Is fear useful? Most would say yes. They say, “Fear keeps us from doing dangerous things and therefore is a valuable survival tool.” Is this really true? Everyone in the Tuesday meditation class nodded their heads in agreement.
What is your experience? Can you name a situation when fear was useful for you? As you think back, try to focus on a scene in which you were afraid. Hold that scene in your mind, and then ask yourself: What role did fear play? Did it help or hinder?
In class we shared our biggest scares, and in each situation that students could remember, it wasn’t the fear that saved them, but their own training, intuition or common sense. This has certainly been my experience as well. Yet fear has this reputation of being so useful!
We also discussed the self-fulfilling prophecy nature of fear, how a jealous boyfriend loses the girl he is afraid of losing out of fear-based jealous behavior. One student said that Philip Roth’s book, Indignation, is based on this whole idea of fear being self-fulfilling. So this is not new news here! But why does it persist?
Fear also has another reputation, counter to the first. It is known to be highly contagious. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s most famous quote is, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” These words are famous because their perennial truth resonates within us. Fear begets fear. When we feel fearful, we contract and express ourselves in the world in a way that puts fear in others. This can create dangerous situations.
When we see someone that makes the hairs on our neck stand up, someone who looks like they are violent, out of control or up to something dangerous, it is our intuition that aids us in understanding the situation. Chances are the person we encounter is operating on pure fear, charged with adrenaline. If we add more fear to the mix, more adrenaline coming from our side, the volatile situation is much more likely to ignite into something truly disastrous. The other person senses our fear and is drawn to it because it resonates. A synergistic fear event is not the kind of thing we really want to promote in our lives.
That doesn’t sound very useful. Let’s inquire further. We might say, “Fear is useful in keeping us from jaywalking across the street against busy traffic.” But couldn’t we manage that without fear? Could we do it from a love of life, a gratitude for the gift of life? That doesn’t have to be fear, just intelligence, just understanding the nature of our environment and moving with it as a flowing dance rather than a violent video game.
A typical fear response is fight or flight. Fear ignites anger and violence ensues. That’s the fight. How often does that turn out well? Running in many situations is known to be the worst thing we could do. Running from the police or from a wild animal might be deadly. The fear kicks in a response, locking out our ability to think clearly. Thus fear can itself be quite dangerous. It is so undependable. It might just as easily paralyze us when we should be running, like from a tsunami.
These are unusual moments of fear, but what about the fear that we live with day in and day out. Perhaps we have an underlying fear of loss, failure, illness and death. If our thoughts dwell a lot in the future, these fears keep us operating at half-mast as we mourn in advance of these eventualities. This constant fear causes our bodies great stress and could fuel disease and early death. What is the value of fear here?
What is the value of fear when we are too afraid to discuss important matters with our loved ones, or are too afraid to speak in public, fearful of what people will think of us? How does this fear protect us from anything at all? In fact, it keeps us from living in a rich connected way. It keeps us from being fully available for others, because we’re caught up in worrying what they will think of us. It keeps us from being able to experience and share the sweet fleeting gift of life on earth. Fear really traps us in misery. How is that useful?
Maybe we believe that fear is what keeps us lawful. “How could a society operate without people having a healthy fear of the consequences of unlawful behavior?” Keep people scared and they’ll stay in line. Is this the foundation of our society?
Ideally societies are formed to support all the members of the community for the mutual benefit of all. When you read the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, you can’t help but be inspired by the desire of “We the people” to form a “more perfect union” for the “general welfare.”
Fear sabotages all efforts to form a meaningful healthy community. When fear comes into play, people contract and become paranoid and suspicious. They feel separate and now they want only what they think will benefit them, not the rest of the community. They are blinded by their fear into thinking they can be happy at the expense of others.
In fear, they feel the need to make some members of their community be ‘other,’ calling any differences wrong, maybe even denying them basic rights within the society. Since fear is contagious, soon fear-based hate groups band together, seeing themselves as special, more entitled. Seeing this group makes excluded individuals fearful. Maybe they buy into the belief that they are wrong or unworthy, and the fear turns to self-hatred, or they recognize the injustice of the situation and they feel they must fight to protect themselves. Either way fear becomes the accepted culture, and generations later we can’t imagine anything different, can’t imagine that people are capable of living in a friendly supportive trusting way, in which the good of all is considered tantamount, because the happiness of the individual is so deeply rooted in peaceful coexistence and loving connection.
That fear on both sides and the resulting disconnection from any sense of responsibility to the community as a whole, becomes the basis of rude, aggressive and dangerous behavior. Thus laws are enacted that weren’t needed before. Trust is broken, doors are locked, weapons are amassed, and a ever-growing percentage of the population ends up imprisoned. The whole community suffers from this sense of separation and anxiety, this need to be on guard at all times from the dangers ‘out there.’ This culture of distrust extends out to how nations perceive each other as well. Global politics becomes as unskillful as the behavior of schoolyard bullies and their victims, and all from the same root. Fear sets us up for a failed society, the loss of real community that all of us crave.
Perhaps you think this view is naive. You say fear is a valuable tool because it works. Yes, if you believe it’s ‘us against them,’ and you want to keep ‘them’ in line, then fear is valuable. If you think you can make happiness for yourself based on the misery of others, then fear is a valuable tool. But let’s assume that you would not be interested in meditation, in developing your deep-rooted sense of connectedness, if you were suffering from that delusion. So for you, for us, fear has no value. The value in the situations we discussed earlier really lies in our native intelligence, in our caring about life itself, in our intuition.
But people in power use fear all the time. They themselves are rooted in fear, and thus feel it is quite acceptable to promote it in others in order to protect themselves. I spent a number of years in advertising and the better I became at it, the more insidious the industry seemed to me. Advertising is based completely on fear: You are not enough. You need this product to make you more beautiful, healthy, happy, successful, safe, etc. Psychological fear creation is the corner stone of capitalism! Corporate profits depend on it!
So much of our culture is rooted in a fear-based belief system. In fear, we despair, but it’s time to wake up! When you recognize that fear is being used to rush a vote in Congress, or to get you to buy something you’re not sure you need, wake up! It is only when we are fearful that these needy people, trying so hard to fill themselves, notice us and are attracted to us. If we dwell in fear, we offer ourselves up as victims, because we resonate with their fear. We don’t intend to, but our fear sends out the message that we are there for the taking.
I am not suggesting that when you notice fear that you push it away or try to talk yourself out of it or try to replace it with happy thoughts. Not at all. That wouldn’t be helpful, skillful or get the desired result. It is important to notice the fear when it arises. Maybe you don’t want to notice it. Maybe you think it reflects badly on you and you push it away or stuff it down. Fear is just fear. It’s not you. You didn’t create it. It arises within all of us.
Instead of trying to change it or ignore it, we get curious about it. We notice where we feel it in our bodies. We ask what thoughts are co-arising with this sense of fear? This is the practice. We neither grasp or push away the fear, but if we do grasp or push it away, we notice that too. We just keep noticing, sitting with what is.
The more we sit, chances are in time we will find less to be fearful about. We discover something in the depths of our being that is unafraid. Who can say what this is? When I talked about ‘metta beyond measure’ in a previous dharma talk, I talked about how it was possible for there to be a loving synergistic energy in which the whole world is vibrant with optimal well being, all within the natural circular life process of birth, death and decay. And, yes, I know that sounds totally wacko! But when we talk about fear and the products of fear, the ways in which fear is attracted to fear, we begin to see that most of the really painful encounters in life come from feeding the fear and turning it into a raging fire of fear that destroys everything in its path.
So what if we were free of fear? What would that be like? Is that even possible?
On an individual basis it is absolutely possible to be free of fear. And if more and more individuals were living fearless lives – not as dare-devils, but as balanced, loving, giving, harmonious people – then those who live in fear would at least not find so many opportunities to fuel their fear. And they might discover that this kind of deep rooted loving-kindness is even more contagious than fear.
Accessing spaciousness through meditation paves the way to this kind of fearlessness. Also developing a metta practice, where we send loving-kindness to all beings, that all beings may be well, happy and free, is key to beginning to feel the loving kindness that is ever present in the universe.
Accessing that loving-kindness, allows us to ‘lay down our swords and shields down by the riverside’ and become conduits for that loving energy in the world.
Here is a poem I wrote fifteen years ago when I was recovering from a long illness:
POEM: Dirt Bag Dharma
I don’t know how long I had been ill…
Long enough to see myself as
fragile, wan, weak, in need of protection
from violent images and emotion
that could suck the life right out of me.
But I needed soil for my garden
and the worker assigned to shovel
ten bags of dirt for me was apparently
way overdue for a break, and no doubt
had other grievances fueling his anger.
I backed off — to give him space, I thought,
but really more to give me space,
as I retreated to the cocoon of my car to wait.
Feeling guilty, I began to send him metta:
May you be well, may you feel ease.
At first the words had a begging quality
like the prayers of a small child, cowering
in a corner, terrified of the bogey man.
But then I began to feel the power
of my words flush through me, transforming me
into a strong conduit of loving-kindness.
So I returned to his side and soon
we were chatting — who knows about what,
it didn’t matter, because — all the while
I radiated that peaceful energy.
Soon his shoulders and jaw softened, his voice lost
its edge, he chuckled at something I said,
and when his boss yelled another order,
he didn’t bark or bristle as he’d done before.
Instead he smiled at me, rolled his eyes as if to say,
‘Ain’t this shitty life grand?’
In that moment,
standing amidst my dirt bags,
I realized I was well.
– Stephanie Noble