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Overcoming fear and anxiety

How do I overcome fear when it comes to connecting with others and myself? How do I face my past, instead of dwelling in it?

You can't overcome anything until you actually look at what it is. You can't overcome your fear until you know what it is you're afraid of, or why you're afraid. What most of us are scared of, at the deepest level, is death, extinction. This is pure Darwinism. Our core instinct is to survive. This is true for a mosquito, an earthworm, a human being. With most of the things we are afraid of, let us picture them taking place and ask ourselves, 'Then what?' Invariably, our answer is, 'I will die.' It may not always be about death of the physical body.

We're also afraid of things such as humiliation. If we introspect about why we are so afraid of being embarrassed, we learn that being deeply humiliated actually feels like we have ceased to exist. Not on a physical level, of course, but on a deep emotional level. This is because we have developed identities based on what otherpeople say and think about us. It begins when are in our mother's arms—babies look at their mothers, the mothers look back, make eye contact, smile, love, and these babies grow up feeling good about themselves. But when a child looks into the mother's eyes and she's upset, stressed and not making eye contact, such a child grows up feeling less than worthy.

On a psychological, spiritual level, we are constantly judging ourselves based on how people respond. If I tell you a joke and nobody laughs, something inside me is going to plummet. If we run into someone and they greet us joy, we experience ourselves differently. We think, 'Wow, I must be wonderful. Look how excited the person is to see me.'

Alternatively, if we see or speak with someone who turns their head the other way or gives us weird look, we are crestfallen. We may not even know that person, or understand why they are upset or in a bad mood, but it doesn't matter. We are constantly readjusting our sense of self based on how people look at us. Think of the last time you went to a party, all dressed up, but no one noticed you or complimented you on your clothes or hairstyle. Did you come back feeling something was wrong, did you keep looking in the mirror to find out what must have been the problem? There's something deep within us that is constantly getting cues of who we are from other people.

It all comes back to the fact that our deepest fear is that we will cease to exist— (physically and emotionally). This leads to a lifetime of being afraid to do things, caught in the fear of, 'Oh my God, what if I fail?'? If you actually imagine that failure in your mind, and ask yourself what would happen next, you'll most likely come up with, `Then people will know I'm a failure, OK, so people know you are a failure, then what? 'Then theywon't love me.' OK, they won't love you, then what? Slowly, you realize that the ultimate eventuality we are afraid of, through fear of failure or humiliation, is I will dissolve.' On a very deep level we believe that if people don't love us and acknowledge us, we don't exist. Think about the new-age selfie obsession. Psychologically, it is fascinating. We don't just take pictures and keep them. No. We go ahead and post them on social media. It's not really a picture of the Grand Canyon or the Eiffel Tower; it's a picture of our face and some rocks or steel or concrete wall behind us. Once we post it online, we keep checking how many people have liked it, commented on it. We think, `Oh my God, nobody commented, nobody liked it, what happened? What's going on?' We post pictures of ourselves in indistinguishable random places and then wait to see what others think and say about it. My enjoyment of my holiday has become significantly impacted by the responses, or lack thereof, that I get for the selfies I've taken during my trip.

If nobody likes or comments on the picture, in our heart of hearts, we feel as if we don't exist. We keep posting to remind people, 'Hey, I exist.' The more responses I get, the more I exist; the fewer I get, the less I exist. This is the root of a lot that ails us. When we talk about overcoming fear, we have to first break this myth. Making a fool of ourselves does not obliterate our existence. We have to develop courage to take risks because 'awareness of our existence is no longer dependent onhow people look at us or respond to us.

If my wellbeing is contingent upon you, I'm always going to live a life of fear, playing it safe, saying exactly What I think you want me to say. I'll constantly doubt, 'What if I didn't do it right?' I have to ground my awareness in my Self. I have to know who I am, so that regardless of whether you think I am the biggest fool who has ever walked the face the earth or whether you think I am the greatest person you have ever met, it does not change how I feel about myself. That is the only way to overcome the fear.

The other side to it is to recognize that the greatest tragedy is not failing, but never stepping up to grab the opportunities in your life. The greatest tragedy is looking back on your life and knowing you were afraid you were going to fail, and people would laugh at you. That's the tragedy, that's something to be afraid of. We have this incredible gift, this incredible life, all the moments brimming with potential, and it is tragic if we don't use them.

On the physical level is the fear of physically dying. There's great story about Swami Vivekananda, who was always teaching, 'Stand up! Be fearless!' One day, a few of his disciples decided to test him and find out if Swamiji was really so fearless. They dressed up as bandits and came storming into the lecture hall, carrying real looking fake guns, making a lot of noise. Everybody screamed and hid behind the chairs or ran out. Swamiji kept delivering his talk, unfazed as the fake bullets whizzed by his head.

Finally, humiliated, the fake bandits fell at his feet, took off their masks, apologized and said 'But Swamiji, how is possible? Were you not a little bit afraid? How did you do that?'

He replied, 'The bullet which is meant to take my life will take it even if I am surrounded by 100 guards. The bullet that is not meant to take my life will not kill even if you fire at point-blank range.'

If we can really hold that level of faith in our hearts and move forward with it, that's the best antidote to fear.

- Extracted with permission from Penguin / Ananda

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