Sitting with Fear

Today was the first day of a six week Kundalini workshop I’m taking part in. I went in excited and thrilled to be there, and I came out wishing I hadn’t gone. This made me wonder. I hadn’t been to any Kundalini yoga classes before, but have practiced it minimally at home. I am familiar with the theory, and much less familiar with the practice. I’m much more familiar with Hatha yoga practice. Today I learned many things – chants, mantras, mudras, asanas. I even learned a bit about the chakras. Ultimately, I should have been thrilled when I left, just as I was when I entered. But, alas, here I was, a bit bummed, even.

So I asked myself, “What is wrong?” I followed the feeling. I learned two things. First, while chanting for the root chakra I had encountered a great fear. This startled me. Second, I was wary of the practice since it was unfamiliar, and I had experienced something new.

In yoga practice, especially when you go to class, you tend to experience a lot of the same things. The asanas are the same, the people are the same, the teachings are similar, and the energy is the same. What you encounter within yourself becomes familiar, and even welcome. So the experience of going to a new class with a new teacher from a different tantric background brought out this experience of fear for me that I hadn’t encountered in my practice before. After that, I was wary and uncomfortable for the rest of the practice. I kept thinking to myself, “Why did I sign up for this?” and “I wish I could just leave.”

I had to ask myself, “Why are you so afraid of encountering fear?” When it came up during the practice, I sat with it. It startled me, definitely, but I didn’t flinch. Kudos to the previous teachers for bringing to a point in my practice where I could recognize without becoming. I recognized it, for sure, but didn’t react. I was able to sit through it and continue the chant, even though with every sound the fear grew. I started wondering if it was the noise that was frightening me – usually I’m a very quiet person. Chanting is a bit out of character for me, though I’ve enjoyed it in the past.

For those who are unaware, I’ll give you a bit of background on the root chakra. Also known as the Muladhara or Mooladhara chakra, it is the chakra that sits at the base of your spine, near your coccyx. It is the chakra that deals with fundamental security and well-being, and innocence. Barbara Herring, from the Yoga Journal, says, “this energy vortex is involved in tending to our survival needs, establishing a healthy sense of groundedness, taking good basic care of the body, and purging the body of wastes.” It is the house of the unconscious. When opened, qualities that we have not realized were a part of us will emerge, “such as destructive rage, all-consuming passion, excessive desires or deep-seated anger.”(1) Others have experienced a closeness with God, great joy or freedom when activating this chakra. Because it is the home of the unconscious, emotions that we have hidden from ourselves, or that we may not even know we are feeling, arise.

In my case, the first thing to emerge was a great fear. It was the same kind of fear I experienced when I had night terrors. Thankfully, I don’t have them anymore, but that fear still lives in me. After class the teacher opened himself to any questions. Once people had left I told him of my experience and he nodded in understanding. He said that my reaction could be based on many things: a fear for my security or livelihood, fear for relationships, fear of uncertainty, or something that arose in my unconscious mind. None of those things really made me go, “Oh, yeah, that’s it!” But they definitely helped me understand that I have to work on my root chakra. He continued to say that through finding a chakra or practice I’m comfortable with, I can ground myself and work my way into the root chakra. I could chant the basic root tone: “Om Lam,” over and over just to slowly open it, and sit with whatever comes.

On the way home from class I listened to a podcast by Michael Stone, from the Centre of Gravity in Toronto. It was titled, “Feel the Fear (Heart Sutra 5)” released Mar 1, 2013. In it he mentioned the question the Dalai Lama was asked about how to deal with “deep fear effectively.” He answered:

There are quite a number of methods. The first is to think about actions and their effects. Usually when something bad happens, we say, “Oh, very unlucky,” and when something good happens, we say, “Oh, very lucky.” Actually, these two words, lucky and unlucky, are insufficient. There must be some reason. Because of a reason, a certain time became lucky or unlucky, but usually we do not go beyond lucky or unlucky. The reason, according to the Buddhist explanation, is our past karma, our actions.

One way to work with deep fears is to think that the fear comes as a result of your own actions in the past. Further, if you have fear of some pain or suffering, you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If you can, there is no need to worry about it; if you cannot do anything, then there is also no need to worry.

Another technique is to investigate who is becoming afraid. Examine the nature of your self. Where is this I? Who is I? What is the nature of I? Is there an I besides my physical body and my consciousness? This may help.

Also, someone who is engaging in the Bodhisattva practices seeks to take others’ suffering onto himself or herself. When you have fear, you can think, “Others have fear similar to this; may I take to myself all of their fears.” Even though you are opening yourself to greater suffering, taking greater suffering to yourself, your fear lessens.(2)

Michael Stone went on to say that there are three steps to a mindfulness practice:

In one sit you can go from extreme bliss to extreme fear. What is interesting is not to know the bliss and know the fear, but to start to know the knowing mind. So to look at the mind that knows bliss, and to look at the mind that knows fear, and then to start to see that the knowing is stable. So when we’re fist meditating, we’re always focusing externally on the object of what we’re noticing. So if fear is arising there’s a sense of Me noticing the Fear. The second maturation of practice is when you can fully just feel fear, until there is nothing left of you – there is just Fear. There is just being terrified. And then, I would say, you could just keep going, one more level, where when you can really be in what you feel, you can then look at the consciousness that’s knowing the feeling. Look at that part of the mind that knows. Just like the Dalai Lama said to ask, well who’s knowing. So it’s like your turning around, and instead of looking at the object, you’re looking at knowing. And then you can see that the knowing is totally stable, like a mirror. It doesn’t take the shape of fear. The knowing doesn’t take the shape of bliss. It’s just knowing.

I’m sure in the following weeks we’ll be working with the chakras more, and I’ll encounter things in class that I may not be expecting, but I’ll be ready for them. In the meantime, I’m going to be doing a lot of sitting and chanting to explore what’s in here that I don’t know, and to work with this fear.

And here we think we can judge other people, when we don’t even know ourselves.

At this point, I am excited to go again next week.

2. From, A Policy of Kindness: An Anthology of Writings By and About the Dalai Lama


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