Mindfulness, Courage, and the Unknown
By Eric Kaufmann, President of Sagatica and author of Four Virtues of a Leader
The election of Donald Trump is socially and spiritually bruising to enlightenment minded people, who are actually quite varied in their political orientation – from fiscal conservatives and religious idealists to social progressives. And in the presence of a president that is undermining my leadership teachings, writing, and coaching I wonder how will we practice our mindful principles, not fall into fear-based reactivity, and continue to promote the best of progressive practices. And I wonder how do we take wise and skillful action to promote the virtues of inclusion and tolerance, and to continue to realize our vision of interconnectedness. And, finally, how do we deal with the Unknown?
This election highlighted groundlessness and impermanence. I’ve felt this vulnerable before during earthquakes and fires, while being hospitalized, or when I helplessly watched my infant daughter’s seizure. The vast unknown unveils and reveals powerlessness and vulnerability which, in turn, trigger fear. In the face of the unknown our mind paints visions of pain and loss. It’s tempting to avoid the fear through busyness, anger, depression, or the comforting distraction of work, news, chatter, or chemicals. But we can also choose to practice mindful means by pausing and asking, “What am I afraid of?”
The answer is probably something like loss of control, powerlessness, discomfort, looking stupid, failing, being rejected, humiliation, feeling incompetent, loss of love, losing time, losing money, or getting hurt. And, really, which of these pains is unknown? The truth is that we don’t have fear of the unknown, we fear undesirable outcomes that we can’t control.
Fear of the unknown, isn’t a mindful description of our thoughts and feelings, it’s a grand and bland label. But when you get curious and specific about fear, you begin to untangle and understand it. The “unknown” is a screen onto which we project known, unwanted, and scary memories – bitter failure, disempowerment, heartbreak, money loss, and wasted time. Anxiety and fear are activated by negative and potentially harmful memories and fantasies.
Mindfulness practices are an empowering way to face the unknown and apply conscious, skillful effort. Fortunately, it doesn’t have anything to do with being fearless, rather, it’s learning to walk toward what you’d rather run away from; learning to cultivate courage. And you can cultivate courage by practicing a mindful process I call Feel, Face, and Embrace.
Feel: Cultivating courage doesn’t begin with a mental practice because your mind is the actual source of the stories that trigger anxiety and fear. The beginning is physical awareness; a somatic attunement. I’ve learned to distinguish the physical sensations of fear – flushing heat in the face and neck, increasing blood pressure in the eyeballs, accelerating heartbeat, tightening shoulders, and churning or pulsating in the solar plexus or belly – and this simple act of attending to the body and acknowledging discomfort is already an act of courage. These sensations are so unpleasant, that we’re inclined to avoid them, and by mindfully attending to them – allowing yourself to feel your fear – you initiate a relationship with fear. By being present and relating rather than avoiding, denying, or overwhelming your body, you take the first step of cultivating courage; you become collaborators rather than strangers. This is important because we can affect each other when we’re in an intimate relationship. My wife, for example, has great influence over me, whereas our postal carrier doesn’t stand a chance to change my mind. So, become intimate with your embodied fear sensations.
Face: The next step adds more familiarity and, therefore, more influence over your fear. When you “face” your fear you get to look at it, know it, and understand it. When we face our fear we can label and name the thoughts and beliefs that make up that fear. “Fear of the Unknown,” upon closer examination, has distinctions – failure, humiliation, powerlessness, rejection, death. Naming and labeling breaks down the mind-fueled story into recognizable and objective parts. You can name with simple descriptive words – angry, unfair, roadblock, idiot, mad, wasting time, frustrating, holding me back, terrible future. Or you can label believed-thoughts in your story – “I’m anxious about future opportunities; I’m afraid of looking like an idiot; my family will suffer because of his behavior; this is out of control; if I can’t be heard, then my life’s on hold.”
Feeling your physical sensations gives you a window into self. Peering through that window by naming your believed thoughts uncovers the mental habits that feed and energize your fear. Ultimately, articulating your believed thoughts diminishes their ability to affect your decisions and choices. Now you can dialogue with your physical sensations and the believed thoughts, and create an objective space within which you make deliberate decisions and commit to life-centered action.
Embrace: This is the action phase. To embrace my wife or my daughters I have to be open and vulnerable, extend myself, and be available to connect. But fear is a contraction; it’s being closed off, defended and unavailable. While I’m not talking about eliminating fear, I believe that fear is the gatekeeper to power. When we cower before this gatekeeper, we surrender our energy. The mindful step is to embrace your fear, hear your inner story, feel your physical discomfort, and not distract yourself or avoid it. Then you embrace your fear; taking small or large steps and moving toward what you’d rather run away from. Two, five, or ten percent forward movement is still forward!
Because the essence of our ego is fear, we have endless opportunities to cultivate courage. Our broken fantasies and unacceptable political leadership isn’t going to change overnight, and it will never change if we don’t feel our fear, and engage in life-centered and courageous action. When you feel, face, and embrace you pause the momentum of outdated believed thoughts and fear-based reactivity. In this mindful pause between stimulus and response lies our humanity – our gift of creation and compassion.