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What Exactly Is An Enlightened Panic?

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In a comment posted to an article I'd written on viral fear, someone suggested that there were people who believed that constant, unproductive fear was an enlightened state. Now, that's an incredible idea, a thoroughly stunning idea, not because it's necessarily true - in fact, I'm profoundly doubtful that it is - but because some people are operating under the notion that it is, which means they are talking about it, voting based on it, and working at convincing others that panic is good.

The first thing that comes to mind when I try to consider the enlightenment of panic is the person in panic. I think of the veterans, the firefighters and the police officers I've treated who have confided in me their most secret and benumbing terrors, the fears that capture them night after night, releasing them only after they've been shot once again, picked up that body part once again, stood helpless by a dying friend or civilian once again. I would never have thought to ask them whether they experienced any of that as a moment of grace or a point of enlightenment. The reason I wouldn't have thought to ask is because they were so clearly tormented by the futility and relentlessness of it that even positing such an idea would have gotten me at best an "are-you-nuts?" and at worst a breach in therapeutic rapport that could not have been repaired. In that situation I would have appeared-and been-an idiot.

In over 20 years of clinical experience, in all the years I have studied or broken bread with religious scholars or devotees, I have never mistaken terror for grace or panic for enlightenment. If anything, they have always appeared to me as polar opposites. Faith can simply not exist in the same space as fear. There may be some validity to the argument that they do, in fact, lie on a continuum and I would be the first to admit that is true in my own life, but I have never been afraid of what "might" happen and simultaneously trusted the Almighty (or the Universe or Cosmic Consciousness or Quantum Unity) with all my heart. My spiritual awareness is actually shrunken by fear and I become fixed on only one thing - the body I occupy and its mortal safety.

Perhaps that is the reason some people talk about fear and enlightenment in the same breath: not because they are the same thing, but because they preclude one another in their extremes. And because they are emotional kin in that sense, the mistake is wholly understandable.

There is another reason why people are trying to justify viral fear by calling it "enlightened": the word "enlightenment" is being misunderstood and misused.

Fear, a limbic chemical state driven from the very core of our most primitive beings, is something I call a proto-emotion. It is essential to our survival. Without it, we tend to step in front of buses, jump out of twenty-story buildings, put our hands in fire, refuse to pay our taxes. Sociopaths are fearless because they think they are somehow above or beyond consequences. Thankfully, the vast majority of these smug psychopaths do get caught and usually face consequences precisely because their fearlessness, combined with their arrogance, has convinced them of the reality of a non-truth. The bus will hit them, they will splatter when they hit the pavement, their skin will burn if they play with fire and the IRS really does know everything (eventually).

In reasonable proportions, fear instantly (and I mean this literally - fear is transmitted at immeasurably rapid rates) releases cascades of chemicals that are designed to help us survive, which means that in those moments in which we need to see better, hear from farther away, run faster and smell more acutely, we are given an extra boost and, in general, become more sensitive on a physical level. This is called hypervigilance. It is a state of hyperarousal which, if it doesn't last too long and one is able to find a viable avenue of action (such as running out of the path of the train or punching the mugger in the nose), can make one feel especially alert. That sort of alertness is a good thing if you're being stalked by a bear or chased by bad guys. But the truth is that relentless fear and panic eventually impair us. Judgment usually falters after a period of time, which is why we hear accounts of people doing the most outrageously stupid things when they're afraid, often the opposite of what they know they ought to have done. If a person is frightened enough, the fear can even override extensive training leaving the individual utterly paralyzed.

In order for survival systems to be so revved up, other systems have to be bypassed, often the systems that are less "urgent," such as digestion, reproductive processes and the like. Circulation, heart rate and oxygen intake get the upper hand while breaking down lunch, making babies and thoughtful consideration of alternatives all take a back seat to the need to get the hell out of Dodge.

Heightened sensory awareness in these panic states are about as different from the gifts of grace and enlightenment as I can conceive. I would not call myself an "enlightened" person so I make no pretense of speaking about it in the first person. I am far too attached to the sensual beauty of life for that, far too emotional overall. But I have had the briefest flutterings, the sweetest moments of God-given grace in which I felt as if I had pulled a thick curtain to the side and sneaked a peek into a world of utter perfection. And in those moments I also felt as if I could see more, sense more. Later, of course, those moments pass and I fall into the same rhythm of routine as everyone else. But I know that in those seconds or minutes, I was at peace. I was not afraid.

I have crossed paths with people who I have believed to be enlightened. And I can say without exception they were not fearful. The confusion may be the result of the fact that grace can make one feel more aware, more sensitive, more alert. But the comparison ends there. Because where fear contracts grace expands. Where fear holds down grace lifts up. Where panic pins us to gurneys with palpitations and asthmatic respiration grace is the fountain from which good health and right-mindedness flow.

I know I've said this in other things I've written, but it bears repeating because it is so desperately important for people to know: I believe that there are things we need to be afraid of if we really want to continue living. This is not a partisan issue. It is a reality check. There are very serious threats in the world, many of them directed to Americans, to Christians and Jews, to women who do not cover their faces with black veils, to diverse populations that vote on a regular basis, to those who value religious and political freedoms. Some people I know would say we don't even have to be afraid of those threats - that what we need is less fear and more productive action. I am not wholly averse to that way of thinking, because for all the fear-mongering, federal red-alerts, and panic-driven media newscasts, we have not made the hard decisions we have needed to make for the most part. When FDR said "the only thing to fear is fear itself," he was speaking to us. Let us be prepared. Let us be alert. And let us do so in faith.
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Judith Acosta is a licensed psychotherapist, author, and speaker. She is also a classical homeopath based in New Mexico. She is the author of The Next Osama (2010), co-author of The Worst is Over (2002), the newly released Verbal First Aid (more...)
 

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