Dealing with Fear {Trigger Warning}

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Frank Herbert’s Dune

Fear is an often glossed over subject in Buddhism, but in some ways, the whole thing is about moving through fear.

Fear is called bhaya. It’s mentioned directly in a few Suttas, and it’s listed as a cause of suffering in the Abhidhamma, but the information is sparse. Fear has played (and plays, at times) a big role in my life. It’s influenced my choices, my views, and it’s altered my state of mind. I think it should be a bigger part of the conversation.

Fear is related to clinging and craving. It’s the anticipation of losing something we’re attached to, or getting something we don’t want. Buddhism mentions the Eventualities of life: illness, old age, death, and loss. If we cling to health, youth, life, and gain, then we’re gonna suffer when we encounter these Eventualities.

But, as fear shows us, we don’t have to encounter them to suffer from them. Just knowing that they could happen—or will happen—is enough to get our hearts racing. We also fear things that aren’t on that list, like the unknown.

Buddha was great at laying things out in a pragmatic way, but I think he’s a little off the mark here. Illness, old age, death, and loss are abstract ideas. I don’t fear abstract things, because I don’t experience abstract things. I fear experiences.

I’m not afraid of illness, I’m afraid of being away from my friends and family while stuck in bed and surrounded by machines during long hospital stays. I’m afraid of not being able to go outside and watch the sunrise while sitting in the grass. I’m afraid of the meds and their side effects, afraid of debilitation.

I’m not afraid of getting old, I’m afraid of not being able to recognize myself in a mirror at all anymore, seeing a worn out stranger instead. I’m afraid of looking down at my hands and seeing them spotted and wrinkled. I’m afraid of time flowing ever faster and of being left behind. I’m afraid of my mind not functioning as well as it does now.

I’m not afraid of death, I’m afraid of dying, of the knowledge that, “This is it.” That powerlessness, that final letting go accompanied by a vivid hallucination or, even worse in my opinion, not even being aware that I’m dying. That’s why anesthesia freaks me out.

I’m afraid of eternal oblivion because I can’t comprehend it, can’t understand what it’d be like to not be… forever. Of course, it wouldn’t be like anything, so it’s an illogical fear, but logic isn’t very useful when it comes to such things.

I’m afraid of no longer being able to marvel at the world, to leave behind all the little things like hugs, music, and cheesecake.

As I see my friends and loved ones go through their own struggles and meet their own ends, I’m afraid of losing this zest for life that I try to maintain. Afraid of losing my practice and slipping into a cynical nihilism.

I’ve made a lot of concessions to fear in my life.

I’ve avoided taking risks in love and work because I fear failure and rejection. Well, that’s not true. I fear the disappointment on people’s faces. I fear the sadness, embarrassment, or even anger in another’s eyes when I tell them I love them and they don’t feel the same way. I even fear the consoling tones of those who would try to comfort me after.

I fear confusion and not knowing what the hell is going on. I fear the physiology of fear—the pounding heart, that sense of dissociation, the confusion and sensory distortions.

Of course there’s a difference between fear and arousal. The pounding heart and sweaty palms are arousal; sometimes fear is our emotional interpretation of that experience. It’s possible to be aroused without fear. The pathology behind panic disorders involves experiencing fear with all (or several) types of physiological arousal. That’s why I once had a huge panic attack after exercising (and now have a slight exercise phobia).

But fear isn’t physiological, it isn’t arousal or an overactive amygdala. Fear is a feeling, and a state of mind that depends just as much on our views as it does our biology. Fear is shaped by our brains, but it also shapes our brains.

Like anything else, the more we feel it, the more we’re gonna feel it. The more we give into it, the more we’re gonna give into it.

Fear is an affliction, so we can use wise effort to treat it. Wise effort involves:

  1. Preventing harmful and unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and behaviors from arising.
  2. Treating them when they do arise.
  3. Cultivating helpful thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
  4. Maintaining helpful thoughts, feelings, and behaviors when they arise.

#2 contains five different methods. When we experience fear, we can:

  1. Try to introduce the opposite, tranquility, by concentrating on something calming like a gentle breath, a mantra, etc.
  2. Contemplating fear as a destructive force caused by confusion, attachment, and aversion and that giving into it perpetuates suffering.
  3. Ignoring it and immersing one’s attention in something else.
  4. Concentrating on it and investigating its source.
  5. Crushing it by force of will.

Buddha recommended trying each of those methods in order, and he only recommended using the last one if nothing else works. These techniques don’t just apply to fear, but all the afflictions.

Anyone who’s ever gone through or studied cognitive behavioral therapy, might see some similarities between that and the first four ways of treating affliction. In a sense, Buddha’s asking us to reprogram ourselves, to break the connection between A (a certain experience) and B (the afflicted reaction to it).

From a Mahayana standpoint, the 4th option is the go-to method. When I feel fear or panic start to arise, I can stop what I’m doing and look at it. I can ask, “What is this? What’s it like? Where does it come from? What’s its nature?” and then just observe it.

What is this? It’s anxiety, it’s fear of death and decline. Fear of leaving behind all the little joys and beauties I experience in life.

What’s it like? It’s cold, sharp, and dark. It’s like a steel vice, a blade, or ice. It’s like being trapped in a small room miles underground without windows or doors.

Where does it come from? It comes from my mind interacting with thoughts and physical sensations. It arises from beliefs, reasoning, and preferences.

What’s its nature? Since it depends on ever-changing sensations, beliefs, preferences, and reasoning, emptiness is its nature. It’s like an illusion, a mirage, a dream, a bubble in a stream, or flash of lightning.

After inquiry, I can see the fear changing. It’s dissolving and transforming. And, there it is: tranquility.

Affliction is what happens when we experience the content of an experience out of context. The context is always emptiness, boundless interdependence. Of course “boundless” is kind of challenging to work with, so I like using the Trinodal Emptiness Model (TEM).

The TEM model breaks all experiences into three interacting nodes. The Subject Node (SN) + Connecting Node (CN) + Object Node (ON) = an Experiential Moment (EM). The tri- is there because there are always three nodes. Emptiness means that our experiences depend on them, and they depend on each other.

If there’s an experience, then that means there are functioning nodes; if there are functioning nodes, then that means there’s an experience.

We can use any three part process as a metaphor for TEM. It’s like a
Van de Graaff Generator. One ball (SN) is charged, and then when the other ball (ON) gets near it, a spark of static electricity zaps between them (CN). Or a plasma ball. The Tesla coil is the SN, your finger on the globe is the ON, and the lighting bolt that flashes between them is the CN.

The subject node is the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind; the object node is sights, sounds, smells, flavors, tactile sensations, feelings, inner speech, inner images, and desires; the connecting node is consciousness and awareness. All of this makes up the entirety of our experiences in life. As the information in these nodes changes, our experiences change.

Fear is no exception to this.

I’m having some congestion issues at the moment (probably allergies) and it makes me feel uncomfortable. If I lose control, I’ll gradually slip into a panic. What’s really happening is there’s my body (SN) experiencing (CN) congestion (ON). That’s the context. If one of those nodes changes, the whole experience changes. If one is missing, then the whole experience is missing.

That means the experience is empty of itself, it depends on these three nodes. Each node is also empty of itself since they depend on the other two. If I’m unaware of this context, then I’m opening the door to let fear into the experience because I’m going to think of myself as the SN, the subject.

But I’m not the subject, because without the ON and CN, I can’t experience myself. So my fears are always based on this identity crisis. I’m thinking of myself as the subject, what I’m afraid of as the object, and I’m ignoring consciousness and awareness altogether.

It’s an easy mix up, because we only have direct access to the experiential moment, the “finished product.” Meditation and appreciative attention helps us to see through EM to all the moving parts. And when we totally focus on just one node (like the ON), all three nodes switch off because, well, they’re interdependent. If I’m only aware of one of them, then I can’t be aware of any of them.

What remains is the True Person, that bright open field. No nodes.

The point is that, if I really look at my fear, I’ll see that it isn’t something permanent and substantial. Its substance is TEM, and TEM has no substance either. All of my fears are groundless, and that groundlessness is the true ground that everything depends on.

If #4 doesn’t work, I usually go for #5, using sheer force of will to move through fear. I use passion, I use that zest for life to cut through the anxiety and turn it into focus. I roar if I need to.

So, we don’t have to live under fear’s boot; we have options. The main takeaway is that the more we give into fear, the more we let it control us, the more we’re going to experience it.

My intention is to never let fear influence my thoughts, words, or actions. Our reactions to our afflictions feed them. If we don’t react, but instead give ourselves space to respond in a helpful way, then we gradually starve them over time.

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