The phenomenon of fear is surely one of the most impressive proofs of the mind’s power to convince us of the reality of its contents. Most of the things that stir fear arrive in the form of thoughts.
All-consuming dread, inner films of nightmares running on a ceaseless loop, sleepless nights—these things are set in motion by the mind, whose content is usually at a remove from present reality. Even if a thought is of some factual threat (out there somewhere, some-when), the vast majority of the time, the threat that’s brewing the fear is not immediate. The direct cause of the present distress is not danger itself, but a mental picture of danger.
If a person could reduce all possible episodes of fear down to those threats that are imminent, life would be very much less a scary place. Then again, even danger that’s material and immediate doesn’t inevitably elicit a fear response. In a situation of true danger, there often isn’t time to be afraid. There is time only to act.
Fear, largely, is a waste of good life, one of the most capable thieves of presence. Not to mention love.
What Causes Fear
The dynamic behind fear needs to be brought into the light of awareness, revealing the common assumptions that put a person at its mercy. The primary cause of fear is not the imminent threat of a known negative force. It’s a thought about a possible or shapeless future.
When you understand the role the mind plays in generating fear, you can apply that same intelligence to achieving a more peaceful encounter with actual (or imagined) challenges. In this effort to reduce suffering, the mind can become an ally.
Bad Things Will Happen (and Nobody’s Getting Out of Here Alive)
Challenge and loss are inevitable in every life, your own and the lives of those you care about. Only some of the hard things that come down the pike will be readily manageable or avoidable. Death, for instance, will not be sidestepped (your own or others’).
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One of the assumptions driving fear is this:
Since bad things are inevitable, fear must be inevitable.
Yet it’s possible to live without fear, and not because of cluelessness or aloofness.
Not One Thing, but Two
A good start to dismantling fear is to look at another assumption, one you’ve probably made all your life:
The cause of fear is the feared thing itself.
We’re at the mercy of fear because we think fear is caused by scary things. Since danger, decay, and uncertainty are known to be inevitable, then (the logic goes) it’s not possible to be without fear.
As long as you believe this to be true, it will seem as though the only way to get fear to subside is to triumph over the thing “causing” the fear—to solve or escape the problem. Understanding that the feared thing is not the direct cause of fear asks you first to see as separate things what you’ve probably seen as one: the frightening thing and the fear it elicits.
When you see that they’re not inextricably tied, it becomes possible to address each in turn, to give each its due attention. Treating them as separate phenomena opens the door to peacefulness, even in the presence of a possible danger or challenge.
The actual cause of fear is the stream of thoughts generated in the presence of the mind’s image of what could befall you or someone you care for. Identifying the source of fear as mental activity won’t immediately dissolve the fear. It will draw some attention from the feared thing, directing it to the workings of your mind. As you discover the power of thoughts to transform a possible future danger into an apparently real and present threat, ease will enter the picture, and you won’t be so at the mercy of fear.
The Insanity of Fear
Chances are, if you’re aware of feeling fearful, it’s not in response to an actual, immediate threat. It’s in response to something you’re thinking about.
What a radical proposition this is. It surely flies in the face of what you’ve supposed.
If you can come to see that most fear is in response to a thought, you’ll have taken a significant step toward equanimity. If you neglect looking at the anatomy of your own episodes of fear, you’ll continue being at its mercy.
Key to understanding the anatomy of fear is this:
All that will ever be real is now.
Again and again, this truth has the power to set you free. Life is the present. When you’re deep in projection, you’re missing the now. Thought distracts you from life.
The present is what’s real. Everything else is in the head.
What’s Here, Present, Immediate?
If what’s real now is physical pain, you surrender to it, doing what you can to ameliorate the discomfort. There’s no spare energy for fearing future painful moments. If you project ahead, see that the mind is doing that. The fear is directed at a thought, whose content is pain-not-yet-here.
This is not about whether the thoughts are true. It’s about learning to distinguish potential future threat from actual present danger.
Say you’re in the woods and have just walked around a bend, startling a mother bear and her cub. At the sight of the mother’s aggressive stance, your heart will certainly pound. Clearly, this is a fear that’s appropriate, that serves you. Quickly, though, the fear will give way to practical physical response. A physical experience, not a mental one.
Is Something About The Now Threatening Your Well-Being?
Something in a person wants to believe that if fear is strong enough, it will somehow offer protection against the possible terrible things out there. Something wants to suppose that it’s possible to brace yourself for a prospective difficulty, as if being afraid in advance will make it easier to cope when the time comes.
You may tell yourself you’re trying to accept what might happen, wanting to believe that ahead-of-time acceptance somehow justifies the future-directed thoughts. But since it isn’t possible to accept what isn’t real (that is, present), all you’re doing is inducing pointless suffering now.
Living in the future means you live the dreaded thing twice— or, more likely, hundreds of times: the one time it actually takes place, and the myriad times you’ve played it in your head in advance.
Feeling afraid is completely crazy. It does nothing but cause suffering. When there’s no immediate threat, fear saves you from nothing.
Sometimes fear has no obvious or particular cause. There’s an undercurrent of generalized anxiety in the presence of life’s perennial uncertainty and chaos, a voice inside murmuring that any minute all hell could break loose. Keeping on top of news developments, for some, can generate a steady current of dread aimed at things beyond anyone’s control or understanding: meteorological or environmental disasters, terrorist attacks, a severe economic downturn, a drunk driver.
A lot of what fuels fear is the background awareness that we don’t know what’s going to come and are largely at the mercy of forces beyond our control. When virtually everything about the future is unknowable, the mind fills in the vacuum by spinning scenarios of the possible. But if it’s being with the truth that brings peace, then the thing to do is to try to relax in the face of don’t-know and can’t-control. Staying with the plain truth of the situation, even when it leaves you with a lot of unanswerable questions, can bring you to peacefulness.
When you attempt to grasp onto an illusion of predictability, when you try to manage unwieldy forces not within your control, you’re set up for anxiety, continual frustration, and being thrown off-balance by the unexpected. If you can get your sea legs, taking each roll of the vessel as it comes, it’s much more possible to relax into the view of the ever-changing scenery.
Living contentedly is learning to live in comfortable recognition of the truth that things are ceaselessly uncertain. The sooner you can make your peace with this, the more you’ll be able to savor your moments of life—the vast majority of which are ordinary, plainly miraculous, and absent threat of any kind.
What To Do When Fear Has Hold of You
Move your attention from the thoughts about the feared thing to how you’re feeling about it. Look around at the inner landscape. Without drifting back toward thoughts of the dreaded future, be with the physical sensation of fear. Feel how it hurts, how consuming it is of attention, of presence. See how fear makes it virtually impossible to experience anything else.
Just see this. Don’t attempt to change anything.
Now, redirect attention from the sensation of fear to the activity of your mind. Look at the thoughts and pictures that have been occupying your awareness. Notice that it’s these stories—not the immediate scene—that have generated the fear.
See if you can observe your mind without (just for now) getting reengaged in the compelling “reality” of the mental movie. Be alert to thoughts insisting that “this really is how it’s likely to go.” Even if that seems to be true, right now all you’re doing is looking at the contents of your mind, without regard for their apparent validity.
The mind wants you to think that if “it’s true” the projected nightmare is likely to become actualized in some future moment, somehow this present-moment fear is justified. Watch the mind insist upon this. Keep watching; don’t get drawn back into its siren song. If you do get sucked back in, the next moment you become self-aware, begin again to look at the thoughts driving the fear.
You’re moving back and forth between watching the movie in your head—being (as it were) in the audience—and being a participant in the drama. You’re vacillating between seeing the feared thing as drama and believing it’s reality. Notice yourself doing one or the other. See that you have the ability to observe the mental story as phenomenon, to see it rather than to occupy it. Even if only fleetingly.
Now, allow your attention to move to the immediate scene of this moment. Let the contents of your mind, as well as the sensation of fear, drift into the background of awareness. Just for a few moments, you can do this. Focus on the present-moment scene—this place, this momentary reality. Ask yourself, What is here that’s a threat?
Remember, chances are very good that if you have the leisure to direct your attention to such a question, there is no immediate danger. Because if there were, you’d be busily responding (running from the danger), not wasting energy on fear-inducing thoughts.
©2012 by Jan Frazier. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Weiser Books,
an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC. www.redwheelweiser.com
The Freedom of Being: At Ease with What Is
by Jan Frazier.
About the Author
Jan Frazier is a writer, spiritual teacher and the author of several books including When Fear Falls Away: The Story of a Sudden Awakening. Her poetry and prose have appeared widely in literary journals and anthologies, and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Visit her at www.JanFrazierTeachings.com.
Watch an excerpt of a video of Jan Frazier at the Sirius Retreat