What am I afraid of?
Fear rears its ugly head again, and again. We find ourselves saying and doing things that make matters worse. Rooted in fear, we feel tense, stressed, depressed or frantic. Fear can cause us to become violent, even if the violence is veiled and turned in on ourselves. When we feel out of control, asking ‘What am I afraid of?’ is an effective way to see the fear that has been causing us to make poor choices and miss out on joy.
At first our inner investigation will bring up a litany of stories about all that the future could manifest, given current causes and conditions. None of us knows what the future holds, but we can see from our own experience how reacting fearfully sets up a pattern of fear. In our practice we look at how we are in relationship to all that arises in our experience. Out of fear we are making enemies of everything. We spark fear in others and they then react in ways that are unskillful, causing more fear in us, and more justification for our fear. Fear creates its own proof! But that doesn’t mean it is the truth in the greater scheme of things. It only means we are powerful and need to be mindful of that.
Powerful? Yes! Beyond our wildest imagining.
Often, especially for women, this is difficult to recognize. We have historically been marginalized, patronized and dis-empowered. Those messages still run through us, no matter how liberated we may feel. I am posting this on a day that women are marching together in solidarity, supporting each other and feeling that unity of being. The true value in this is in seeing through the assumptions we all have inherited from an ever-evolving (and sometimes devolving) culture.
But this power is not dependent on external validation. Just by being alive, we are a powerful presence. For example, every being has the capacity to change the energy in an entire room. Don’t believe me? See if you can remember some gathering — family, business, friends — where everything was going swimmingly or everything was boring until someone walked in and the energy was turned upside down. The new addition, probably without even being aware of it, brought in fear-based antagonism or love-based joie de vivre that changed everything. It wasn’t that the person was in a position of hierarchical power necessarily, but they – and we – are all powerful beyond measure. So we need to take responsibility for the power we bring into the world.
If we are living in fear, we discount our power, and our actions or lack of action may be misinterpreted. I was in a situation this week where I was impressed by the skillfulness of a young woman I sat next to for an hour when I took my granddaughter to gymnastics class. The woman had a toddler to keep quietly entertained and contained while her daughter attended the class, and she managed it so beautifully — anyone would love to have a mother like that! — that I wanted to tell her. But I didn’t. I fell back into a pattern of shyness, discounting my own power. I thought that my words would be awkward and unwelcome somehow. Now I regret not saying something. We all appreciate praise, even if we don’t seem to. Why would I withhold a compliment? Out of fear.
Another fear-based pattern is how we can misinterpret the impact we make as something external that is happening to us, rather than something we are bringing into the situation. For example, the person that walks into a room of people, timid and shy, afraid of what people might think of them. They shrink and hide in such a way that people assume they want to be alone, or maybe that they are judging the group unworthy of their time. So they leave the person alone or, depending on their own level of fear, behave in a way that is a little defensive. This is interpreted by the ‘interloper’ as hostile, confirming their original supposition that they are not worthy of acknowledging. What a difference a fearless person makes in such a situation, able to step up to welcome a person, regardless of what they are projecting. But you can’t always count on finding a fearless person. It’s more skillful to simply be one!
This is a mild example. In the extreme, any person living through a filter of fear can activate fear in others, especially those who are hyper-fearful. It would seem to make sense that the two in a certain way call out to each other, a dangerous kinship of a shared scary world view. The fearful pair up to play out a painful pattern, perpetrator and victim, again and again. This is not to blame the victim for what happens to them, but to acknowledge that fear attracts fear and to encourage us to notice fear, question whether it is performing a useful function or actually causing harm.
Looking at these patterns, we might wonder how do we survive as a species with so much fear-based miscommunication? With the power of love. This is not the acquisitive desire kind of love, but the expansive love for all beings that rises out of gratitude for simply being alive in this moment, and the pleasure of sharing the joy with others who are alive with the sensate wonder of this amazing gift, just as it is.
The fear of taking a chance on ourselves
Where does fear grab you?
- By the throat? Keeping you from speaking up?
- By the metaphorical cojones? Keeping you from taking a chance on doing something you long to do — writing, painting, starting a business, etc.?
- By the heart? Keeping you from expressing your feelings, risking rejection?
These fears feel valid. They each have risks. But how much risk-aversion is smart, and how much is simply crushing you? That’s an important exploration for each of us to take if this resonates.
Through the practice of being fully present to notice thoughts and emotions as they arise and fall away in our experience, we can see fear for what it is. That awareness softens the tight grip that fear has held us in for so long. What a relief!
The Buddha in his own inner investigation was able to identify ‘three poisons’ that cause suffering. As we look at each we can see that they are all rooted in fear.
Desire, fear’s greedy spawn
You may be surprised to see desire as rooted in fear. But think about the nature of desire. It is based in a sense of lack, of not-enough, and the assumption that something we acquire will remove that sense of lack. But desire is a mental pattern that breeds on itself. My granddaughters will never have enough of the current collectible stuffed animals. Ever. They may think there is some amount that will satisfy, but that will happen only when the focus of their desires moves on to the next toy of the moment, and way down the road maybe the next boy or pair of shoes or who knows what of the moment. Oh my. It is so much easier to see desire’s undesired effects in children than it is to see them in our own lives. But desire is there, rooted in fear, causing suffering.
Aversion, fear’s picky offspring
Fault-finding is a pattern that radiates out into the external world, but is seated in our own sense of not being good enough. Those standards we set that the world is not measuring up to? They came from our own not measuring up to the standards set by some powerful person in our childhood, who was caught up in the pattern from their own childhood sense of failing, and on and on. Getting caught up in blame is not useful. No parent or teacher has ever been perfectly skillful…well maybe the young mother at gymnastics class whom I mentioned earlier but I’m sure even she has her moments of unskillfulness at the end of a difficult day.
Delusion, fear’s wayward child
If a person is zoned out or just seems blind to the world around them, it might be reasonable to assume there is something scary that they would rather not look at too deeply. Instead, they float around in a state of foggy avoidance.
Since desire, aversion and delusion are the cause of suffering and are rooted in fear, the question ‘What am I afraid of?’ is a valuable exploration. But it might feel a little scary to pose. It may feel like having a conversation with the proverbial dragon at the gate, the one we’ve been avoiding or trying to sneak by for fear of going up in flames. But if that resonates, then this is just the conversation we need to be having. Because beyond that gate is the life we have been hiding from ourselves with our unquestioning patterns of fear.
This is not a one-off question. We can ask it, let the answer rise up, and then, instead of getting overly caught up in analysis, justification or argument, simply ask it again. And again. If you feel reluctant to go deeper in this way, remember that fear is already causing you pain. There’s a gospel song about how you have to go in through the door. These questions are a door.
Letting fear dictate our lives isn’t even helpful in addressing the surface fears. Instead it paralyzes us, making us unable to do the practical things we need to do: Create an emergency kit, build up a savings account, get a physical, etc.
What causes the paralysis? Under that fear is another fear. If this is not something you are comfortable doing on your own, find a dharma buddy to do it with. If you are terrified of such an investigation, then a therapist could help to guide you through the process.
By exploring the fear, we come to understand that we are causing ourselves and others suffering through reacting out of fear. Deep exploration and an investigation in the dharma shows us that we fear disappearing. So we panic when someone disrespects us and when things around us change, causing us to cling to the world we knew and push away new experience as threatening.
The Antidote to Fear
Just as fear is at the root of the three ways we suffer, the antidote to fear is offered in deep insight into the nature of things:
We are afraid of things changing or not changing. But insight and nature teaches us that impermanence is the way of all things. The seasons change. All beings cycle through life, death, decay and the regeneration of new life in some other form, the way fallen trees fertilize the forest floor.
We are afraid of being isolated, separate. But insight and nature teaches us that life is a complex web of patterns and networks that are not just interconnected but inherently one system of being, active, alive and non-isolatable. We forget that our being is woven into the pattern of life. Each of us can be imagined as a fleeting shining shimmer of a jewel in a complex network, radiating and reflecting all life.
We are afraid of pain and suffering. How can we not be? It is a biological imperative to fear pain so that we avoid what could harm or kill us. But insight and nature teach us that the pain of being born into a body, of illness, of aging, and of dying are intrinsic parts of the great gift of being alive to experience all the ever-present richness of each moment of awareness.
As we develop a practice of regular meditation, we come more fully into the present moment, into the senses. We can begin to look more closely at the nature of pain. We let go of the word pain, and sit with the pure sensation. We begin to see that it is not just one sensation but multiple sensations, like many instruments in an orchestra, each playing its part. We see how these smaller sensations are not in and of themselves painful. We see that they arise and fall away, and another sensation takes its place. We see the nature of impermanence in our close examination.
We see that it is our thoughts, rooted in fear, that compound pain. On top of that pure sensation we put the thought rooted in past experience: ‘Oh no, not this again! I hate when this happens.’ Then it’s not just this sensation, but a whole series of past similar pains that we are dealing with all over again. And if that were not enough we add in thoughts of the future: ‘How long will this pain go on? Will I have to miss that event I want to go to? Is this going to be a thing recurring for the rest of my life? Kill me now!’ And of course, we could toss a little comparing mind in there: ‘Why am I the only one who suffers in this way? Why me?’
By bringing ourselves fully into the present moment, not making things worse by diving into past and future thoughts, we find a fresh fearless way of being with pain. And then the pain disappears, or turns into something else. Because life is impermanent and this too shall pass.
The Buddha said not to take his word for it but to explore for yourself. Gentle compassionate investigation after the regular practice of meditation is how we gain insight. And our insights, the ones that arise out of our own experience, are the ones that spark awakening, self-compassion and a sense of wonder that is fearless.