Geoff Thompson • • 9 min read
The Alchemy of Suffering: How to Avoid the Temptation of Fear
“Life is suffering.”
So says the Buddha.
“Is that it? Is that all you’ve got to offer from a life time’s pilgrimage? Tell me something I don’t know my fat friend.”
I am paraphrasing from a monologue in my latest stage play, Fragile, which evoked a wonderful 5 star review from one Edinburgh reviewer, with the caveat; ‘in no way do I recommend that you see this play.’
Now then, there’s an oxymoron.
In her defence, Fragile is a tough watch; it evokes discomfort in the audience because the nameless character speaks with blistering honesty about the secret that keeps him sick.
The secret that keeps us all sick.
He is mortally afraid; his secret is that he is full of fear.
I am fascinated by the fact that this one emotion seems to hold our entire species to ransom. The most intelligent men and women in the world are all held under its miasmic spell. They all feel fear, and they all react to its call when aroused by any kind of confrontational stimulus. People the length and breadth of the known world are fighting over land, over power, over money and over beliefs.
Many of them are prepared to kill others in order to enforce their way.
They are fighting because they are afraid.
There is beautiful story I read once about Francis of Assisi.
Legend has it that Francis nursed a mortal fear of leprosy, and he confessed his secret in prayer to God. The next day, as he rode through the countryside on his horse he heard the ever familiar warning clang of a leper’s bell in the distance and his heart sank. His immediate reaction was to heed the alarm and run away. Instead, he listened to an inner voice that instructed him to climb down from his horse and embrace the Leper. This he did, kissing the sick man on the cheek and wrapping him in a warm cloak. Francis decided to carry the leper to a nearby refuge, but before he had even walked a few steps he felt the man get lighter and lighter in his arms. When Francis pulled the cloak away, the Leper had vanished.
The message was clear: when we embrace fear, it has no existence, and anything left between us and our Great Potential disappears.
Philosophers would have us believe that all terrors share a singular Genesis: the fear of death.
As a man who has stood on that very dangerous edge and has risked life, limb and sanity in order to study fear in forensic detail I can tell you categorically that this is not true. The reaper may be the bogey-man of archetype, but he is not the nemesis of the masses. There are people in the world right now – thousands of them – that will end their mortal lives before this day is out, deliberately and violently, not because they are afraid of dying, rather they will cut short their earthly sojourn because death casts a less daunting shadow than life.
These troubled souls are not numbers and statistics, they are not strangers who headline on a news bulletin or appear in the obituary column, they are people we know: brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, friends.
Today… family and friends will jump under peak-hour tube trains, gas themselves in lonely cars or hang by the neck from an open attic hatch rather than face their fear.
This is not the first time I have written on this subject.
My first published book, Watch My Back is a 552 page discourse on fear. It chronicles how (and why) I became a nightclub bouncer in Coventry in a bid to eradicate the chemical cocktail that kept me so small, so afraid. I followed this book with another title, Fear the Friend of Exceptional People, detailing my process: identifying and managing fear through exposure therapy and desensitisation.
These books offer the elixir of my hard journey.
As a young man I was bullied by fear, hounded by depression, sometimes I was afraid simply of being alive. After deep internal enquiry I was able to discern that it was not injury that frightened me, neither was it the angry mob or the assailant’s knife – I realised it was fear that frightened me.
Or more specifically the feelings that are associated with fear.
The explosion of fight-or-flight in my stomach.
The caustic burn of bobsleigh-adrenalin running a gauntlet through my veins.
An untrammelled and ill-schooled imagination that dragged me into all nine circles of the inferno.
A squatting internal voice who threatened me with every past recrimination and all possible future disasters. Adrenalin spawned heinous stories that I played out over and over in a nauseating loop. They became three dimensional realities projected onto the cinema screen of my mind. Like prison guards, they kept me padlocked in a small reality: joyless marriage, menial job and a savage scarcity mentality.
The fear of fear itself scattered my emotions to all four corners of terror.
But there was more.
I could cope with fear and anxiety for a minute or for an hour or even for a day if I had to, but it was the pervasive threat of having to endure the same feelings again the next day, the next week and the next year that blackmailed me into deep depressions. Especially as I had no answer to the unsolicited and often random onslaughts of rogue stress hormones, no coping strategies, other than to run away, hide or throw a blanket of denial and heavy consummation over my angst: food, drink, drugs, porn – the usual subjects.
These unlikely medicines always promised relief, and then reneged; they turned out to be back-door inflammables to an internal fire that was already raging out of control.
I was afraid of nothing more than my own bodily reactions to confrontation.
And worse than this, I felt as though I was the only person in the world who felt so afraid.
This made my reality a lonely place.
In order to understand and perhaps overcome this irrational sensitivity, I conducted a searching enquiry into the genesis of my fear. I traced some of my anxiety back to biological heredity (the adrenals are a life-saving part of the human anatomy). I followed much of my fear home to social conditioning, the early teachings of my peer group; I inherited my mother’s debilitating fear of shame, I did not question the religious dogma that even God must be feared, and I lived by the innate mantra that ambition was not for the likes of me, it was pretention, and should be clubbed like a beached seal.
My culture was also an ill angel – the poisoned well of tabloid media was a breeding ground for fear with its bleed-to-lead policies, and it’s highly subjective mode of scaremonger reporting.
I realised after close scrutiny (qualitative and quantitative) of myself and the world around me, that I didn’t know anyone who had not fallen into a debilitative fear and subsequently allowed that imposter to (if not destroy then at least) diminish their life.
My beautiful brother Ray was a case in question.
He died violently at the age of 42.
He left behind four beautiful school-aged children and a legacy of terror.
I was with my brother at his best when the world was not big enough to contain his great ambition, where every fear became vapour before his courage.
I was also by his side when poor life decisions turned his fear into disease and pushed him towards the dubious balm of alcohol. I watched his world shrink to the size of a hospital bed and finally the muddy hole when his fear became a coat that he could no longer take off.
I wrote a film inspired by my brother (Brown Paper Bag) both to honour his life and to extract any learning that his brief stay on this spinning planet might offer me.
I refused to let him leave without snaffling at least some of his learning.
The essential teaching of his four decades was not that we should eschew fear.
Met with a lion in the jungle or its equivalent, brandishing a knife, down a dark alleyway fear is very necessary if we are to stay alive for our allotted four score years and ten. His tutorial was that we should listen to fear when its message was rational, ignore and override the alarm signals when the trigger was neurotic, and develop both the wisdom to know the difference, and the will to act in the positive.
It sounds insultingly simple, and of course in concept it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Certainly my brother was not able to bring his terror to heel.
No matter what our stature, our wealth or our knowledge, we remain, as a species, deliciously vulnerable.
Fear left unchecked is a contagion.
All of our religious scriptures, right back to the metaphysical teachings of Hermes Trismegistus concur on this one point.
Every bible has forewarned us of the illusory and yet destructive nature of fear and how, unguarded, even our prophets and saints fell under its spell.
Arjuna Pandava (Hindu prince, son of Kunti) buckled under the weight of fear on the battlefield, fighting to win back his stolen kingdom from his corrupt cousins.
Joshua Ben Miriam found his knees in the garden of Gethsemane and begged God, ‘please take this cup from me’ when the fear caught him, as it must catch us all.
The Holy Prophet Mohamed ran in terror when the Archangel Gabriel spoke to him in the caves of Saudi Arabia, outside Mecca. He was so afraid that he wanted to throw himself off the mountain, he begged his wife Kadija to hide him under a coat.
If even the prophets fell into the temptation of fear, and the greatest brains of our species have been unable to escape its clammy grip, what are we to do?
I’ve been searching for the answer to this question my whole life.
I have taken the advice of Rumi and become a night stalker, hunting down my fears.
I have heeded the council of Jesus, who said that I should not resist evil.
And I have followed the doctrine of Lord Krishna and shed light on the sea of nescience with increased intelligence and expanded awareness.
All of this written wisdom and literary instruction has helped me greatly.
I am grateful.
In times of trouble, it has offered refuge, perhaps even a temporary map.
But there is nothing better than actual experience in the arena, a personal scrimmage with fear to find our own truth, or at least confirm the conclusions of lore.
We can only truly know what we have personally experienced.
I am in my sixth decade of facing fear and (as the Irish say) I have been around a few corners: this is what I have learned so far, this is what I know.
Fear is an illusion.
It is vapour.
It is a cosmic joke that the universe is playing on us, or perhaps that we are playing on ourselves.
It is not real.
It is little more than a cocktail of hormones and chemicals that our bodies release in times of perceived threat.
These chemicals and hormones are biological, they are us.
The perceptions too are ours.
Or certainly they are a part of us.
Being afraid of (what is essentially) our self, makes no sense intellectually.
Certainly fear is subjective, which is why one man’s adrenal-rush can be another man’s terror-barrier.
Although fear is not real, the perception that it has existence is still strong enough to start wars and end lives. People decapitate other people on the World Wide Web not in acts of great courage or righteous revenge; people commit heinous acts of violence in moments of deep fear.
Although I am a practiced man, versed in the language of fear, and although I have learned how to manage and manipulate my own biology in times of stress, I still fall for the false perception the same as everyone else. When the adrenalin drops and my ancient survival mechanism commands that I run, fight or freeze into immobility it still takes every sinew of my being not to react in the negative.
So what can we do?
What can I do?
That is the question I keep asking myself, the perennial question.
Personally, I am going to keep doing what I have always done.
Why not, it works.
It is uncomfortable, but it delivers, I have the proof, my life is the proof.
Like the Buddha, I shall accept that life is suffering and lean harder into the sharp edges. In accepting that life is suffering I may not immediately end my pain, but certainly I will honour it, and I will become better at the alchemy of suffering, turning my moments of lead into talents of gold.
Like the Christ I may occasionally fall to my knees in fear and ask for this cup to be taken from me, but I will get up again, and I will face my stations with courage, with grace.
Like the Holy prophet, I will climb the mountain again; I will enter the cave, and stand trembling before the angel I fear.
And inspired by Prince Arjuna, I will honour my dharma; I will engage every battle to win back the kingdom that is my true inheritance.
And finally, ultimately, like Francis of Assisi, when I hear the ever familiar warning bell of my leper-fear I will accept it, I will embrace it, I will kiss it on the cheek.
I will not run away, or cover myself with the heavy blanket of denial and consumption, or hide under the protective coat of Kadija, rather I will wrap my fear in a cloak of loving understanding and I will watch as it transcends before my very eyes.
Fear knocked at the door, the poet Rumi told us, and love answered. There was no one there.
There was no one there because fear is an illusion, and courageous love breaks its spell.
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Fear: The Friend of Exceptional People