They’re all afraid—as in, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Whether the challenge is reversing global warming or leading saner everyday lives, all believe that fear is a major obstacle in our way. And they will describe how we can use that emotion for personal growth and the greater good when they speak at a three-day “Being Fearless” conference, sponsored by the Rhinebeck-based Omega Institute in Manhattan April 13 through 15.
The conference will address understanding and transcending fear from a multitude of perspectives, including the environment, relationships, and personal transformation. Speakers include Tibetan spiritual teacher Samdhong Rinpoche, visionary and healer Caroline Myss, and author and writing teacher Natalie Goldberg. More than 40 workshops will focus on such topics as “The Courage of Authenticity and Being Present,” “The Secret of the Shadow,” and “Transforming Fears into Action.”
Elizabeth Lesser, an Omega cofounder, says the idea for the conference grew out of the anxiety that gripped the nation after September 11. If the government can pursue a disastrous policy in Iraq based on fear, she says, the same type of irrationality holds no less danger for individuals. The goal of the conference, Lesser says, is to help people embody the changes they want to see in the world, whether to lead more functional lives or make a difference through social action.
For workshop leader Sam Keen, author, professor, and the subject of a PBS special with Bill Moyers, the attacks of September 11 shattered our myth of invulnerability. “We weren’t going to suffer," he says. “We weren’t like other nations. We were supposed to be immune from all that.” Our “cultural psyche” was deeply wounded, he adds, and we were left without a reasonable response.
While acknowledging that terrorism poses real challenges, Keen notes that few people rank it as the country’s top problem. To put it in perspective, he points out that about 3,000 people died in the September 11 attacks, while last year over 250,000 Americans died in hospitals from misdiagnoses or receiving the wrong medicine.
Keen, who also runs a flying trapeze school, says it’s just as foolish to deny fear as it is to be ruled by it. The approach he will encourage in his workshops is to “become a connoisseur of your fear”; instead of being paralyzed by emotions, we need to examine them, understand them, and distinguish between fears that are appropriate and those that are not.
Sharon Salzberg, a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, will be leading workshops on “Loving Kindness” and “Fierce Compassion.” She notes the isolating nature of fear: “We collapse inside, we can’t see options. Everything becomes frozen. And we experience that both on a personal and a societal level.”
Through her meditation workshops, Salzberg will teach people how to deal with fear in a less isolating way and show them how they can have greater compassion for themselves and others. “With mindfulness we can learn how to experience what’s going on without projecting into an endless future,” she says, “without its closing down around us, without identifying with it, so fear is known as a passing state, not the be-all and end-all of who we are.”
What do Al Gore, Nora Ephron, Jane Goodall, and Ariana Huffington have in common?