Blog: The Trance of Fear - Tara Brach

Blog: The Trance of Fear

Blog: Attend and Befriend

All of us live with fear. Whenever fear takes over, we’re caught in what I call the trance of fear. As we tense in anticipation of what may go wrong, our heart and mind contract. We forget that there are people who care about us, and about our own ability to feel spacious and openhearted. Trapped in the trance, we can experience life through the filter of fear, and when we do, the emotion becomes the core of our identity, constricting our capacity to live fully.

This trance usually begins in childhood, when we experience fear in relating to our significant others. Perhaps as an infant our crying late at night may have frustrated our exhausted mother. When we saw her frowning face and heard her shrill tone, suddenly we felt unsafe with the person we most counted on for safety. Our arms and fists tightened, our throat contracted, our heartbeat raced.

This physical reaction of fear in response to disapproval may have happened repeatedly through our early years. We might have tried out something new—putting on our clothes all by ourselves and gotten them backwards. We might have poured a cup of grape juice—but spilled it on the living room carpet. Each time our mother’s disapproving look and tone of frustration were directed at us, we felt the same chain reaction of fear in our body.

While the bodies of young children are usually relaxed and flexible, if experiences of fear are continuous over the years, chronic tightening happens. Our shoulders may become permanently knotted and raised, our head thrust forward, our back hunched, our chest sunken.

Rather than a temporary reaction to danger, we develop a permanent suit of armor. We become, as Chogyam Trungpa puts it, “a bundle of tense muscles defending our existence.” We often don’t even recognize this armor because it feels like such a familiar part of who we are. But we can see it in others. And when we are meditating, we can feel it in ourselves—the tightness, the areas where we feel nothing.

This trance of fear not only creates habitual contraction in our body. Our mind too becomes trapped in rigid patterns. The one-pointedness that served us in responding to real threats becomes obsession. Our mind, making associations with past experiences, produces endless stories reminding us of what bad things might happen and strategizing how to avoid them.

Through I-ing and My-ing, the self takes center stage in these stories: Something terrible is about to happen to me; I am powerless; I am alone; I need to do something to save myself. Our mind urgently seeks to control the situation by finding the cause of the problem, and we either point the finger at others or at ourselves.

Feelings and stories of unworthiness and shame are perhaps the most binding element in the trance of fear. When we believe something is wrong with us, we’re convinced that we’re somehow in danger. Our shame fuels ongoing fear, and our fear fuels more shame. The very fact that we feel fear seems to prove that we are broken or incapable. When we’re trapped in trance, being fearful and bad seem to define who we are. The anxiety in our body, the stories, the ways we make excuses, withdraw or lash out—these become to us the self that is most real.

Whenever we’re in this trance, the rest of the world fades into the background. Like the lens on a camera, our attention narrows to focus exclusively on the foreground of our fearful stories and our efforts to feel more secure.

The key to transforming this trance is by becoming aware of it—mindful of all our strategies, stories, physical reactions and bodily sensations—and allowing ourselves to be present to all of it without added constriction and judgment. If we can stay honestly and courageously awake to our fear, it can enable us to recognize and fully experience whatever is arising in the present moment, and keep us from falling into the trance.

Especially with intense or traumatic fear, a full mindful presence is often not advised or even possible as a first step.  Rather, we need to take some time to cultivate inner resources of safety, strength and loving connection. In time, these inner strengths will allow us to stay present when fear arises, and meet the experience with interest and care.

For all of us, whether traumatized or not, there is deep conditioning to reflexively pull away from contacting the rawness of fear.  Yet this avoidance is exactly what solidifies trance.  As we cultivate our willingness, mindfulness and compassion, we can learn to face and transform our fear.  We discover that we can awaken from the trance of fear even in the midst of the most challenging circumstances.

Whenever we can relate to fear rather than from fear, our sense of who we are begins to shift and enlarge. Instead of constructing a tense and embattled self, we can reconnect with our naturally spacious awareness. Instead of being trapped in and defined by our experiences, we can recognize them as a changing stream of thoughts and feelings.  In these moments we have awakened from trance.  We are inhabiting a wholeness of being that is peaceful and free.

Adapted from Radical Acceptance (2003)

Enjoy this talk on: Attend and Befriend-Healing the Fear Body

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4 thoughts on “Blog: The Trance of Fear”

  1. Steven

    Hi Tara, thanks for the blog and talks we have been listening to through downloading on itunes. since you include such great jokes with a spiritual lesson I thought I would send you two you could possibly use. One I just made up and one is an old one.
    The one I made up:

    Ariel Castro has been sentenced to life in prison for imprisoning three women in his basement for 10 years by Cleveland Judge Michael Russo.

    He will be imprisoned in a tiny makeshift cell in Cleveland.

    Ironically, Judge Michael Russo has been sentenced by the Lord of Karma to a number of years imprisonment in a tiny astral prison for imprsioning Ariel Castro.

    But the real kicker is that the Lord of Karma has now been sentenced to prison for imprisoning
    Michael Russo.

    The older one from the internet [perhaps you’ve already used it, demonstrates the blindness of the ego and assumptions]:

    One afternoon a wealthy lawyer was riding in his limousine when he saw two men along the roadside eating grass.

    Disturbed, he ordered his driver to stop and got out to investigate. He asked one man, “Why are you eating grass?”

    “We don’t have any money for food,” the poor man replied. “We have to eat grass.”

    “Well, then, you can come with me to my house and I’ll feed you,” the lawyer said.

    “But sir, I have a wife and two children with me. They are over there, under that tree.”

    “Bring them along,” the lawyer replied.

    Turning to the other poor man he stated, “You come with us also.”

    The second man, in a pitiful voice then said, “But sir, I also have a wife and SIX children with me!”

    “Bring them all, as well,” the lawyer answered.

    They all entered the car, which was no easy task, even for a car as large as the limousine. Once underway, one of the poor fellows turned to the lawyer and said, “Sir, you are too kind. Thank you for taking all of us with you.”

    The lawyer replied, “Glad to do it. You’ll really love my place; the grass is almost a foot high!”

  2. danielle breit

    My friend sent me this and I sent it out to a few others. I am caught into this fear based situation to the point I am immobilized in my own mind. I have retreated where I was a fighter. Currently doctors say my body chemically is in total fight or flight mode 100 percent of the time. I am at the point of total shut down. I have so many tramas in my life since I was 4 years old and I am now 36. It now takes 2 hands to count how many times I have survived death of the physical body, and now the mental is shutting down in fear as well. I have raised 8 kids, 3 I am still raising. I am going to try some of your techniques in hopes that I can start somewhere. I have access to no funds for a therapist and funny enough, by degree I am one. However, never in practice because I am “unable” for several reasons…all I hope to over come. I keep praying for help.
    Thank you for sharing this video. I do hope this will help.