One of the scariest things I ever did was to become a school teacher for teenagers. I had just completed a masters degree in Chemical Engineering in a great university, and all my friends were getting jobs in big corporates, banks or doing PhDs. They thought I was going mad!
Additionally, I’m naturally not one to be in the limelight - usually I don’t jump up speak to large groups of people - I prefer to listen, engage, learn and have fun! Not have the responsibility to teach young, energetic kids.
I still remember the lesson I had to teach with my assessor. I was being observed by my teacher trainer. I was terrified! I had to teach a group of 30 rowdy, hyperactive teenagers physics - specifically about light and lasers.
I spent hours planning the lesson. I created special worksheets for students that struggled to understand English. I had special tasks for those that found the topic too easy too. I’d planned for everything...well, almost everything.
The lesson went quite well even though I was anxious, except at the end. I was so nervous, I demonstrated how to use the laser but left it switched on - pointing towards the class! Luckily it wasn’t too powerful and no one looked directly into it! Phew!
This story shows the problem with fear.
When we fear, we start to control too much. We become rigid. We plan excessively. In that rigidity, we’re not flexible to the needs of the moment and end up making mistakes. We fail at the very thing we feared most.
In this blog, I’m going to share with you what is fear, what causes fear, the effects of fear and some ways to let go of fear.
Fear arises when your ‘fight or flight’ system is switched on. It’s activated by a part of the brain called the amygdala. Your body goes into emergency mode. Your heart pumps faster. You feel sweaty and anxious. Your ability to digest food or fight diseases reduces.
But what causes your fight and flight system to be switched on in the first place? The answer - you feel threatened.
To go back to my earlier example, I felt threatened by the teacher trainer. I thought:
‘What if the class doesn’t listen to me?’
‘What if the class goes out of control?’
‘What if I mess up the lesson and the kids just go wild?’
They are all ‘what if’ statements and they are all followed by a negative statement...and unlikely to be true too!
Fear arises when you think ‘What if…’ followed by a negative statement.
But you can think positively too. And it’s just as true.
I could have thought:
‘What if the class enjoys my class and listens to me?’
‘What if the class loves learning about lasers and thinks it’s super cool!?’
‘What if my lesson goes really well and my teacher trainer loves what I do?’
That’s a powerful way of letting go of fear. Thinking ‘What if…’ followed by something positive, that’s just as likely as the negative.
Switching Perspectives when things go ‘wrong’
BUT, I hear you say, what if the negative stuff does happen? What if your class really did get bored and didn’t listen to you?!
Well, that’s fine too. I’ll explain.
If my lesson did go wrong, is it such a big deal? I am training to teach after all! I’m not supposed to be perfect. Even if all my lessons went wrong, and I failed my teacher training program, that’s ok too! I’d never have to teach a hyperactive group of teenagers again.
(As it turned out, I did really well in my teacher training, and was certified by the world’s top university in education, and went on to teach for 10 years in one of the only schools in the country that offered philosophy and meditation to all children. So my fears were very much unnecessary!)
Letting go of fear is about understanding there’s no such thing as a bad outcome. Either things go according to your wishes and that’s great. Or things don’t go to plan, and you learn from the experience and move on.
At this point, people start citing examples like what if you’ve been raped or tortured or beaten up. How is that a good thing? Obviously, I’m not saying it’s a good thing. But I’m say there’s still space there to turn that very negative experience into something that can help others. I haven’t been through these experiences so I can’t speak for them, but you can go ahead and speak to such victims and you’ll find some who’ve turned that experience into an organisation or charity to help others out of such circumstances.
There’s nothing you need to fear. Whatever happens, it’s a learning experience for you.
Story: Who put that Big, Stinky Pile of Dung on my Doorstep?
One famous story by my buddy Ajahn Brahm is the story of the truckload of dung.
What would you do if one day you woke up, and a big truckload of shit was piled up outside your home? You didn’t order it. You didn’t ask for it. You didn’t do anything to cause it. But there it is - huge, smelling and steaming away outside your home.
You could complain about it. That won’t help. You could shout at it. That’s just make you lose your voice. You could grab some of it, and show it to your friends. That would probably make your friends run away.
You know what the best thing to do with a truckload of dung is? Take a shovel, and dig it into your garden. Step by step, you can put all that shit deep into the ground. Eventually all that fresh shit will be deep in the earth.
Then, you plant a tree. Or maybe you already have a tree. Here in England, we used to have a lovely apple tree at the back of our garden. If I was in India, I’d plant a nice mango tree.
All that dung turns into nutritious, fresh compost. That compost nourishes your tree, and you end up with fresh, juicy, sweet, delicious mangoes! Do you like mangoes? I think everyone does.
You turned a situation that seemed frustrating or scary into something wonderful. Even more wonderful than if you hadn’t received that lovely big pile of shit outside your home! Who would have thought you would benefit from shit - but you do!
See fear in the same way, like that shit.
Take your fear and dig it into the ground so you can enjoy decades of juicy mangoes.
Discovering the Strange Effects of Fear
One of the effects of fear is excessive control.
Are you a control freak? Or a perfectionist? Are you constantly planning? Do you have a plan A, plan B, plan C, D, E, F and G?!
When you’re overcome with fear, you think control is the answer. If you’re scared your relationship isn’t going to work out, you try to do things perfectly to ensure nothing goes wrong. You try and control your partner to ensure everything ‘goes right’. But that’s no fun for you or your partner! Let go! Go with the flow...relax.
When you plan, things always go wrong. Haven’t you noticed that? 10 years ago, I was a Physics teacher in a school in south-west London. Now I run a Mindfulness teacher training company, an author and I run a Museum of Happiness! I would never have guessed that in a zillion years!
I don’t know what I’ll be doing in a few years time. Do you? So why bother planning in such detail? Plan a bit - okay. But plans are not plans - just guesses. Remember that.
The best plan - kindfulness. Which mean to be aware in each moment and be kind. That’s my plan. Be aware and be kind. To others and to myself.
Root Cause of Fear
We’ve already explored one big cause of fear - thinking negatively. Focusing on negative outcomes. And also not realising that there’s no such thing as a negative outcome - there’s just cause and effect. Things happen and you learn from them either way.
But what’s the root cause of fear?
It’s your sense of self. Me. I. My reputation. My experience. My body. ME ME ME!
Why are people so scared of giving a public talk? It’s because they are scared: what people will think of ME.
‘If I mess it up, what will they think of me?’
‘What does my partner think of me?’
‘What if my boss finds out I’m useless?’
The solution is to go from me to we.
Who cares about your reputation! Look at this image of the Dalai Lama - do you think he cares what people think of him? No! That’s how he relaxes.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. And i’m going to share with you some ways you can overcome your fears right away. You don’t need to buy anything else or study anything else. It’s all here. Open and free. So, here we go.
Conclusion: Ways to Let Go of Fear
1. Focus on the positive. What if + Something Positive.
See life in a positive light. Focusing on negative outcomes makes you feel scared. But focusing on positive outcomes makes you feel more at ease. Even if things don’t go according to your precious plans, it’ll all turn out fine if you make finding the positive a game. Simple, but it works!
2. Go from Me to We
The root of fear is the ‘me’. As long as there’s a separation of you and the world, there is space for fear to arise. So focus less on ‘me’ and more on ‘we’. I shared last week about the power of selflessness and the research that shows excessive focus on self is unhelpful at best, and can cause serious mental health issues at worst.
So, think we, not me. Ask ‘how can I help you?’ rather than ‘how can you help me?’
And above all, try and think less and try and be more.