Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

Elizabeth May a small-c conservative? »« Go May go! Stephen, ya gotta go

Are you bold or fearful on the job — why or why not?

                                   Louise Mangan

In my view, sacred and spiritual talk relies too often on abstract concepts, which seem far-removed from the daily realities of work and life. That’s why I like the phrase: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” Since few of us retreat from life to live in a cave, we seek and need a practical sense of spirituality that fits modern challenges.

That’s exactly what a group of us got at a recent luncheon talk by Louise Mangan in Vancouver, hosted by the Workplace Centre for Spiritual and Ethical Development. (Mangan is the spiritual director of Pacific Pathways InterSpiritual Care, and chair of the InterSpiritual Centre of Vancouver Society.* ) She gave her talk, Fear in the Workplace: How Do We Cultivate Trust? in a conference room at the downtown Terasen Gas Building at Georgia and Thurlow.

Drawing from Taoist thought, Mangan reinforced that we can use our fears as an invitation to learn and grow. Rather than judging, blaming, and lashing out at ourselves and others when we’re in a situation that evokes fear, we can befriend fear as an ally. This starts with simple steps. When we’re afraid, we can bring awareness to our first response by asking: What am I feeling? (Mangan focuses on five key emotions: mad, sad, glad, afraid, ashamed.) We can each “be” in our body, centred and aware of its sensations, rather than ignore or try to suppress physical reactions. 

In Mangan’s view, fear invites us to examine our responses, and to practice a sense of powerful presence, regardless of what conflict or chaos is swirling around us. Otherwise, fear usually freezes action, disengaging us and launching our egos into battle mode, either on the offensive or defensive. Do you embrace or shrink from fear? What lessons do you think it can offer you, both at work and at home?

Mangan suggested some valuable and simple ways to enrich and heal our relationship with fear, drawing on love in our interactions:

•                Use a sacred word to centre yourself in prayer or meditation. It can be anything from “Patience” to “Forgiveness.” 

•                Each night, think of ways in which love came to you during the day. In the rush of life, it’s easy to overlook or take for granted a gift of love, large or small.  This could range from a child’s smile to a compliment from a colleague.

•                In reviewing your day, identify times when your love was incomplete or fractured. Consider how you might have responded differently.

•                Return to your first experienced fear and replay it, reframing it from a loving, eternal place. This promotes forgiveness and healing.

•               Do a Gestalt-style exercise with three chairs. Sit in one chair and remember a situation in which you feel regret or shame. Breathe deeply. Sit in the second chair, which represents Divine Source, and feel the love and acceptance of the divine connection within you. Then sit in the third chair and think of someone who has hurt you. How was that person trying to take care of him or herself? This process can help to strengthen our sense of compassion.

Lastly, Mangan reminded us to trust life to guide us. We only know the next step and that’s enough.

* Louise is a retired pastoral minister for the United Church of Canada. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto. She is a former member of the ethics commitee at B.C. Women’s Hospital and Health Centre, and a former chaplain for the International Congress of Midwives. She was the founding chair of the Interdisciplinary Midwifery Task Force of B.C.

May 6, 2011 at 5:08 pm
1 comment »
  • May 7, 2011 at 6:05 amFrank L. McElroy

    Your writing is wonderful and inspirational. This topic is most interesting to me because in my work as a litigator I am constantly involved with fear – my own, that of my clients, and of judges and other attorneys. As I’ve grown older, and with 30 years of practice, my fear has mostly disappeared, but it returns in novel situations. Such as this past week when I appeared before a three judge panel of the Massachusetts Appeals Court. Though I have written over 30 appellate briefs in this Court, I’d never presented an oral argument, so I was stricken with fear of the unknown. What would it be like? Would they grill me? Would I remember the critical cases? Would I be overwhelmed and melt into a blob of simpering mush?

    I overcame my fears through the use of humour which was invited by the justices during the four astoundingly intense arguments they heard before mine. We had two related cases to argue, so as we stepped up to the desks flanking the podium we were asked if we wanted to combine the cases and argue 30 minutes each or take them individually with 15 minutes each. I responded directly that it didn’t matter to me but that I expected I would take no more than 5 minutes for each. The head justice responded “you are our favourite lawyer today.” That was the end of my fear, and it created immense fear in my opponent because I suddenly, and for no good reason, had established a rapport with the justices which continued through my five minutes and nearly 20 minutes of questions from the justices.

    Fear is the most basic human emotion. It is a survival mechanism arising from the brainstem, the oldest part of the human brain, and it is a constant influence in most lives most of the time. Acting out of fear is dangerous (that’s fear of fear) and often self-destructive. But fear is a great motivator (how most of us get our tax returns done) and can be harnessed for good or at least advantageous purposes without it being a license to hurt or take advantage of others. Managing fear is the evolved human overcoming the brainstem response to life. Some are good at it, others don’t even try.

    I approach fear by simply accepting it, knowing that it is a basal response to what is happening or might happen in my life. Fear cannot be “conquered” except through powerful arrogance, probably the most destructive force a human can muster. But it need not lead to unkind responses or anger. By knowing fear is always there, one can walk through it, take what is useful, and leave the rest behind. This is the way. As we move through time, like walking a path, we are presented with new every moment as well as anticipation of new, and that’s what we must accept. There are no surprises because we know everything that the next moment is or can be and what it can bring.

    Fear is something that all humans know. It is central to survival. Looking at it dispassionately and from a safe distance is difficult, but useful. I’ve found that for me the best time to think through fear and many other forces is in long meditation. As I am cursed/blessed with ADD, my greatest meditations have come in long-distance driving with nothing but the wind blowing over me and the sound of the road. I have found an awake cognitive state which allows my mind to go where it wants to, to examine what is important to it, without any guidance from me. A friend of mine does the same meditation by driving rote routes through the cobweb of back roads in New England.

    Is there an answer? Of course not. Fear will be with each of us until our mortality ends, that inspiring the greatest fear of all. In my mind fear is something to be accepted as an inherent part of each of us. How we act on it, if at all, is the question. That is a matter of personality or maybe psyche. And it differentiates us.

    I have only briefly experienced the workplace where there are more than two or three people, so I cannot speak to the larger workplace, though I suspect it is just like school and university, places where fear is enhanced by the fear of everyone around. When I experienced the fear of one of my law professors, in the form of his failed attempt to embarrass me in front of my entire Constitutional Law class, I had the strength from anger to overcome my fear and explain why he was wrong. He ended up embarrassed, I walked out of class, and I decided that the fear environment of law school was not for me. So I got a job working for a downtown attorney, never attended classes and just took the exams each year to graduate. I learned more in that little job than I could have in twenty years of law school, and part of that was how to walk through fear without being arrogant. It’s a lifelong study and work.

    I look forward to the next long drive.

    Frank McElroy

Leave a Reply