So I’ve written 220 blog posts here at the Fear Mastery Blog as of this last week, so I thought it was time to indulge my inner nerd. Yes, this will probably come as a surprise to you my readers, but I am a nerd. A HUGE nerd.

(The next habits post I promised to you is still coming – after this one. Hey, it’s also my birthday, so I’m indulging myself. 🙂 )

Now I promise not to torment you with long Star Trek quotes or show you pictures of me in my Hogwarts t-shirt. No, the extent of my nerdiness today is to take something from one of the great science-fiction books, entitled “Dune”, and talk about its usefulness in our fight to break the hold of anxiety in our lives.

What, you say? A sci-fi book has something to say about anxiety?

Yes. Something really, really useful.

The Litany Against Fear

Litany 5

The book “Dune” is a big and complex book, and I won’t pretend to summarize it here. But among many themes the story addresses is facing our fear. Let me recite to you the Litany Against Fear:

“I will not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer,
The little death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it is gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

The hero of our story says this to himself when he’s facing something that makes him anxious at the start of the book. And believe me, there is a lot to mine out of this little gem, even if some of it sounds crazy to you, like the part that reads “I will permit it to pass over me and through me.” That sounded crazy to me too when I first read it…

Let me skip the first line in my little analysis here and go to “Fear is the Mind-Killer.” That’s a great line. The moment we are anxious we begin to activate Flight or Fight in our brains and bodies, and Flight or Fight has its own agenda with us once it is engaged.

As I have discussed HERE our critical thinking abilities are compromised, sometimes pretty seriously, when we are rolling around in Flight or Fight feelings and sensations. (And, for a basic review of what happens when we fire up Flight or Fight, go HERE.)
“Fear is the Mind-Killer” is a good reminder that we are NOT thinking clearly when we get caught up in our fears – and that includes what kinds of decisions we are making and what kinds of conclusions we are reaching about the future.

So much of this work of breaking anxiety’s hold is blowing up and rewriting our thinking about anxiety – what it is, what it means, why it is happening, what we can actually do about it. Fear being a “mind-killer” doesn’t mean that we are powerless in the face of fear, or that we CAN’T still do some lucid thinking in the face of our fears.

But we can, easily, if we don’t begin to reframe and begin to understand anxiety and how it works, let anxiety run away with us. And that’s a very easy way to “kill our minds” – i.e., let our fears run away with us, have us completely consumed in all the awful things that might happen to us, find ourselves living very reactively and timidly, wreaking havoc on our health, our relationships and our environments, and flailing for some quick fix that will make us feel less anxious.

Litany 2

Put another way we have to learn to take command of our thinking, even in the face of our fearful thoughts, and even in the face of the siren song of Flight or Fight. This is something we can do.

One VERY helpful notion is to get ahold of the notion that whenever we are anxious, whenever we are feeling the pull of fear in our thinking and bodies, to go right to the cause of that fear – our fearful thinking. We CAN’T be anxious or afraid if we don’t first THINK there is something we should be anxious about.

Repeating: anxiety is in our minds. If we want power over our anxiety – including shutting down the surges of Flight or Fight in our bodies and feelings, those surges that can scare us so badly – then we have to aim for the heart of the matter, our thinking. We don’t have to give in to or be overpowered by “the Mind-Killer.” The Mind-Killer IS our thinking – and there is no question that, with some good information and practice, we can gain control of our thinking.

“Fear is the Little Death that brings Total Obliteration…”

Wow. That doesn’t sound good. Nobody likes to be totally obliterated, I’m pretty sure. What does this sentence mean? It means that if we continue to let “the Mind-Killer” rule our thinking – if we continue to let problems escalate to crises, continue to believe we can and should run from our fears about the future, continue to scare ourselves with our fears about what might be or what might happen – then we literally obliterate our lives – one day at a time.

Obliteration sounds like this colossal event, this one-time disaster that leaves a smoking crater where we were sitting. But that’s only one kind of obliteration. We can obliterate ourselves minute to minute. We can obliterate joy, and hope, and internal peace, and physical health, in tiny bits and in daily focusing on our fears.

We can reverse this obliterating obsession. We can take the wheel back from our fears. It isn’t a one-shot deal. It is in part deciding that we are tired of obliterating our lives. It is in part getting frustrated and angry and determined enough to be uncomfortable – to be scratchy and scared while we turn and face down our fears.

We can face down “the Mind-Killer.” Its only real weapon is Flight or Fight, scaring us back into a place of passivity and trembling fear. We take away that weapon when we turn and face our fearful thinking! Think on that last line: we take anxiety’s ONLY weapon away when we turn and face our fears.

“Fear is the Mind-Killer” – but only as long as we let it. “Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration” – but only as long as we’re in head-long flight from our fears.

Litany 4

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

That probably sounds almost as scary as “total obliteration” to most of us, but this is exactly right. As I’ve already said we have to turn and face down our anxious thinking. Let it come!

That doesn’t mean that you sit there and FEED that fearful thinking, allow it to fill you and take you over. That is definitely not what this means. It means just seeing the story for what it is, the drum-beat tedious retelling of “what if this happens? What if this happens? What if this happens?”

It means seeing THROUGH the story, seeing that we are creating crisis in our thinking around what can at best be described as a problem. Oh yeah, I understand that some of our problems (or issues that scare us, even if they are not problems for us at the moment) can seem VERY crisis-like.

What if I run out of money? What if I am left alone for the rest of my life? What if I get cancer and die a horrible, lingering death? What if I never achieve success? What if I fart in a roomful of people? (Wait, I’ve already done that – let me report back that nobody says anything because they’re all afraid they’ll offend someone.)

Sure those stories are scary. But they are JUST stories. It is in the feeding, the holding onto and poring over those stories, that we get completely fired up and freaked out, activating Flight or Fight and making ourselves sick with fear and worry.

If they are however not going to kill us in the next 5 minutes then they are definitely not a crisis. Which means our panicky response and Flight or Fight’s efforts are a grand waste of time. We have to instead see these issues for what they are: problems. We’ll be WAY more effective, we’ll do a whole lot more good for ourselves and we’ll have a much better chance of actually dealing with these issues IF we treat them as problems. (See my piece HERE on what problem management looks like.)

In the moment of our fears it means that we’ll begin to deescalate our fearful responses, begin to get some lucid thinking back. Scary as crap when we first start – no question – but completely something any of us can do. And we just get better with practice.

Litany 6

“I will permit my fear to pass over me and through me.” It’s just thinking. It’s just Flight or Fight reacting to our thinking. It can’t hurt us. By letting “the Mind-Killer” move through us this way we start taking control of our thinking and our fear.

And when it is gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Guess what happens when we practice this behavior and this thinking? We start to get control. We start to see through, and get better at seeing through, our fears. We begin to disrupt and break the habit of reacting to fear by running and hiding, and instead steadily create a new habit of addressing our fears.

Which brings me to the two lines I haven’t addressed in this Litany Against Fear:

I will not fear. I will face my fear.

We learn, inaccurately, that the best thing we can do in the presence of fear is to GET AWAY FROM IT. It isn’t like we understood what was happening back when anxiety first began it’s creep into our lives. We had, the vast majority of us, terrible information, and we made some less-than-useful assumptions based on the reactions of Flight or Fight.

We have been SCARED. For a long time. We have some bad reactive habits. We just want to not be afraid anymore.

Here’s the simple truth of this little litany: the way to not be afraid is to face down our fears. Face down the fear of Flight or Fight – all those physical and emotional reactions to fear. Face down the thinking that is causing that anxious reacting in the first place. Face down the habit of flinching back and running away. Face down the “what if?” litanies (talk about litanies!) that run routinely through our brain, consciously and unconsciously, and get them unpacked and decisively changed back to, at most, problems.

This is tedious and scary work. This is very uncomfortable work. We will have our Comfort Zones screaming at us to flinch back again, to step away, and to NOT confront our fearful thinking and reacting. But that way only takes us back into the box of our fears. And in the midst of all that shouting and discomfort and fearful thinking we can learn to face down our fears.

And when we do that we will find that we can say “only I will remain.” Fear will be reduced and returned to what it should be – a tool to help us with crisis, not a master that rules and ruins our lives.

Let the litany begin…

LItany 1