The Issue at Hand


Chapter 20: Fear

For one who is awake, non-perplexed,
Whose mind is uncontaminated,
And who has abandoned both good deeds and bad,
Fear does not exist.

– Dhammapada 39


When we engage in a spiritual practice, we can expect to discover the degree to which apprehension and fear are not only present, but at times run our lives. Much of our life is motivated by feelings of fear, apprehension, anxiety, dread, worry, or distrust, probably more than most of us realize. Fear is at the root of many types of psychological suffering, and an important part of mindfulness practice is to study it-to understand and accept it enough that we do not live under its influence.

It can be obvious that fear is debilitating when it inhibits us from engaging in normal activity. Also debilitating can be our efforts to avoid, ignore, or resist fear. We would do well to follow the Buddha’s example. Before he became a Buddha, he included fear as part of his practice whenever it arose. We can do the same. We can learn to practice with our fear and so overcome at least its debilitating influence if not the fear itself.

Mindfulness of fear begins by getting to know its immediate and obvious manifestation. We don’t psychoanalyze it, try to figure out what the layers are, or what lies at its root. Our job as mindfulness practitioners is to meet, directly and without complications, what is in front of us.

We react to our experience in many stages or generations. Say, for example, I’m afraid of failure, and then I’m afraid of my fear, and then I’m angry with myself because I’m afraid of my fear. Then I become ashamed of myself because I’m angry, and then I feel guilty because I should know better. And so on.

Often we live our lives in the fourteenth or fifteenth – maybe even the one hundred fifteenth – generation of reactivity to our primary experience. Our task in mindfulness practice is to wake up where we are, even if it is at the one hundred fifteenth generation, rather than to be further upset with ourselves. We try to accept the latest generation; to not complicate it any further, to have a direct straightforward relationship with whatever is present. As mindfulness becomes stronger, we wake up earlier and earlier, until eventually we awaken at the first generation.

When working with fear in meditation, it is not necessary to always confront the fear directly, especially if it seems over- whelming. Instead we can try to become calm in the midst of it. One of the classic ways of becoming calm is breathing mindfully. The more fully the mind engages with the breath, the less it will be engaged with the fear, and so the fear loses some of its power.

When we have cultivated enough calmness so that we don’t feel like we are in the grip of the fear, turning the attention to investigate the fear itself is very helpful. In mindfulness practice we do not try to deny or to get rid of our fear-that would only strengthen it. Instead we explore it, sense it, and become connoisseurs of it. In doing so we become less troubled by it. When we are less troubled by it, it is less likely to trigger other emotions such as anger, embarrassment, guilt, discouragement, or further fear. By observing the thoughts or bodily sensations that might be present, we step outside of the domain of the fear, and our identification with it lessens.

One of the primary ways to investigate fear is to feel it in the body. There might be sensations of butterflies, tightening or clenching in the stomach. There might be a sense of painful vulnerability. If the fear is quite strong, it can be difficult to be with the sensations directly. In that case, breathe with and through the discomfort, as though the breath were a massage. Breathing with the sensations can allow us to move through the fear without being caught by it.

If we have enough stability in our meditation, focusing directly on the bodily sensations associated with the fear can be very helpful. Anchoring the attention on the strongest sensations that manifest the fear helps us to disengage from the ideas and stories which activate fear. Most of the time during meditation, these stories are irrelevant to what is happening in the present moment. Holding the bodily sensations of fear in awareness helps to make room for the experience, which allows the bodily sensations to move through us. Much of the tension, tightness and constriction will begin to unravel as they are held with gentle awareness.

The fear that many people in our culture experience often has little to do with imminent danger. Instead it frequently results from an idea, an imagination of what will happen in the future. This imagination fuels the fear, worry or anxiety. We can use mindfulness practice to start learning to pay attention to the pat- terns of thought that relate to our fears, to see some of the common themes about what we are afraid of, and also to begin to see what triggers the fear.

When we start to recognize the patterns around our fear and to see what triggers it, then we can start to ask ourselves if these suppositions are actually true. In my practice, seeing that my projections and fears about a situation were often far different from the actual outcome helped me to overcome some of my fears. For example, once I spent two days worrying about a meeting, and then the meeting was cancelled. As this sort of painful experience happened not once, but over and over again, I slowly began to realize what a waste of time worry is! As I learned that my imaginings of the future were usually not how things turned out, my belief in the accuracy of my imaginings decreased. Certain kinds of wisdom arise only through seeing something happen repeatedly. Often we have to become very familiar with some- thing in order to be free of it. I found this to be the case with worry.

Another way to practice with fear is to look at the beliefs that support it. Even if we know what we are afraid of, we often don’t clearly see the beliefs that contribute to the fear. For example, you might know that you chronically worry about what people think about you, but not see the belief that you need to be and act a certain way in order to be accepted by others. Or perhaps you don’t see the belief that we are only validated through the eyes of others. The act of looking for these beliefs and then questioning them can begin to take some of their power away.

The Buddha also taught loving-kindness practice as an antidote to fear. If you have difficulty being mindfully present with fear, you might switch to loving-kindness meditation for a while as a way of finding some spaciousness and calm. Then go back and investigate the fear.

In meditation and in mindfulness practice, we are learning to replace fear with trust, not as an ideal or abstraction, but as a sense of self-confidence that arises from coming to know fear well. Many people have a fear of fear, a tremendous aversion to it, and don’t allow themselves to enter into it fully. If we simply allow ourselves to fully experience our fear, eventually we learn that we can do so without being overwhelmed by it. Trust develops, not from willing ourselves to trust, but from discovering for ourselves that we can be present for our experience and not over- whelmed by it.

Many of us have been convinced – by our society, by our own experiences in life, and by our own logic-that we cannot trust our own natural state of being. We turn away from ourselves and our experiences. In mindfulness practice we are learning not to destroy or control our feelings, but to discover them and be present with them. We begin to see how they work when we enter fully into them and give them room. We begin to see how we create our emotional lives and reactions.

In this process, we learn to trust awareness and direct presence more and more deeply. As we explore the layers of our fear, our trust expands into wider and wider circles of who we are. The process of awakening can be understood as ever-widening circles of trust. Awakening occurs when trust becomes all pervasive.

We can learn to trust awareness, to trust being alive, without props, crutches, views or opinions. In the Buddhist tradition, such people are known as dispellers of fear. They give the gift of fearlessness. Fearlessness is not necessarily the absence of fear. It is a positive quality that can exist side by side with fear, overcoming the limitations arising out of fear. Such fearlessness can be a profound gift to the people around us. In developing the capacity to be fearless, we do it not only for ourselves, but for others as well.


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