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On Facing Our Fears Mindfully: When The Well Dries Up

Updated: Jul 13, 2023

In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, Bnei Yisrael, the Children of Israel, complain in the desert after Miriam dies and their water-well dries up. Because of Miriam’s merit, the people had a well that was always filled with water. Without the well, they might die.

They cried to Moses and Aaron:

“Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? !” Implying it was Moses and Aaron’s fault, and not necessarily G-d’s plan.

The people had not experienced a lack of water in all their wanderings in the desert.

They were afraid. They allowed their fears -- and some say lack of faith -- to influence their reaction.

Our brains are wired to focus on fear to ensure our survival.

That’s a good thing.

For the cavemen, this ensured their survival. If our ancestors didn’t overreact to every sound in their environment, they could be attacked and eaten by a lion. We, on the other hand, are not threatened by literal death on a daily basis. Instead, we are threatened by our email inbox, traffic, worries about work deadlines, a disagreement we had with our spouse, and other daily experiences that create a sense of anxiety and fear.

According to Professor of Biology and Neurology, Robert Sapolsky, if you get chronically stressed, it’s going to affect your health. In other words, we've evolved to the extent that we literally "worry ourselves sick." Sapolsky studied primates considered to have relatively low real stressors and threats in their daily lives. It turns out that unhealthy primates, like unhealthy people, often have elevated resting levels of stress hormones such as Cortisol. Physiologically their bodies are activated in the absence of danger or threat –meaning internally they’re not calm. "Their reproductive system doesn't work as well, their wounds heal more slowly, and they have elevated blood pressure and heart problems. So they're not in great shape."

“99% of the beasts on this planet scream for 3 minutes on the savannah when they

are afraid, after which it’s over. We turn on the identical stress response for a thirty-year mortgage.

So stress is a normal bodily response that isn’t necessarily bad by itself. The problem arises when your brain sounds the alarm for every little thing that happens.

Going back to the parsha, the people stressed because they were thirsty, but G-d had already taken them out of Egypt, split the red sea on their behalf, and gave them manna that fell from the sky to eat during their journey in the desert. They could have known that He would come through again and provide them with water.

How could mindfulness have helped the Children of Israel then, and how can the same techniques help us now?

As with all emotions, the practice of meditation can stabilize us enough in the midst of fear to help us see more clearly—to distinguish a false threat from a real threat that needs to be acted upon. Meditation can have an effect on the fears that we create in our own minds.

Let’s try this mindfulness practice to cope with our fears.

1)We can start our practice by naming our fear or whatever we’re feeling

Also known as name it to tame it : naming the emotions creates a distance between you and the reaction. You recognize that you’re experiencing an emotion, but you don't have to be caught up in or controlled by it.

Noticing and labeling emotions as they’re happening by saying to yourself :

I’m feeling ____________(fill in the blank)

2)Acknowledge the fear, perhaps by saying to yourself “ I’m afraid or I’m suffering right now”. Sometimes admitting we are scared is harder than the actual fear.

3) Bring awareness to your body sensations. Simply noticing what sensations you’re experiencing in your body can soften the sensations and feelings and reduce unhealthy thoughts.

Take a moment; take a few breaths, and do a scan of different parts in your body to observe any sensations arising. Simply noticing without trying to change the sensations.

4) Befriend your fear, also known as leaning into fear

Whenever you feel fear, don’t avoid the feeling. Sit with it. For example, you have a fear of getting fired from your job or you have to visit your mother in law. Allow any and all feelings to come up and observe them . You can also label them as feelings which puts some space between the feeling and reaction, and prevents you from spiraling into imagined catastrophe.

Try to approach the feeling with compassion. Be kind toward yourself for being afraid, don't beat-up on yourself for being afraid. There is nothing wrong with being afraid, it's natural. Mindfulness can help us put that fear in proportion. See what happens when you stay with the fear, and see if you can notice it rise and fall in your mind and body.

This practice allows us to write our own stories about what we are experiencing in our emotional world. It becomes easier for us to recognize what’s happening in our body, and easier for us to signal to our brain that it’s okay to relax—and that can create a whole new story.

Or Insight Timer:

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