself, meditation, maitri/loving kindness blessing, and others are gifts on this difficult even though rewarding journey of life.

If you’re struggling with fear, anxiety, stress or feel you’re coming from a place of strength and would like to further your personal, relational and/or spiritual growth~

Contact Lana Isaacson, LCSW, CAC III at 720.432.5262, [email protected], or schedule your free consultation or session online.