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Mindful : April 2016
noticing someone else’s anxiety or fear can be helpful to him or her. You can assist by just shar- ing that space. You might practice meditation together, take a walk, sit in silence. If you’re help- ing someone else, you’ll be helping yourself as well. The world gets bigger when you notice the other people in it. Sometimes, it seems difficult to extend a finger, let alone a hand, to others, espe- cially when one’s own anxiety or depression is great. But just by lifting our gaze ever so slightly to include another, we can often cheer someone up a little and also cheer up ourselves. Sometimes a person or a group has the opportunity to change a great deal for other people in the world—for better or for worse. The terrorists in Paris acted for worse. On the other hand, Canada recently elected a prime minis- ter, Justin Trudeau, whom the New York Times called an antidote to cynicism and “a leader who can restore pride to high office and rekindle the national spirit.” This “for better” moment surely will pass. Like the awful events in France, such moments are quite unexpected. Still, we shouldn’t underestimate our ability to influence our world. As we can see, the world needs us all to pitch in. Change needn’t begin on a grand scale. Like the Parisian Portes Ouvertes, small gestures can sometimes have profound effects. The interesting thing, then, is that the other side of fear is fearlessness. The word “anxious” does not only express fear or worry. If your parents say they are “anxious” to meet your boy- friend or girlfriend, it may make you “anxious,” but they are eager—not apprehensive. Similarly, fear contains a great deal of energy. It can be a source of courage. When something makes us afraid, it shocks us, but it also perks us up. Not long after the tragic events in Paris, an email arrives in my inbox, inviting me to join the global community to say: Nous Sommes Unis, “ We are One,” asking us all to share a message of soli- darity in response to the awful events in Paris. A spark of courage can find us at the worst of times. In darkness, many have remarked, we find the stars that can light our path. It’s advice that applies as much to our individual experience as it does to societal disasters. In the darkest hours, take your telescope and look for a star, listen to an owl hooting at the moon, or meditate in your chair and wink at the next fear that comes your way. ● TRANSFORMING FEAR In evolutionary terms, fear is adaptive. That intense charge to your nervous system in the face of perceived threats can save your life. But like any adaptive behavior (eating and drinking, for example), it can get out of hand and end up harming you. Consider the wear and tear on the ner vous system if every time you entered a room full of strang- ers, you freaked out at a level appropriate for being chased by gun-toting guerillas. Exposure therapy is a popular behavioral regimen designed to help people who have difficulty “extinguishing” conditioned fear, such as post-traumatic stress suffer- ers. The notion of “extinction” or “extinguishing” comes from the psychology of classi- cal conditioning. Pavlov’s dog learned to associate a ringing bell with food and salivate in response, but after the bell rang repeatedly without any accompanying food, the ani- mal stopped salivating. That response was “extinguished.” Exposure therapy seeks to extinguish a fear response by presenting someone with a stimulus that would normally cause fear but prevent the usual response. Take fear of public speaking: By rehears- ing and training yourself to notice your responses, you could eventually extinguish your acute fear of getting up in front of a group of peo- ple. In a recent paper, “The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation,” in the journal Neuroscience, three leading mindfulness researchers— Yi-Yuan Tang, Britta K. Holzer, and Michael I. Posner—postu- lated that mindfulness medita- tion may be acting as a form of exposure therapy. According to the authors, “Research on fear conditioning has helped to identify a network of brain regions that are crucial for the extinction of conditioned fear responses.” And now, there is emerging evidence from MRI studies that mindfulness meditation training alters this same brain network. In shor t, the authors suggest that from the safety of our meditation posture, we can expose our mind to fears, and thereby train it to extinguish the fear when the response is maladaptive. The neuroscience research may confirm the long-held belief among meditators that mindfulness practice helps us see that many of the things we’re afraid of are not as scary as we think. NEUROSCIENCE Leading researchers posit mindfulness meditation as a form of exposure therapy. When we meditate we rehearse our fears in a way that can “extinguish” them. Carolyn Rose Gimian has been writing, editing and teaching seminars about fear and fearlessness for the last 20 years. Her work was included in the anthology In the Face of Fear. She teaches seminars on the topic of “Smile at Fear,” including several she co-taught with Pema Chödrön. 64 mindful April 2016