Fear. . .
Fear is what happens when reality collides with our personal fiction. Our practice is based on expectations – expectations about who we are, why we are practicing, and what our practice should be. As our hope at times disintegrates, it may be replaced by fear. Our characteristics, personality, all of our beautiful plans and ideas are like snowflakes about to fall on the hot stone of our meditation practice.
Maybe you’ve poked through boredom and have had a first taste of spaciousness. Until your experience has become stable, the fear remains that your dreams, your life, and your base could fall apart. The more you contemplate space, the more you are aware of the dissolution of everything you have assumed to be meaningful, lasting and reliable. That is our first mistake – all things change. Including our practice. This fear is not trivial and it may not be easily subdued. Fear is a biological response we’ve evolved to protect ourselves from threat, and is generated in the limbic system, the brain’s emotional conductor.
One of the most fundamental Buddhist teachings is mindfulness — the act of bringing awareness to the present moment. We can see the mind like a house, so if your house is on fire, you need to take care of the fire, not go look for the person/cause that made the fire. Take care of those emotions first, because anything that comes from a place of fear and anxiety and anger will only make the fire worse. Come back and find a place of calm and peace to cool the flame of emotion down. The simplest way to calm the mind is with the basic meditation practice of sitting quietly, focusing on the breath. Calming the mind and body is stabilizing, but it’s also protective against unwise action. As a collective energy, fear and anger can be very destructive. Living in fear and anger is also incredibly draining, even wasteful of energy that could be channeled elsewhere.
The Buddha faced plenty of his own fear and terror of imminent death. Here’s a passage from the Buddha’s early writings that Jack Kornfield, a teacher who helped introduce Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West, quotes in his book The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology:
“How would it be if in the dark of the month, with no moon, I were to enter the most strange and frightening places, near tombs and in the thick of the forest, that I might come to understand fear and terror. And doing so, a wild animal would approach or the wind rustle the leaves and I would think, “Perhaps the fear and terror now comes.” And being resolved to dispel the hold of that fear and terror, I remained in whatever posture it arose, sitting or standing, walking or lying down. I did not change until I had faced that fear and terror in that very posture, until I was free of its hold upon me … And having this thought, I did so. By facing the fear and terror I became free.”
In the strange and frightening forest, the Buddha found freedom from fear by facing it down and recognizing it as a temporary mind state. In other teachings, he makes the helpful distinction between unskillful fear and skillful fear. Unskillful fear… has got such a good argument: which is, anything can happen in the next moment. We can’t know the future, and so allowing fear to hold us prisoner in the present is ultimately unskillful.
Skillful fear is watching it, getting really close to it, and uncovering the purer feelings, like love, underneath it. We can use fear skillfully by redirecting its energy and our attention toward more wholesome virtues, like courage and kindness. We must build dikes of courage to hold back the floods of fear. On a more practical level, I can recommend that people stop partaking in things and attitudes if they are feeding fear. Go take refuge in nature, and find a cause where your heart doesn’t feel inactive and in despair. This is the medicine available to any and all.
We can and should focus on more tangible needs of ourselves and the people around us. You can only be there to offer them kindness if you are stable yourself. You cannot help them if you are filled with hate and fear. What the world needs is your strength, understanding and compassion for all because each and everyone of us regardless of background or birth knows fear. It is universal and guess what? So is the cure.
Peace and Love, Jim