Here’s a strategy to deal with fear: Focus, Arise, Engage, and Release.
By Chaitanya Charana Dasa
Strategies for dealing with one of life’s pervasive challenges.
We all face fearful situations in life. The Vedic literature tells us that fear is one of the ever-present conditions of life in the material world. How can we deal with our fears effectively? Here I propose four strategies, summed up as the acronym FEAR:
F – Focus
E – Engage
A – Arise
R – Release
I’ll begin by discussing how to apply these strategies in ordinary life (in the office, for example), and conclude with their direct application to a life in Krishna consciousness.
In the Bhagavad-gita Arjuna tells Lord Krishna that he thinks controlling the mind is as difficult as controlling the wind. One strong force influencing our mind is fear. Fear makes our mind go wild with thoughts. “What if this goes wrong? What if that goes wrong?” Quite often, images of things that went wrong in the past trigger the mind’s imagination. The more we dwell on those past images, the scarier becomes our mind’s horror movie about our future. To prevent aggravating our fears, we need to focus on the present – and specifically on that aspect of the present that is scaring us.
Suppose in your office your boss gives you a strange look and your mind races off in a panic: “Why that look? Am I going to be fired? If I lose my job, what will happen to me? How will I pay my mortgage? If I can’t pay my mortgage, I’ll be evicted. If I’m evicted, where will I stay? I’ll be homeless. That would be a disaster – how would I survive the cold?” Thus a mere glance may trigger a panic attack. You may be feeling cold because of your office’s air conditioning, but you end up shivering because of the freezing cold in your mind’s horror movie.
To stop delusional fears, we can focus by asking ourselves, “What exactly is the problem right now?” and direct our attention from hazy, scary possibilities to specific, actionable issues.
Once our attention is focused on specific issues, we can move on to the next question: “What can I do about this problem right now?”
As the Vedic literature teaches, we have two kind of senses: knowledge-acquiring senses and active senses. So we interact with the world in two primary ways: by taking in information from it and by doing action in it. Fear can misdirect both these interactions – it can divert our vision from specific problems to a smog of worst-case scenarios, and it can either paralyze us or impel a kneejerk reaction, thus worsening the situation. By focusing, we combat the misdirection of our perception; and by engaging, we combat the misdirection of our actions.
Engaging helps us get out of our head. When we live in our head, giving too much attention to our thoughts, we let fear catch hold of us. But if we get out of our head by doing something tangible to address the situation, fear’s hold on us decreases.
When the tangible action we take up is also time-bound, we feel compelled and inspired to give it our full attention. With our attention thus focused, we don’t give much attention to the fearsome phantoms conjured by the mind. And the less attention we pay to our fears, the weaker they become.
When we are constructively engaged, we don’t become overwhelmed by fear. This is especially noticeable when we engage in Krishna conscious activities. Even if we face a dicey situation, constructive engagement makes us intense, not tense. But whenever we aren’t constructively engaged, then a risky situation fuels our mind to go into overdrive, and soon it conjures up scary scenarios that make us paranoid. During our idle time, our mind works overtime. Srila Prabhupada would often quote the saying “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.”
A question may arise: if we are already feeling fear, can we engage ourselves constructively? Yes. Even if we can’t prevent fear’s presence within us, we can minimize its influence on us. By using directed questions to shift our attention from the fearful situation to a remedial action, we can weaken fear’s hold on us.
Put another way, focusing and engaging help us bring our consciousness to the present instead of letting it wander in the past or in the future. The present is the only time when we can change anything. In the memorable words of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura:
Forget the past that sleeps and ne’er
The future dream at all,
But act in times that are with thee
And progress thee shall call.
The past is history; we can’t change it. And the future is mystery; we can’t predict it. The present is all we have – and all we will ever have.
While dealing with a fearful situation in the present, what if the magnitude of the problem overwhelms us? That brings us to the next strategy.
Arise means that we raise our consciousness above threatening situations by understanding that we exist at a higher level of reality. Lord Krishna explains in the Bhagavad-gita that we are more than our body and mind; we are indestructible souls, eternally part of Krishna. Becoming aware of our connection to Krishna will provide us peace and power. By contemplating our spirituality, we understand that we have endured many problems in the past – and we will endure this problem too. Life is not a hundred-meter sprint; it is a hundred-mile marathon. Naturally, we would like to do our best in every sprint, but we are in for the long haul; a setback in one lap of life’s marathon isn’t a catastrophe.
As long as we live with a material conception of life, however, our self-worth comes from our material identity and our corresponding capacity to control external things. When things go wrong or threaten to go wrong, we feel our self-worth being challenged, even crushed. We end up thinking of the possible failure not as an event in our life but as an event that defines our life.
Raising our consciousness to the spiritual level makes our self-worth more secure. By becoming aware that our essential identity is indestructible, we can experience security and strength even amidst danger.
How can we raise our consciousness? One powerful way is through meditation, for it directs our thoughts towards deeper, more enduring realities. While different forms of meditation direct our thoughts towards different objects, most empowering is the meditation that directs our thoughts towards an eternal, nonmaterial object. Mantra meditation is such a meditation – it centers our consciousness on mantras, which are sanctified, specialized sounds in sync with higher realities. Mantras that address the supreme spiritual reality, such as the Hare Krishna mantra, raise our consciousness most effectively to the highest spiritual level.
Release means that we let go of the things not in our control. Frequently, however, we resist letting go of things because we feel that by letting go we are losing the control we are meant to have and are thus being irresponsible.
To overcome such resistance, we can change our focus from what we are letting go of to what we are taking hold of: our thoughts. When we hold on to problematic situations, we unwittingly give those situations the power to take hold of our thoughts. The more those problems dominate our thoughts, the more the problems seem to grow, and the more we feel dwarfed and disempowered. And we become increasingly incapable of doing even the things we could have done. Thus, by holding on to the things we can’t control, we end up being irresponsible, not responsible.
Lord Krishna urges us to let go of things through devotional surrender to Him. He explains that we are not just spiritual; we are also parts of a whole bigger than ourselves (Gita 15.7). That whole is the all-attractive, all-powerful ultimate reality, Krishna Himself. He conveys (Gita 18.66) that surrendering is not just about letting go of things but essentially about seeking His shelter. By surrender we focus on letting Krishna take control of things. Actually, He is always in control. But we often believe that we are meant to be in control of things; and when we can’t control them, we feel threatened, even shattered.
Krishna has a higher plan, even if we can’t discern it now. Nonetheless, if we maintain a purposeful service attitude coupled with thoughtful devotional actions, then even if things go wrong, we will discover that Krishna will eventually bring good out of them.
With such devotional understanding, we learn to let go of things, and we strive to take hold of our thoughts and direct them towards Krishna. The more we thus let go of the things not in our control, the more we can get our thoughts in our control and the more we can engage in the actions that are in our control. And as our devotional connection with Krishna makes our consciousness calm and clear, we can more effectively think of the best way ahead. In fact, Krishna reciprocates with our devotional disposition by giving us intelligence from within to choose wisely (Gita 10.10). When our composure thus gets restored, we realize that letting go is not disempowering – rather, letting go to let God lead us is supremely empowering.
The strategies in the FEAR acronym can also be seen as progressive steps for spiritualizing our consciousness. Focus and Engage bring our consciousness to the mode of goodness, characterized by clear perception and calm action (Gita 14.11). Arise brings our consciousness to the spiritual level, wherein we perceive our imperishable nonmaterial essence (18.2). Release brings our consciousness to the devotional level, where we understand that Krishna is our greatest benefactor (5.29) and will help us overcome all obstacles if we become conscious of Him (18.58).
Just as the rising of the sun can dissipate the thickest of fogs, similarly, the rising of Krishna consciousness within us can counter the biggest of fears. However, till the sun rises, we need a flashlight to clear the way in front of us. Similarly, till we can become steadily conscious of Krishna, we can use these strategies as flashlights to illumine our next steps when the fog of fear darkens our way. And if these strategies are adopted in a devotional mood, they too can contribute to elevating our consciousness towards Krishna.
If we focus on identifying the exact problem confronting us, on acting according to what we can do about it right now, on remembering that we are bigger than our situations, and on letting go the things that are not in our control, with Krishna’s help we can face fearful situations positively and productively.