I remember when I first felt a fear that was bigger than a shadow in my closet. I was about nine years old, and my friend and I were lost in a German cemetery after dark.
Our fathers were U.S. Army officers stationed in Germany, and we were on a day outing with a babysitter and our little sisters. When it was time to go home, we thought it was quite cute and funny to hide, and we hid so well they couldn’t find us.
By the time we realized that the babysitter had left, believing we were ahead of her on the path, the tourists were gone, it was dark, and we were lost. I knew we would be in trouble at home, but wandering alone in a gloomy, empty graveyard was more frightening than any punishment I could imagine.
Fear-consciousness: a common habit
I got out of that mess through the kindness of strangers, and as I grew up my fears grew too. I had a pretty normal, middle-class American life and rarely did any of my fears actually materialize. But fear consciousness is a common human habit, so I kept my fears close to my heart and carried them with me.
The Bhagavad Gita promises that even a little practice of meditation frees one from dire fears and colossal sufferings. When I came onto the spiritual path and my life became consciously God-centered, much of my fear consciousness left. There was a feeling of restfulness and calm as I let go of anxiety about myself. But some habits take a lot of energy to shake loose.
The second big fear challenge occurred after I became a wife and mother. Our neighbor’s beautiful 16-year-old daughter died suddenly. It was a shock to everyone who knew her, of course, but particularly difficult for parents. This is the nightmare all parents share. I watched my own children with gratitude mixed with terrible fear. My husband and I also had to deal with their fear – as they faced death for the first time in their young lives.
My sensitivity to the emotions of the neighborhood was acute during this period. It was not long after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. There was another young neighbor girl fighting cancer and an adult neighbor who had died recently. I could sense the entire block vibrating with confusion, fear and doubt.
Acting with love
The downward pull of the emotions around me needed to be reversed, but I wasn’t sure how to do it. I knew, however, how Swami Kriyananda responded to challenges: with great energy and will power. So I walked around the block at night and prayed for every household with deep concentration. I visualized every home bathed in light. And I prayed for a way to act.
It came to me that our grieving neighbor loved roses and a few hours of research revealed that there was a species of rose that shared her daughter’s name. My husband and I thought it would be a small, but meaningful gesture to buy the roses for the family. After more research I found that the roses were only available in Canada and could not be shipped across the border.
I was crushed to have the momentum for the lovely idea stopped so soon. But my husband was more solution conscious – he thought we should go to Canada.
As this idea took hold, I could feel my consciousness shifting into a lighter, more positive direction. It was not a small undertaking, packing up three young children and making the arrangements. We contacted friends and neighbors and received enthusiastic support as well as financial donations for the roses. The trip was fun and successful.
We returned with two rose bushes in the car and lighter hearts. The gathering at which we presented the roses was emotional, but full of love. I tried to put our sympathy into words and invited everyone to add their energy by signing the accompanying letter.
Fear loses its grip
The willpower and energy we poured into acting with love helped to shift the consciousness of an entire community. Others responded with gratitude and relief, as they saw a way to express their sympathy in an expansive way. We were not able to lessen the grief suffered by that family, but we were able to show them that love and friendship were still a part of their lives. And fear lost its grip on our hearts.
Now I act quickly in response to fear. As soon as those thoughts creep in, I move the energy upward and out, away from my little self and into loving concern for others. I’ll write a sincere note of gratitude to a friend, or pour energy into a task that is helpful. I don’t want fear thoughts to settle in and get comfortable.
Keeping company with high-minded souls also helps to change fearful thinking. A friend, the director of a charter school in California, told me of meeting with community leaders and educators to discuss the drastically reduced availability of funding.
Fear and pessimism were strong, but she explained how exciting it was to feel the shift in consciousness as they all began to add up the “intellectual capital” they had access to, and the “creative capital” they shared. The atmosphere of fear and loss changed to one of abundance and infinite possibilities.
New hidden layers of fear
I haven’t totally shaken the fear habit, but now I recognize it and act to change it. Recently, I found new hidden layers to my fears when my husband was facing serious health issues. For weeks we had appointments and tests with four different specialists. Every doctor thought the likelihood of cancer was high, and it took awhile to work through the lists of possibilities and find the answer that ruled out cancer.
One day, during all the doctor visits and tests, I realized my breathing had become shallow, my posture was rounded and my arms were frequently folded across my chest. I was trying to protect myself from outcomes I didn’t want.
“It’s not myself I’m fearful for,” my little inner voice said, “it’s just that I’m afraid for him.” But it’s a trick – all of our fears are rooted in fear for ourselves.
I certainly didn’t want to see my husband suffer, but my thoughts were also crowded with concern for myself: “How could I support the family, care for a sick spouse and see to the needs of three children? What if I couldn’t do what was needed? What if I wasn’t strong enough? What if I failed – as a wife, as a mother, as a disciple? If he dies, how will I face life alone? “
So I began to check myself. I would roll my shoulders back, breathe deeply and affirm, “I welcome everything that comes to me as an opportunity for further growth.” * This simple change in posture was enough to open the energy flow and allow more expansive thinking. I focused on my heart and upper body, because that was where I felt the impulse to cave in. I visualized my heart open and strong and felt calmness replacing fear.
The power of prayer and surrender
As I felt calmness return, I was also able to see God’s hand in every place I had previously felt fearful. Solutions and reassurance seemed to flow through every situation.
The teachers I work with stepped in without hesitation whenever I had to be gone. I unexpectedly had the use of my mother’s car to get to appointments. Anonymous gifts appeared that helped make Christmas possible for my family. The doctors were kind and generous about discounting our bills when they found out we were self-employed.
I could feel the prayers of friends and family all around us. Even the weather seemed to be a blessing as winter storms closed down the city and offered my stressed and worried family the opportunity to be home together and feel comforted, just when we needed it the most.
We now know that my husband does not have a life-threatening cancer, but a chronic arthritic condition that is serious, but manageable. We also know the power of prayer and surrender to God’s grace in all things. I was ready to accept whatever the diagnosis brought because it was so clear I wasn’t alone, and I learned that everything we need comes to us when we can welcome whatever God is giving.
Speculation about the future is natural at the turn of a new year, and as world events unfold, the future, ever uncertain, holds frightening possibilities. Above all, I try to offer my life into God’s hands and to live in the realization that there is no place or circumstance outside of God’s love. Every effort I make to know God more completely brings greater joy and freedom from all fear.