The Virus of Fear

Assagioli’s note from his archives.

Let’s talk about fear. How arbitrary it can be. Besides personal fears and anxieties, Assagioli writes about “waves of collective fear and panic.” These waves appear daily in our news headlines – the pandemic, ongoing climate disasters, financial injustice, racism and political upheaval. These are some of the external fears that can so easily feed our internal ones.

Assagioli calls this collective fear a widely diffused psychological poison or smog. He says:

“So often when we feel a sudden fear with no apparent reason, it is not ours at all. It is a psychic infection —like a virus.”

It can be encouraging to know that these flu-like fears are not ours, but energies that we are experiencing from the people and society around us. Fear, rage, and vanity are just some of the ‘blocks of primitive mass-emotions’ that Dante portrays as giants in the Divine Comedy. These giants represent blind human forces. They stand in a circle around the well that leads to the final circle of Hell where the betrayers dwell. 

In order to deal with fear effectively, Assagioli urges us to eliminate or minimize the fear within ourselves. He also warns us of a vicious circle that can occur – our personal fear can open the door to the influence of external fear, and external fear feeds the inner one. Again he said:

“We have so much fear that is not ours. It’s stupid to let these fears invade and dominate our being!”

To break this vicious circle, we need to use our skillful will to withdraw our attention deliberately away from the psychological poison of fear. Assagioli suggests that we dis-identify from the fear by simply saying, “That’s not me.” At the same time we are dis-identifying from the fear, we need to not suppress it. Most importantly, we should not be afraid of the fear! Otherwise we can quickly descend into a vicious spiral of fear feeding fear.

Gustave Doré’s illustration of Dante and Virgil meeting one of the giants in Inferno.

Once we are able to release the energy that is holding and nurturing the fear, we can then redirect this new-found energy to do the most good in our lives. 

Returning to Egypt

I learned about collective fear nearly 20 years ago when my husband and I happened to be living in Egypt. But the day the Twin Towers fell, we happened to be visiting my family in California. Was I afraid to return to Egypt? I HAD been afraid. The week before I was sick with fear. My head hurt, my eyes burned, my shoulders ached. And it didn’t help when everyone around me kept saying, “You’re not going back to Egypt, are you? Aren’t you afraid?” 

After careful consideration, prayer, constant check-ins with the US Embassy in Cairo, and reassurances from friends in Egypt, we did decide to return. Once ‘home’ again, everything in Egypt seemed like business as usual. But soon afterwards, I learned of student protests at Cairo universities against the bombings in Afghanistan. U.S. flags had been burnt and there were daily marches at Al Azhar University. 

But did I feel fear? Well, some. All the Muslims that we knew in our neighborhood seemed genuinely happy to see us again. Perhaps our return gave them a feeling of normality. Perhaps they were happy because we had brought our U.S. dollars. 

Our next-door neighbors in Giza included our landlord Mr. Hussein, his wife, Affaf, and two daughters, Mona (21) and Marwa (23). On our first day back, Affaf came baring gifts of baked chicken and stuffed zucchini and eggplant, which we gratefully received. Later that evening, while Kees was out, she appeared at my door with fresh dates still clinging to their palm stems and an invitation to come into the house to see the girls.

The girls awaited me in the living room with kisses. Usually veiled, they were bare-armed with their curly hair tied tightly back. Hibiscus tea was served with more dates, nutty and woody in taste. Mr. Hussein sat watching TV. During the 1967 war, Mr. Hussein was an Egyptian plane navigator. After being shot down by Israeli fighters, he had to wait for rescue in the Sinai desert.

“You not afraid?” was his only question for me. What, I wondered, did he mean by “afraid”?

“Yes,” I said. “A little.”

The women then engaged me in chatter about our time apart. The summer had been exceptionally hot. Early one morning, Mona and her mother ran out the front gate to rescue a tiny chick from the jowls of a wild dog. The young chicken was now happily roaming the inner garden, undisturbed by their two cats. 

Then Mona turned to me and asked, “Were you afraid? Were you afraid to go out of your house? Were you afraid of being bombed?”

What a surprising question! (That AFRAID question again…) None of them were asking if I was afraid to return to Egypt, which seemed to be the only concern of everyone else in my life. The Egyptians, however, wanted to know if I had been afraid to stay in America!

All this made me instantly realize two things. First, one can easily fall into the mass emotion of fear no matter what perspective it is coming from. The second insight was that the amount of fear we experience is often a reflection of the fear we have of our own shadow selves. 

Artwork by Mary Beth Volpini. See more at drawntocolor.com

If I had assumed all the presupposed fears that had polluted the US national psyche after the 9/11 attacks — fear of returning to Egypt, fear of flying on a plane, fear of living in a foreign country, fear of walking freely in the streets of an Middle Eastern city – I never would have been able to live my life, something I had already been trying to do for years. 

Let’s face it. There are a million reasons to be fearful. The human condition hardly lends itself to fearlessness! Only the Higher Self can bring us there.

Start today to consciously starve your fear. Anytime your fear appears during the day, practice using skillful will to redirect your thoughts to something beautiful and positive that you recently experienced. Use the Evocative Word exercise, calling to mind the words: Calm, Tranquility, Fearlessness. At the same time, try to face your own personal fears. They are the fears that we all must individually examine and exhume in their full force. Transmute and redeem to their full glory. Without being fully realized, personal fear bubbles over and is projected outside, contributing to the psychic poisons that are already swirling around us. 

Soon after arriving in Egypt that year, I had the opportunity to experience a very special celebration of Ramadan. Remember, once we start using our will to dis-identify from fearful thoughts, emotions, and ideas, we allow ourselves much freedom and new energy to purposively create acts of Love and Will. 

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To read about how two former clients overcame their personal fears, see Starve Your Fear! and The Healing Paradox.

4 thoughts on “The Virus of Fear

  1. Isabelle Clotilde Küng Faillettaz

    Dear Catherine! This is extraordinary! Thank you! I loved it and was so happy to receive these sound reminders so timely! And your Egypt episode gave most hands on the tool examples! Thank you so very much for your beautiful and useful contributions! Love Isabelle

    Reply

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