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Elizabeth Namgyel

Moving Beyond Fear

Question: It sometimes seems to me that fear has become an unacceptable emotion on the spiritual path. There are so many teachings that talk about how unhelpful fear is, and how it gets in the way of growth. Yet for me, I am increasingly recognizing how dominated by fear my whole life has been, and the more I practice, the more this fear feels like it is dominating my life. I feel it vibrating through my body, making it difficult to breathe, and I often get very little sleep at night as fear and panic surface just as I am "dropping off". It seems to be too terrifying to let go of control enough to fall asleep. I am trying to welcome this fear as a friend who I can learn from. But I find it very, very difficult when I hear teachings that don't seem to have anything positive to say about working with fear - but just name it as an obstacle on the path. I hope that you can help me with this.

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Response: Thanks you for this question – it is an important one. I think there is a lot to say about fear from the perspective of practice.

Before I go further I do want to say that personally, I have never felt that there is anything we experience that is “unacceptable” on the spiritual path. I have always understood that spiritual practice needs to be grounded in direct experience – such as fear. Whatever we experience in life can be utilized. Everything is our teacher if we choose to value it in that way. To see this, is a powerful and liberating experience in itself.

However, I do understand what you are saying about the language around fear in the traditional teachings. Sometimes in the dharma it does sound like things such as attachment, fear, or aggression are “problematic,” in the sense that we should “get rid” of them, or we should not have them to begin with. I have always felt that some subtle misunderstandings arise around this for Western practitioners. But this idea of “getting rid of” is not the general attitude on the path of dharma as I have always understood it, or how my teacher has explained it to me.

The Buddha’s first teaching was: “There is suffering.” This means that we need to look at the wholeness of life, including suffering, and fear, rather than ignoring the more challenging aspects of life or wishing life were different. After this we begin to follow the path of exploring the causes and conditions of suffering. And then we begin to examine the path that moves us away from suffering and how to cultivated the causes and conditions of freedom. So really, this is the opposite of denial or trying to “get rid of”. It is a deep acceptance of things as they are and a direct investigation into how to do things differently.

Also, we must remember that the path of dharma is progressive and provides different methods for working with fear, the negative emotions, and so on.

For instance, sometimes we use discipline so not to react to fear or aggression. We might do a basic peaceful abiding practice where we focus on our breath. When we are afraid we stop breathing…so focusing the mind on the breath provides an effective method for moving out of a physically contracted state, and reigning in the mind.

Someone told me recently that they work with their fears by making their motivation stronger than their fear. When we have a vision to break through fear (as it seems you do) we find the confidence and strength we need to work with fear. In the teaching we hear a lot on the power of intention or having a clear motivation.

Or, we may simply remember, even just intellectually (based on previous experience), that it would be more helpful to relax and not trust the fear so much…to analyze it – it’s causes and conditions, etc. We may start to see how irrational our fear is. Conceptual mind is a powerful tool for changing the way we understand life.

Another way to work with fear is to evoke the mind of altruism\bodhicitta. This morning I got an email with a quote by the Dalai Lama with a definition of what a bodhisattva is. “bodhi” he says, is “awake” and “sattva” refers to someone who has courage and confidence and so strives to wake up for the benefit of others. There is a relationship between courage (overcoming fear) and bodhicitta. We often think of bodhicitta as just being compassionate or generous. But bodhicitta is actually a direct and powerful means to working with fear. I will get back to this.

On the Vajrayana path, we are instructed and given the means to enjoy and value the rich expression of mind and its activities without judging some things as “positive” and others as “negative”. In other words, what is fear before we shut down around it and decide what it is? My teacher says that all experience is simply the natural vitality of the mind. Why have so much aggression toward it? When we don’t contract around our experience it can open up into something very different. My teacher once described “bliss” as freedom from grasping and rejection. What happens to fear when we can relax around it? This is a profound approach and the ability to value everything as wholly positive.

The teachings describe the Buddha’s enlightenment as the “Lion’s Roar”: the ultimate expression of fearlessness. How can we talk about fearlessness without fear?

So you see, when we talk about fear on the path…there will be many different approaches. But I don’t think, in essence, the Buddha would ever say, “Fear is bad…you should get rid of it.” In fact, we are human and fear is part of our humanness. How do we utilize it on the path? What do we have to learn from fear? What is fear, really?

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I have often heard people say that out of all the negative emotions, fear is the most predominant for them. I would say the same. The interesting thing is that fear is never listed in the traditional teachings as a negative emotion. However, in the West, we categorize it as an emotion.

In the traditional teachings we find a lot about the 3 disturbing emotions (passion, aggression and ignorance) or the 5 negative emotions, but fear is not on the list. The Abhidharma texts describe 52 (sometimes 51) mental states, but fear is not mentioned as one of them.

I wonder, is fear an emotion? That is an interesting question. I guess it depends upon how you see it. It is curious, isn’t it?

Perhaps the way we think of fear is different in the modern Western world than it was for the Tibetans and Indians, historically, anyway. It is unlikely that Tibetans and Indians don’t experience fear. But how various cultures put words or ideas to experiences reflects and changes the way they see the world.

I notice that people want to talk more about fear in the West. One person who I think really addresses fear is Ani Pema Chodron. And I think it has been a great relief for many, many people. Just think of her book titles: “The Places that Scare You”, or  “When Things Fall Apart.” These titles speak directly to our fear.

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When I reflect on all this it seems to me that fear is more basic than the emotions. It comes from our basic confusion.

We can understand this when we sit to practice. We don’t really know what to do with our experience. We either get lost in our thoughts or try to suppress them. Somehow, we can’t find our resting place with the energy and expression of our mind. It can feel overwhelming - scary.

As you said in your question, sometimes, “…things get more intense with practice.” This is because we are challenged in practice to actually look at our mind and find another way to work with our experience. This is what meditation is for. Until we find our resting place, we can feel deeply groundless at times. Sometimes this feeling is quite pervasive.

So we can say that, due to our inability to relax around experience, we contract in fear or get lost in our confusion.

It says in the teachings that this, “overwhelm” causes us to cling tightly. This experience of clinging tightly is what we misunderstand as the self. We continue to look stability and security, and yet the world (our inner and outer worlds) is not a static situation. 

It is not that there is no continuity of experience, that we could call a self. “No self” in the dharma doesn’t mean there is no experience of continuity amid change. It only points to the fact that there is no permanent or independent self that we can find as separate from the movement of life. 

What we experience as a self, we could say, is a continued desire for happiness and freedom from suffering. The problem we have is that there is so much bewilderment around our experience and not knowing what to do with it, we contract out of fear. There is the habit (often not conscious) that there is something to cherish with and protect from life.

Of course, there is a lot of confusion and inconsistency around what the self is\isn’t, what we want\don’t, who we are\aren’t. We are in constant relationship with our inner and outer worlds. How can we really separate ourselves from the changing world we live in? And rather than appreciating the fluidity of life and letting it touch and change us, we contract and try to maintain some kind of stability and security, not just conceptually but energetically, physically and emotionally too.

When we contract around this desire for security we become a fortress – a protected impenetrable building with no windows.  That’s what it feels like sometimes. Trungpa Rinpoche called this contracted self a “cocoon”.

When we are contracted it is just like you described in your question. There is panic, which is a frozen very physical sensation. Our breath gets shallow. We feel like life is something happening to us, rather than feeling a part of the bigness of life. I think everyone knows this experience in both gross and subtle ways.

But however contracted we get life continues to flow…no matter how tightly we hold on. We can’t separate ourselves from life. Even a fortress is part of life. And even as a fortress we are still in relationship with life and our mind. That we are part of the great interdependence of life means that actually, we are very, very big – infinite, in fact.

So the purpose of practice is to find our true relationship with life, rather than contract. Trying to create security in a world that is fluid is a good definition of pain\samsara. It can only create hope and fear. The purpose is to value life and let it touch us and change us – so that we can be as fluid as life, which is a poignant and beautiful, freeing and emboldening experience.

Fear touches on the most basic aspect of the human dilemma: “How do we live in an uncertain world?” It is also the question that led to Buddha to liberation. This is why the path is so important for us. It seems like this is your question too.

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After I read your question I talked to a few friends about teachings that are directly about fear. We were all surprised how we couldn’t recall much on that topic. And yet, implicit in the teachings, we find they are all about working with fear.

And this is really evident in the teachings on bodhicitta. These are teachings about moving out of contraction through including life and including others in our quest for happiness.

The teachings say that at the root of this so-called contracted, separate self lay the desire to be happy.

This so-called self – the continuum of wanting happiness – is not a problem. In fact, we don’t have to get rid of the self at all. We just need to move out of contraction. So how do we do this on the bodhisattva path? We make others the recipients of the love and care we usually only reserve for ourselves. In short, we include life rather than contracting. In this way the self becomes as big as our world. Make the world your body.

When we are big enough for our world we feel fearless and empowered. We don’t feel alone. It is not just a matter of being kind or doing good in the world…it is also a matter of developing the mind of altruism…a bigger mind, which is courageous.

In this way, bodhicitta is really the antidote for fear.

We often misunderstand bodhicitta as simply meaning compassion…but it is more than that. It is also the cultivation of fearlessness.

In the teachings it says that bodhicitta is a true refuge and protection from fear. Often we think of “protection” as a fortress – something hard that doesn’t let anything penetrate. But protection here means that mind finds a resting place…a sense of ease and courage. This confidence and courage devlops as we continue to understand our relationship with the world through the practice of bodhicitta.

We are afraid of losing this small self we continue to cherish and protect. We are afraid of the extinction of self. But what do we lose when we become big enough for our world through the practice of bodhicitta? What actually becomes extinct? The only thing that happens is that the walls of our fortress fall away so that we can expand into the great interdependence of life.

Most people have experiences of this freedom, at least here and there. It is a respite from our contracted way of being. It is good to try to recollect and recognize these experiences. You can see them in yourself and you will start to see them clearly in others. You can compare them to the sensation of being contracted. You can see that with this kind of bigness the word “fear” doesn’t even arise. This is not some trippy spiritual experience. This is an experience available to us by virtue of being a natural human being.