Facing Fear and Loving Without Restraint.
“We pretend we aren’t vulnerable, but this is an illusion. We are incarnated in a delicate body, intertwined in the community of life. Our senses have evolved to be exquisitely tuned to the ever-changing world of pleasure and pain, sweet and sour, gain and loss. Love and freedom invite us to turn toward the world. They offer the gifts of a flexible heart, wide enough to embrace experience, vulnerable yet centered.” ~ Jack Kornfield
Nowhere does anxiety show up with more intensity and confusion than in our intimate relationships: with friends, colleague, relatives, and most prominently, with partners and children. For if anxiety is often a protector against vulnerable feelings — and nowhere are we more vulnerable than in our relationships — it makes sense that anxiety would have a field day where the heart is most at risk for loss.
This is when it’s essential to understand the workings of anxiety and decode its message so that we don’t become lost in its top-layer manifestations, closing ourselves off from the one thing we crave, need, and long for more than anything else in this world: love.
The vulnerability of loving becomes illuminated in those moments when fear falls away and we gain a clear glimpse into the center of our heart.
One of these poignant moments occurred one night many years ago when, through a rare turn of events as a mother of two young children, I was able to attend an evening yoga class with my favorite teacher. The class started at 5:30 p.m., so at 5:00 p.m. I gathered my things, kissed everyone goodbye, and drove into the darkening evening.
As I parked, then walked to class, I marveled at the novelty of being out at night: the bare-leaved trees on the Twenty Ninth Street mall adorned with winter lights; couples on first dates strolling on the idyllic promenade; the Rocky Mountains jutting up in the dark blue light behind them; young parents toting their baby from a restaurant to the car, beaming at their little treasure.
It had been a long time since I was out at night on my own, and I felt like an alien visiting from another planet, thoroughly enjoying earthly sights.
The class was beautiful. My teacher channeled wisdom, and my body half-heard him as I breathed into the poses and allowed his words to trickle in and reverberate on a nonverbal level.
Sometimes a phrase would catch my breath like, “We must meet our egos with kindness, as it’s not something we can get rid of. The ego is the part of us that must travel on this earth, and because it knows that it cannot accompany us beyond the line of mortality, it holds a sadness. We must meet this sadness with compassion.”
His words traveled directly to my heart where I thought first about my then eight-year-old older son and his unfiltered awareness of death, which brought with it a necessary sadness. I thought about how my husband and I continuously met his sadness and helped him find ways of defining it in his body so that it could move through him without causing stagnation.
I then thought about my clients who also struggled with an awareness of death as children, and how alone they felt as they tried to process the existential questions without a guide. I opened my heart to the pain, the tenderness, the rawness of being human.
As the class progressed, and the blue evening darkened into black night, I thought about the walk from the studio to my car, which was parked at the far end of the parking lot, and I noticed a jolt of fear flash through me.
In my twenties, I used to go out all the time at night and would park in all kinds of strange places. I had certainly felt fear in the past, but I had never had as much to lose as I did that night: a husband whom I adore beyond words, and two magical sons who would be crushed if something happened to me.
I had more to lose than that, of course, including a tight-knit circle of friends who are like family, but it was the intimate loved ones, the children of my womb, who flashed into my fear-mind as the class came to a close.
I lay down in Shavasana and breathed into the fear. Within moments, I could feel underneath the fear into the vulnerability of loving my husband and two boys more than I ever knew possible. And with the awareness of the vulnerability came the tears.
They weren’t tears of grief; they were tears of rawness, tears that arose from knowing that loving that deeply meant taking an immense risk, and that should anything happen to any one of us, our hearts would be torn apart. Beyond that I could not go, except to hold out a thin strand of faith that should anything occur, somehow, some way, we would mend.
The risk of loving. The love reaches out into worlds beyond our world, and asks us to grow beyond ourselves.
Anyone who commits to this path of healing must unravel into the heart of the fear and, at the very center, touch down into the risk of loving. The fears keep us separate from the raw and vulnerable places in our hearts.
There are moments when I see with crystalline clarity that the endless questions that show up in romantic love (“Do I love him/her enough?” “What if I’m settling?”) and the ways the mind ruminates about other meaningful relationships (with friendships and family) are all elaborate defense mechanisms.
They are designed to avoid the vulnerability of loving, the exquisitely painful knowledge that when we commit our hearts, we take the risk of enduring the most painful of human experiences: loss and heartbreak.
Sitting at the center of worry and intrusive thoughts is, quite simply, the fear of loss, and if you could peel those thoughts away, you would cry, as I did that night. And through the strength of the tears, you would find the courage to go on, to expose your heart, and take the only risk worth taking: to love and be loved as fully and completely as if it were your last day on earth.
To love without restraint. To love with joyous abandon. To set the fear-voices on a fence at the edge of the meadow of your mind, and witness them while knowing that they are no longer running the show, allowing them to watch you as you run or dance or stumble into the arms of love.
Sheryl Paul, M.A., has guided thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, bestselling books, online courses, and website. She is the author of the new book, The Wisdom of Anxiety: How Worry and Intrusive Thoughts Are Gives to Help You Heal (Sounds True, May 28, 2019). Sheryl lives in Colorado with her husband and two sons. You could contact Sheryl via her website.