Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Post #90: How to Bust Your Phobia

The other day in my carpool, someone stated, "I'm a germaphobe." For half a second I felt courageous, because that's not a fear I happen to share. Then I remembered that my phobia du jour is similar, but just a different flavor. They all sort of are, aren't they?

Among other things, a phobia is a convenient way for our minds to gather up all the fragments of existential and free-floating fear and anxiety, and put them in one convenient package. The mind would argue that this makes it more "manageable:" Avoid spiders and you don't have to deal with the 1,000 other scary things you see, hear, and feel throughout the day. But does this really work?

On paper, it makes sense. It's like how making a to-do list allows you to get a handle on everything you have to do, so that you're not distracted by the inherent disorganization of human life. It helps you focus and consciously decide what your priorities are and how you will carry out tasks.

The trouble with phobias is that they are based on fear, and not simply the need to get things done. As human beings in a 3-D world, fear can be bigger than life. It can stop you in your tracks or cause you to do unbelievably desperate and outrageous things. Fear can sabotage relationships, ruin your health, and cause you to manifest your worst nightmares. Fear is not for the faint-hearted.

Yesterday, I had a little epiphany about my favorite phobia. I realized that while the phobia represents my fear, the actual fear is much more general and vast. I heard the crashing sounds of a garbage truck outside my window, and for a moment it felt like total chaos and global destruction---no universal destruction. And in that instant, my lifetime of rich, spiritual experiences meant nothing. I was reduced to a speck that would simply fly away and cease to exist. Wow....I didn't see that coming.

In that moment of raw fear, my phobia became meaningless. It seemed inconsequential compared to the terror that lurked beneath the surface. And then I thought of the germaphobe and the claustrophobe and the anachrophobe, and I realized that we're all the same. We're all dealing with some deep, dark, ambiguous fear of suffering, or annihilation, or impermanence.

Existentialists would say, "Ummm, duh...," but this was a revelation for me. I think we are so close to our fear, anxiety, and/or depression, that we can't always see it for what it is. And if we have deep spiritual beliefs, it's easy to disregard the power of these base-level survival fears. We've seen the tunnel of white light and we know there's nothing to be afraid of "over there," but our bodies don't know that. In fact, our bodies know that suffering and death are guaranteed.

So, what to do? For me, just realizing that my phobia was an impostor helped me tremendously. Oddly, I can deal with primal survival fear more easily that I can deal with an intense little phobia, which means that as a coping mechanism, the phobia was an epic fail. It didn't help me like it intended to. And I think this is common with phobias because they start out as small distractions, and then take on a life of their own.

What are you afraid of, and what might lurk beneath it? I recommend the following exercise:
Get relaxed, call a familiar fear to mind, and gently ask yourself the question,"What's so scary about that?" When you get an answer, ask again, "And what's so scary about that?" If you hang in there long enough to get to the heart of the matter, you might be surprised at what you discover. If you're anything like me, you'll get relief from busting the phobia and facing off with the real culprit (which is, at the very least, authentic).