What Are You Afraid of? The Shadow Self and Using Fear as a Tool For Awakening
“The only way to ease our fear and be truly happy is to acknowledge our fear and look deeply at its source. Instead of trying to escape from our fear, we can invite it up to our awareness and look at it clearly and deeply.”
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
I live with a lot of fear and anxiety. Strangely I don’t think I realized this until I was about 30, and a work colleague called me an anxious person. The label made me ashamed. Here was another way I was not good enough, of course. For most of my life, I tried to avoid, push away or repress my fears. I did not know any better way. I did what most of us do with fear: avoid. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and other forms of therapy have a name for this: experiential avoidance. Put simply, experiential avoidance is a living organism’s natural tendency to avoid painful feelings, thoughts, bodily sensations, and memories.
The counter side to experiential avoidance is to be addicted to pleasure and security. Looking back on my life, I have no doubt this was (and is still) true of me. For most of my 20s, I used cigarettes, alcohol, and partying in general as a sort of hedonistic panacea. The truth was I was suffering. I lived with a woman who cheated on me and left me, which destroyed me. I felt alone and my self-esteem was nothing. I worked at jobs I found no joy or pleasure in. So I did what any twenty-something did in New York City: I went out a lot. I look back at that time with a pang of nostalgia. It is easy to romanticize how fun it was. And it was a lot of fun. But it also was a time of great confusion.
Now, many years later I work as a psychotherapist, and I realize now that I am not alone in my instinct to push away fear and seek out pleasure. I see this playing out with every one of my patients. It seems this urge is universal, a sort of basic underpinning to all existence, not just human. Every sentient being seeks out pleasurable activities like food and sex and avoids painful things like pain and violence. This is all well and good. It seems to be the way of life on this planet. But there is a problem here. It seems that none of us can avoid the painful cycle of Samsara, the Buddhist term for the cycle of rebirth and death. (I am agnostic about any notions of…