Who Cares What You’re Afraid Of? (#912)

The other week, I was sitting in a cafe looking out over the rooftops of London when a question came to mind:

“What’s your biggest fear?”

The thing I found so interesting is that my thoughts didn’t follow the expected path of scanning through my past and future memories looking for a specific fear to call their own.  Instead, they went to the practical implications of the question and an exploration of the nature of fear itself.

For many years, I made my living by helping people manage fear by confronting it, conquering it, lessening it, and eliminating it through a variety of tools and techniques. In all that time, the most consistently effective “tool” I stumbled across was a simple question that I asked myself and my clients ad nauseum:

“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

Somehow the action steps that emerged in response were inevitably actionable and in retrospect somewhat obvious.  In other words, the most effective technique I had for dealing with fear involved ignoring it completely and carrying on as if it wasn’t there.

Simultaneously, I became intrigued by the notion of “fearlessness” – not courage, which is the muscle of will which allows us to act in the face of fear, but the lack of fear in our thinking and being that is actually far more the norm than the exception for most of us.

For example, I was being interviewed for a magazine in Brazil last week as part of the launch of the Portuguese language edition of The Inside-Out Revolution.  When the interviewer expressed her certainty that “fearlessness” was not her default, I asked her if she was afraid of cheese.  She laughed and said “no”.  I then went on to list a series of things that I was pretty sure she wouldn’t be afraid of, like paper, bits of metal, raspberries, and clouds.

I also shared stories about how I have treated people for “fear of jello” and “fear of roads” in exactly the same way as for fear of spiders or public speaking or poverty, failure, and loss.

My point was that while the fear response seems to be “built into the system”, it is not the default – it is an early warning system designed to alert us to a clear and present danger.  And what that response gets linked with over time is completely arbitrary and surprisingly irrelevant to living a happy, productive life.

When we begin to recognize our feelings of fear as being made of thought, the content of those fearful thoughts is no more relevant to our moving forward than the shape of a cloud is to whether or not an airplane can fly through it.

In other words, when it comes to having a wonderful life, fear is neither an obstacle nor a guide – it’s an irrelevance and occasional distraction.  Sometimes you’ll feel scared; sometimes you won’t.  The idea that it might be necessary or even helpful to know what it is you’re scared of and do something about it is an artifact of the outside-in misunderstanding – the idea that something outside of us could have an impact on our state of mind and access to the infinite creative possibility of mind.

As I sat in the cafe and contemplated my own life, I realized that I still feel fear on a regular basis – no more or less often as I see people around me wearing red shirts.  And in the same way as I wouldn’t make accommodations in my life to confront or avoid people in red shirts, at this point in my understanding I’m not inclined to make accommodations to either confront or avoid my fears.

Here are a few more reflections on the nature of fear you might find useful:

  • How “big” or “small” a fear appears is mostly a function of how much thinking you have about it
  • The moment you try to identify the specific circumstance or thought associated with a feeling of insecurity or fear, you turn that circumstance or thought into a “thing” that needs to be dealt with.  When you allow your fearful thoughts to flow through you, the innate “fearlessness” of the mind in which those thoughts arise and fall becomes more and more apparent
  • A fearful thought contains no more useful information about the world than an amused or curious one.  As Zen teacher Cheri Huber says, “That voice inside your head is not the voice of God – it just sounds like it thinks it is.”

Have fun, learn heaps, and happy exploring!

With all my love,


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