Acknowledging or Denying Fear: Mindfulness In Business

During one of my lectures on “Mindfulness meditation and business leadership”, I asked a roomful of business leaders two simple questions.

“Making a living can be pretty tough and the challenges can often appear intimidating.  Many of our jobs and businesses are at risk. We have children to care for; mortgages to pay; and college tuition to cover and often we just don’t know what’s going to happen next. Let me ask you “how many of you would like to be a bit more confident when building your careers and facing these challenges?”

And about two thirds of the 50 participants raised their hands.

“And not surprisingly, in my work as an executive coach, one of the most sought after leadership competencies is confidence. Now, let me ask another simple question: how many of you are afraid – doesn’t matter what you are afraid of? If you are afraid, just raise your hands?”

And this time only 10 in the audience responded.

“So, a good number of us here would like to be more confident but are unafraid of our lives”, I said to the crowd. “And at first glance that seems like good news”.

“Why? Are you saying that we should be afraid of our lives?” a straight talking audience member asked abruptly.

“It’s not a matter that we should we be afraid of our lives”, I responded. “It’s a matter of being honest about our experience. Pretending not to be afraid, being embarrassed by our fears or trying to put a game face on is, in the end, pointless if our experience is actually otherwise. And if we reflect for a moment, we may notice that being confident requires we first recognize how we are unsure, hesitant and a bit anxious – the very first step is to recognize fear – to become fearless, we must first acknowledge that we are afraid.”  

We went on to have a good discussion, but the lesson learned that evening is a common one. Just as with our group of business leaders, acknowledging fear is not something that is easily accepted in our modern day society. Such unvarnished honesty can be misinterpreted as weakness or appear unappealing. But ironically recent scientific studies have shown we recognize fear in one another faster than any other emotion. We are, in fact, hard wired to acknowledge that we are afraid! And denying what we are hard wired to do, can be dangerous indeed.*

So we understand fear; we are all very familiar with it. Yet, we may tend to look the other way when it comes to our fears, anxieties and seeming inadequacies.  And what happens when our fear goes unrecognized – when we suppress it, deny it or dress it up?

History tells us that repressing fear can cause untold suffering: misreading another’s plea for help as a threat, conspicuously displaying our dominance out of insecurity, shaming others who merely mirror our own embarrassment. The list of cowardly missteps is long and distressing.

But mindfulness-awareness meditation teaches us how to look directly at such misunderstanding – to explore rather than ignore the intimate uneasiness of fear. The practice teaches many things but first it clarifies the shadowy, unspoken restlessness that seems to irk the very fabric of our daily lives:  lingering in a slow coffee line or waiting for our computer to reboot; enduring the small insults of a clumsy neighbor or just witnessing the obtuseness of commercialism. Or, to make it even simpler, if we just sit down for a few silent moments, we notice how impatient and fidgety we are with life – annoyed with our experience as if it were strangely inadequate.

Such restlessness wants to speed past this seeming inadequacy – to rush to another experience that holds a casual promise – that maybe by getting our cup of coffee, things will be back on track again; that maybe when our computer is once again behaving itself or our neighbor is finally out of sight, life – ourselves included – may no longer be so annoyingly inadequate.

And it is here in these moments of shapeless annoyance where we experience fear as speed: playing with devices and simulating busyness – distracting ourselves from our lives rather than actually living them. And it is here as we routinely speed past our lives where we can chose to suddenly pause, mindfully wake up and fully experience our fear – a simple gesture at the heart of living a fearless life.


Join Michael Carroll for a special one-day workshop on cultivating fearlessness in the workplace at the NY Shambhala Center on Friday, March 7th.


Michael Carroll is the author of Awake At Work (Shambhala 2004) and and the forthcoming Fearless At Work and over his 25 year business career has held executive positions with such companies as Shearson Lehman/American Express, Simon & Schuster and The Walt Disney Company. Michael has an active consulting and coaching business with client firms such as Procter & Gamble, AstraZeneca, Aramark, Lutheran Medical Center, National Board of Medical Examiners and others

Michael has been studying Tibetan Buddhism since 1976, graduated from Buddhist seminary in 1982 and is an authorized teacher in the lineage of the Tibetan meditation master, Chogyam Trunpa. He has lectured at Wharton Business School, Columbia University, Swarthmore College, St. Mary’s University, Kripalu, Cape Cod Institute, Zen Mountain Monastery, Omega Institute (assisting Pema Chodron) and many other practice centers throughout the US, Canada and Europe.


* Fearful expressions gain preferential access to awareness during continuous flash suppression. By Yang, Zald and Blake Emotion, Vol 7(4), Nov 2007. pp. 882-886