Facing Fear With Compassion

Af journalist og forfatter Elizabeth Gilbert

“Hello everybody.

This is Liz Gilbert and I’ve been invited to talk to you today. A little bit about fear.

I was more than happy to accept this invitation because you see, fear and I are very, very old friends.

We’ve been walking together side by side for pretty much my entire life.

We’ve actually never spent very much time apart, and so you could say that I have come to know fear pretty well, learn to work with it, learn to be intimate with it. There’s some things I’ve learned about it that I’d like to share with you if it would be helpful.

So.

As I am recording this message to you, the world is facing the coronavirus pandemic and a lot of you understandably are feeling deeply frightened.

The primary thing that I want to tell you today is that it’s OK. If you’re frightened, it’s OK, and it’s completely natural.

I don’t need you to be some kind of hero right now.

And I definitely don’t need you to play the role of some kind of perfected spiritual master who is able to glide through the most violent and shattering upheavals of life without so much as flinching.

As far as I’m concerned, you can be whatever you actually are right now. Authentically afraid, anxious, nervous, unsettled, or frankly terrified.

To me it makes perfect sense that you would be afraid.

There’s a tremendous deal of uncertainty in the world right now, more than most of us have seen in our lifetimes.

As my friend, the great writer and translator, Stephen Mitchell has said about the way destiny can change the world in a heartbeat.

First they pull the rug out from under your feet.

Then they pull the floor out from under the rug. Then they pull the ground out from under the floor.

And now you’re getting somewhere in terms of understanding how unpredictable and frightening life on Earth can feel.

And human beings, by our very nature, do not do well with unpredictability and uncertainty. So yeah, a lot of us are anxious right now.

And that’s OK.

It’s natural.

And I also want to make something clear. I’m not here to underplay this thread or to tell you that nothing bad is going to happen.

I don’t know what’s going to happen. Nobody does, that’s the problem.

And I’m certainly not here to say that all of this is just temporary, so shake it off, or that it’s all just an illusion of consciousness. So it’s not really happening at all, so you can just live in the moment and joy.

I don’t know if any of that is true. I don’t even know if I can do that.

I do know for a fact that whenever I have been afraid and somebody told me to just shake it off ’cause it was temporary or that I should just live in the moment joy or that this is all just an illusion of consciousness. I have kind of wanted to punch that person in the face.

Those words never comforted me when I was feeling anxious and fearful in this moment, so I will not say those words to you.

What I do want to say to you is this.

If you’re afraid right now, I love you.

I see you. I know you, I am you and I love you.

If you’re afraid you and I are the same. If you’re in fear right now, you’re not experiencing anything that I haven’t experienced in my own life. Indeed, that I might be experiencing right now. If you’re feeling fear at this moment, I want you to know that I consider you to be my beloved friend, my family member, and all. I really want to do is wrap you up.

In unconditional compassion.

Because I know how hard it is to navigate the incredible intense emotion of fear.

And how would I like to wrap you up in unconditional compassion?

Well, imagine this.

Imagine if I were in the room with you right now in person and it was just the two of us and I could see that you were lost in a deep attack of fear.

I know what I would want to say to you.

I would want to say to you things like I’m right here.

I’m right here with you and I’m not going anywhere.

I have nowhere better to be than right here with you right now, and I’m going to stay here with you through this and I want you to know that I don’t need anything from you. I don’t need you to be brave, I don’t need you to be a grown up a leader, transcendent a bad ass, I don’t need anything.

I don’t even need you to feel better. If that’s not possible for you right now.

I would never ask you to do something you can’t do.

I don’t need you to banish your fears magically before my eyes are suddenly just be totally chill. I don’t need anything from you, I just love you.

I’m gonna stay right here by your side no matter what they come. You are not alone. You’ve got me.

And there’s nothing you could do or not to that could ever cost you my love or my presence.

And there’s nothing that can happen out there in the world that will take my love away from you either. I’m not going anywhere.

I’m right here.

You can be as shaky as you need to feel.

Whatever it is.

I will face it with you, we will face it together.

Now how do I know how to say those words to you?

Because those are the words that I have learned over the years to say to myself when I get terrified. And yeah, I do still get terrified on the regular.

And when I do get terrified and it’s not an if but a when.

When I do get terrified, I’ve learned to stop whatever I’m doing and go and be alone with myself as soon as I can.

Sit down for a moment. Open my Journal.

And I will start writing myself a letter from love.

And the words of this love letter that I write to myself, when I’m afraid, are invariably exactly like the words I just imagined myself saying to you a moment ago.

Words like I’m right here, Liz, I love you. I’ve got you. I’m not going anywhere. I see how much you’re suffering and I’ve got nothing but time to sit here and be with you. I’m not leaving you I will never leave you whatever this is we will face it together you are not alone.

That’s what I write to myself whenever I get scared, even if I am and I’m off it alone.

And I’m telling you it helps if I stay with it and I just keep letting loves words pour out onto the page toward my fear.

I find that the most remarkable thing happens. My fear eventually starts to retreat and I start to calm down.

I don’t know why this works, but it works.

It’s not hard to write to yourself from unconditional Love Actually.

It’s the simplest thing. All you have to do is ask yourself what are the words that I wish somebody else would say to me right now. If the most loving and supportive and strong person in the world was here to take care of me, what would I want to hear that person say?

And then you write down those imaginary words down.

From love directly to you directly to your fear.

And when you start doing this, when you start writing to yourself from love, you’ll realize that you always know what you need to hear because you’ve been longing to hear those words your whole life. You’ve just been wanting somebody else to say them.

Now is the time where you say those words to yourself.

And you do it on paper because it’s somehow easier that way.

That’s what I do anyway.

This voice of compassion and love and patience that I show to myself now whenever I’m afraid and I sit down and write myself a letter from love.

This was not always the way that I talked to myself when I was scared.

It’s something that I’ve had to learn to do over the years, and I can say in all honesty that writing this letter to my fear from unconditional love has become my foremost daily spiritual practice.

I do it all the time because I’m afraid constantly I’m not ashamed to say that anymore. I used to be ashamed of it, but I’m not now.

Like many of us, I grew up in a culture and in the family that taught me to hate and despise my fear, to be ashamed of my fear, to be afraid of my fear even.

Fear was absolutely not allowed. Fear was something that you should get rid of, preferably or if you couldn’t get rid of it, you should at least have the dignity to hide it. If you couldn’t banish it.

So for most of my life, I beat myself up ferociously whenever I felt like I was afraid.

I was so ashamed of that emotion. Why couldn’t I conquer it? Why couldn’t I be more mature, more tough, more resilient or transcendent? I believed because I had been taught to believe.

That what I needed to do is my fear was zip it up, pull it together, get my act straight, tuck it in, laugh it off, go out there, be strong or maybe become so deeply spiritual, so saturated with faith and trust that I would never again experience the discomfort of fear.

That all sounds really good in theory, but the problem is I could never do it.

Because often I was just truly afraid. I just was.

And then I would get so ashamed of myself for my perceived weakness, and that shame just took my fear and multiplied it exponentially like kerosene poured over flame.

So now I wasn’t just afraid I was afraid and humiliated and panic stricken and desperate and helpless. And as surely as day follows night. I would then start attacking myself.

And now.

We really are now.

I want to say to you.

But if you’re having any feelings of shame today about how afraid you might be feeling, then once again I love you.

I see you. I know you, I am you and I love you.

Maybe you’re feeling ashamed of yourself that you’re not braver that you’re not feeling more steady that you’re not doing a good job in this crisis that you’re not setting a good enough example for your kids that you’re not being a good enough leader that you’re not making the right decisions that you can’t seem to put your spiritual practices in play here.

All that is the case if you were feeling as I often have felt in my life, a mixture of fear and shame.

And I invite you to gently let yourself off the hook, at least for the shame.

Fear is a difficult enough emotion to handle, but fear plus shame can escalate swiftly into a real mental health emergency.

So why don’t we drop that knife that you’re holding to your neck, my dear one?

About how you’re not handling this correctly, and let’s see if you can find some mercy for yourself about the very natural emotions that you’re feeling.

Yeah, let’s just start there.

With mercy.

And the scary news about the coronavirus first broke the first person I reached out to in order to reassure and comfort them wozny

You see, I want to live my life and devoted service to humanity, but I know that I can’t serve anybody else until I myself am calm.

And if I’m in a heightened state of panic, then I have to take care of me first.

I have to immediately take care of the one human being who I know is actively suffering in that moment, and that was me.

So at the beginning of this crisis, I did what I always do when I’m scared.

I sat down and I wrote myself a long letter from love.

Using the most soothing language that I could find.

Talking to myself as if I were the unconditionally loving Cosmic mother herself.

Cradling her most beloved baby.

In that letter, right there at the beginning of all the anxiety, I wrote things to myself like I see how frightened you are, little one. And that’s all, right? This is a frightening time.

It’s OK if you’re scared, but I need you to understand that I am right here with you.

You don’t have to have any answers right now, sweetheart, and it’s OK if you feel paralyzed or helpless or if you make mistakes along the way, or even if you overreact.

I don’t need you to perform well. I don’t need anything from you, I just love you and I’m with you no matter what.

And I will just sit here talking gently and lovingly to you for as long as it takes until you can draw a breath again.

I’m in no hurry. I’ve got nowhere else more important to be. I have nothing else more important to do than to love you.

Nothing matters more than me being here for you. I’ve got you. I love you and I’m not going any.

So that’s what I did.

I sat there for a few hours all by myself, writing myself, loving and kind words, endlessly pouring it out onto the page, and every time my fear rose up and said, yeah, but what’s gonna happen? My love replied through my hand I don’t know baby that’s not my Department I’m just love and I’m just here to tell you that I love you and I will love you through this.

No matter what comes.

And every time my fear rose up and demanded, but I need you to tell me what to do to stay safe. Love said, well maybe it’s not clear what to do yet, but I know that you’ll make the best decisions you can and whatever happens, I’ll be right here with you. I love you, I’ve got you. You can’t lose me.

And whenever my fear rose up and demanded, but how can I save all those people who are suffering or who are about to suffer?

Love said.

My darling one, you might not be able to.

But I will show you how to love them.

Through their suffering you will love them the way I love you. Just like this. And then we’ll walk through this together.

And at last, after I wrote to myself for a long time.

My terrified mind finally surrendered into love.

And I could draw steady breath, center myself, and be somewhat more ready to face the world again.

If I’m doing well at all right now, whatever doing well even means it’s only because I took top long pause at the beginning of this crisis to write myself a direct letter from unconditional love and to shower myself with infinite kindness.

And I’ve repeated that exercise several times since every time I get terrified again.

If I didn’t have this small, simple practice of writing myself these letters every day from love of showing myself extreme tenderness and mercy, I can promise you that I would be spinning out in total panic right now.

Which would eventually make my whole nervous system crash, and then I would fall apart and breakdown, and then I would be one more person who needed to be helped instead of being somebody who maybe might be able to help a little bit, if only by offering love because she knows love because she gives herself love.

Compassion.

That’s the answer.

Trust me on this, you guys in my own lived experience, here is what I have learned. The opposite of fear is not courage. The opposite of fear is compassion.

You cannot chase fear out. You can only bring love in.

Bring love in and the fear starts to subside.

Bringing enough love to your heart that you feel you’re cradling yourself with infinite tenderness and the fear will have no choice but to start to relax its hold on you.

So that’s my suggestion to once for helping to soothe yourself when you’re afraid. Sit down, open a notebook and start writing yourself along. Patient letter from unconditional love.

I know that this might sound rudimentary.

Or like it couldn’t possibly work, but I invite you to try it. You’ve got nothing to lose anyway, right?

I’m only giving you what I know what I practice in my life.

And what I know is that writing to my fear from a place of love saves my life every single day.

My suggestion is that you don’t hurry through this exercise really show up for yourself really. Shower yourself with tenderness.

If you’re not sure what to write to yourself, again, imagine what you wish the most compassionate and loving and gentle person in the world would say to you if they were right there and then say that to you.

Tell yourself what you’ve always longed to hear somebody else say. I’ve got you. I’m not leaving you I’ll always take care of you.

And if that doesn’t work, allow me to suggest the first sentence, or at least the first sentence. But I always use these three simple words. I’m right here.

And then let love speak to your fear through your own hand.

I literally do this every day. I’ve been writing these letters of love to myself for 20 years. I’ve written letters of love to myself. When I was in hospital, waiting rooms in the middle of the night when I was sick, and alone when I was going through divorce and heartbreak whenever I failed my own perfectionist standards. When somebody I loved was dying when I was.

Overcome with existential dread.

And I can tell you it always works. Love always shows up and love always has the same thing to say to.

I’m right here.

Look, I don’t pretend to know what that voice of love is or where it comes from. I’ve taught this method to a lot of people though, and it doesn’t matter who they are or what they’re going through when they start to write themselves. Letters from unconditional love, their fear starts to dissolve.

And their letters read exactly the same as mine do that same tender voice. That same reassurance that same sense of you can never lose me.

So what is that voice of love? Where is it coming from?

Is it God?

Is it our Guardian Angels?

Is it the loving energy of the universe itself? Trying to tell us at a cellular level matter how scary things look. My beloved, you are safe and you belong.

Or is it just my imagination trying to comfort me when I’m scared?

I don’t know.

But if it is just my imagination.

Well, thank you imagination.

Whatever it is, I pass it to you. Give it a try.

When you’re afraid, open up a notebook and write yourself a letter of unconditional love.

And if writing to yourself doesn’t help to calm your fears, that’s OK too. I love you anyway. This doesn’t have to work for me to love you. I’m just sharing with you anything that I got that might help right now. And this is what I’ve got.

And if writing a letter to your fear from unconditional love seems way out of reach for you, or if all this seems impossibly woo, then let me offer you one more thought.

If you’re looking for courage in the face of catastrophe, try to remember this.

Human beings are enormously resourceful, creative and resilient, both as individuals and as a species.

Yes, what we are facing is scary and serious.

But every single one of us is the direct genetic descendant of ancestors who survived unthinkable hardships. That’s who you come from. That’s who we all come from, survivors. That’s what you’re made of literally thousands and thousands of generations of people who survived.

If they hadn’t survived, you wouldn’t be here, so resilience is your birthright survival as our shared historical story. If you’re afraid for yourself or others, or for the future of humanity, take a moment to remember our common ancestors and recall what they faced, but they got through.

This Winston Churchill said we have not journeyed across the centuries across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies because we are made of sugar candy.

Resilience is our shared inheritance. Resourcefulness is the very hallmark of our species.

We are creative. We are adaptive and history has shown that humanity sometimes always finds a way.

Even when it appears that there is no way.

So if you don’t wanna address your fears and a letter from love if you find that’s out of reach, then try looking at it. From an evolutionary point of view, we are strong. It’s a fact that we’re actually just incredibly strong. You’ve probably already survived a great deal in life, emotionally, physically, financially. I don’t even need to know who you are to know that you survived a lot.

Already you’ve gotten this far.

May have resources that you’re not even aware of yet.

I believe that about you. I even believe that about me. I’m not saying that what’s coming is going to be easy neither to experience for ourselves, nor to witness and others.

Whatever is coming is coming, and it promises to be difficult.

But for those of you who have been doing any kind of spiritual practices over the years, well, my loves this is what we have been practicing for.

Spiritual practices are exercises that are meant to prepare you for exactly these sorts of moments in life, for the hardest of times. When those practices can be transformed into a way of living, a way of surviving.

All those hours that you may have already spent in meditation or prayer, it was all for this. None of it was wasted.

Nothing you’ve ever learned, spiritual or otherwise, has been wasted.

Without even knowing it, you’ve been building all sorts of reserves, overtime, deep muscles that you didn’t know about yet, and you’re stronger than you know.

Anything you’ve ever gotten through your life so far. Any wisdom that you’ve gathered, it’s all been in preparation for what’s happening now.

As one soldier might tell, another soldier before going into battle. Remember your training buddy. This is what we came here for. This is what we’ve been practicing for and this is where it counts.

And if you can’t remember your training, sometimes it’s OK. I can’t always do it either.

You’ll falter, you’ll stumble your panic and that’s OK too.

When that happens, just sit down and write yourself another letter from love.

Come back to repeating those three magical soothing words to yourself from infinite kindness. I’m right here.

I got you.

I love you.

And I’m not going anywhere. Do you feel that? Do you hear that?

I’m right here, I’ve got you. I love you.

And I’m not going anywhere.

That’s what love always says. I’ve got you, you’re not alone.

And love I have found is never not here.

So that’s what I’ve got for you, my dear ones, take what is useful, leave the rest, and please take care of yourself. Sweethearts, I mean, take care of your hearts. Be gentle on you through this and be merciful to anyone else out there who’s in fear and pain.

And be merciful to you.

Tenderness will bring you to places that toughness cannot. I promise you, that’s the one thing I do know.

So.

Can you take the next breath?

Cool, maybe another one now.

Great, your breathing.

Maybe that’s all you need to do right now. There are times in life where you have to take life one day at a time, and there are times when you have to take it one breath at a time and maybe today is one of those days.

So just take another breath. Still breathing terrific.

As far as I’m concerned, you’re doing great.

I’m here with you. I see you, I know you, I am you. I’m proud of you.

I’m right here in better welcomes and more than anything else I love you.”

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