Admitting When We're Afraid

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel
November 13, 2020

As a girl of ten years, satin ribbons in my hair, and wearing a freshly starched dress, I had a special seat in church each Sunday next to my father, Lawrence Manuel Jr. With my younger sister and mother on the other side, I sat close to him, appreciating our special relationship to the word of God.  

My father was a talented and courageous man; a sharecropper's son, born in 1898 in Opelousas, Louisiana and raised in the backwoods, he learned to do whatever was necessary to survive. He was what I called “fearless,” and, as I sat next to him at church, I prayed to be fearless just like him.

On the other hand, it was also in church where my deepest fears emerged as a child. How was I going to negotiate my young life with God, so that I would not go to hell? I was terrified. The stories my parents told of the South and race relations brought even more terror. And on an unforgettable night in 1966, right in Inglewood, California, a cross was burned on our front lawn. Fear and anxiety can accumulate over a lifespan.

Many of us are afraid of fear, and afraid of admitting, even to ourselves, that we feel it. We push back the visceral body experience of fear so effectively we think we have eliminated the fear itself. Often, we try many strategies to eliminate this feeling of terror by rearranging our external lives like furniture in our house. If I changed the way I look, I'd be less afraid. If I had more money to maintain a particular appearance, I'd be less afraid.

But all of these strategies are bound to fail. The longer we mask our fear, the more we experience the terror of our inauthenticity—perhaps creating chronic anxiety and despair. Our accumulated fear can become a deep-seated terror that is challenging to uproot.

And then, at challenging times such as these, we fear that the terror we mask may be exposed. Fear creates more fear.

To release this terror, we must stop pretending to be unafraid, and confront the terror from within. We need to first unmask the fear; we need to let go of pretending we have no fear. In my own experience, once I understood that it was okay to be afraid, the healing began. The wisdom in my bones came alive and I became aware in the midst of fear and anxiety that the mind and body were begging to purge the terror within. With this awareness, the waters of my mind stopped whirling and I could at last begin to see my reflection.

It doesn’t work to try to unload the entire mass of fear inside at once. But we can release terror moment by moment, bit by bit, by experiencing it in meditation. 

Meditation assists me in seeing the roots of my emotions, and that they are often very old. When I notice terror rising to the surface, I note, "I am in the past." Then, I ask, "What is going on here, right now?" When I am angry or enraged, I know to say, "I am terrified of something." I refrain from being ashamed of experiencing these emotions. Only through acknowledging and releasing blind emotions can I experience the inner unencumbered and harmonious being that is always present despite the suffering. 

Finally, in meditation we learn to cultivate and stretch the moments of being unencumbered, those places of non-suffering. We can experience the state of non-suffering with each breath, moment by moment, breathing in and breathing out. In meditation we feel the fear without having to do anything about it in the moment. We simply breathe. There is no past or future. We are not harming or being harmed. The terror within is being attended to in a gentle way. There may be tears or trembling. We are alive.

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel is an author, poet, Zen Buddhist priest, teacher, artist, and drum medicine woman. She holds a Ph.D and worked for decades for arts organizations and those serving women and girls, cultural arts and mental health. Her books include The Way of Tenderness: Awakening Through Race, Sexuality, and Gender.

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