sacred fear

Feb 1, 2022


To be honest, the month of January felt like it had at least 965 days in it. I had a noble intention to fine-tune my gratitude radar this month. To notice glimpses of joy and moments of lightness to temporarily tune out the overwhelming division and discord in the world.  The radar worked. Some of the time.


I noticed the sun streaming in through the kitchen window during breakfast for the first time in a long time. I felt a sense of relief with a postponed assignment deadline creating space to pause. I grounded myself in the middle of a forested area while on my cross-country skis and felt cocooned in peace and calm. I read more. And for the most part, I slept better. 


Oh, and I remember laughing once.  After the death of Betty White, someone posted online (and I’m paraphrasing here) “Betty White is dead. That leaves Keith Richards and The Queen to move onto the finals”.  I needed that.  I’m sure Betty would have laughed.


But most of the other January moments were not quite so ease-full. 


Breaking news. Blatant injustice. Illness and death. Racism and hate displayed boldly in one place which then emboldened the same bullying elsewhere. Impending war and impending doom. In my place of complete and utter privilege as a white settler, these issues are not on my doorstep but are in my community, my country and the world. So I mourn.


None of these are new or overwhelming on their own. But stacked back to back in a never-ending row of precarious dominoes, it can feel overwhelming to those of us who are sensitive to chaos and disharmony. I watched myself slowly disengage, disappear and even entertain a longer term dalliance with despair.


As someone who works with nervous system regulation, I’m always looking for connections to this work to a daily life that is as practical as a kitchen sink. Because that’s where the issues are. In my daily life.


This led me to read a book by a practical Buddhist, Ethan Nichtern, who speaks to the idea of “sacred fear”.  He says, 


“A person facing her fear models a kind of authentic realness. The energetic quality of fear is no different from the energy of being alive— fear runs through our veins and our nervous system as our most basic power source.


Speaking personally, I experience fear so many times each day that I can’t even keep track. Fear is always with us, yet if we can take a friendly approach to viewing it as a valid and meaningful experience, it becomes a recurring energy that shows us our own beating heart, and shows us that we are alive and awake. 


The full experience of fear is a prelude to every moment of growth along our journey. Fear is the most sacred emotion of all.”


This was a great reminder for me that part of our nervous system, the sympathetic part, has a purpose, a higher calling than just survival. It hosts our passion, presence, performance and even our play. Opening ourselves to our fears can remind us of this powerful fact.  Now getting stuck in this heightened state is another story so I continue to work with others on how to notice this and to learn ways to engage the parasympathetic nervous system to experience more ease and restoration.


I have a friend who used to say that napping was resting for the revolution!  That makes sense to me since facing injustice and hate requires a robustness that comes from a rested regulated nervous system.


Nichtern also speaks to how sacred fear can support us in our goal to become more compassionate beings. 


“Our human nervous systems evolved from those of species whose very survival was threatened constantly, and who passed on their reptilian and animal brains to us. It makes sense that being afraid that you might not make your rent payment this month can provoke almost the same nervous response as thinking that a predator is about to eat you. Inhabiting a human nervous system is kind of like living in a house where the doorbell and the burglar alarm make exactly the same sound.


So when we experience fear, no matter how irrational it may seem, we can use it as an occasion to remember what unites all human beings together, and to hold that with compassion for ourselves and others.”


While I’ll still be looking for light, ease and harmony, I’m going to consider what it would mean for me to make space for my sacred fear and the compassion for myself and others that may grow from it.


May you have compassion for yourself and others as you consider ways to make peace with your sacred fear.


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