Working with Our Fears

By Andrew Goodman (Won Bup Woo)

One of my favorite lines in the Heart Sutra is in the fifth verse which says, “the mind is no hindrance, without any hindrance no fears exist, free from delusion, one dwells in nirvana”. This is such a clear, concise guide of the path to awakening.

The form of this chant is similar to that of a poem. They both have a rhythm and a cadence. More importantly, the words and images that are used in a poem or chant are condensed, they have several or multiple meanings.

I want to talk about a few of the meanings I find in the lines I quoted, and discuss how they can be applied to our everyday practice. If I was going to translate the lines from the poetry of the chant to prose it would be something like: when the mind becomes silent through the concentration of deep meditation, all distracting and disruptive thoughts of our ego cease. In this calm and clear state all of our fears fade away and when our fears cease we stop perceiving the world and ourselves in a delusional, confused way.

One idea that stands out to me in these lines is the very close relationship between our fears and our delusions. It seems to me the Heart Sutra is saying many of our delusional thoughts stem from our fears. This makes sense to me based on my experience as a psychotherapist. When people feel fear or intense anxiety, that is when they react with their most impulsive, irrational responses. If our fears are the source of much of our delusional thinking and actions, it would seem quite important to try to pay attentions to them and decrease them in our practice. Thich Naht Hahn in his book The Other Shore writes, “The practice of Buddhism starts with recognizing the presence of ill-being. Suffering has a role to play and we can learn to make use of our suffering. But before we can ease suffering, we have to acknowledge its presence” (p. 91).

Another idea I have about these lines which is more speculative is that the Heart Sutra describes a process of quieting our minds, our fears subsiding, and awakening arising. I wonder if this process can also work the other way around. What I mean is if we can decrease or let go of our fears does that help quiet the mind, and this leads to awakening?

What I would like to focus on in this talk is discussing what are some of people’s major fears in life. Identifying our fears is the first step in decreasing them. Then I will discuss ways we can diminish and let go of our fears from both a psychological and a buddhist perspective.

Fear of Separation

Many people have a fear of separating from their close relationships. This can involve even temporary separations such as a spouse or family member going away for a weekend or a vacation. For most of us the end of a relationship is anxiety provoking to some degree. For some people such a separation stirs up feelings of panic.

Separations are often experienced as some kind of loss. What a person feels he or she is losing can vary and include several different issues. Usually we focus on the specific person, or who, we are losing. However, the real source of pain involves what we think we are losing. We assign meanings to the various relationships in our lives, and attribute valuable qualities to our important relationships.

For some people a relationship provides a sense of safety and emotional security. We view the other person as making us feel happy and loved. Some people may admire or even idealize the person they are involved with. Since they view their partner as being special, they also feel special because of the connection they have.

Still other people get a sense of identity from a relationship either from being affirmed by someone who shares similar values and perspectives, or by adopting their partner’s values and way of seeing the world.

When we lose a person we are close with, we can feel we are losing some or all of the qualities I have described which can make someone feel depleted or empty inside. The threat to our self-esteem and our perception of who we are, is more painful and difficult than the loss of a particular person.

The fear of losing a relationship can lead to impulsive behaviors that are harmful.

Some people are so worried about losing a partner that they will avoid any disagreements. They are so focused on pleasing the other person that they lose touch with their own needs. Other people can have such a strong fear of separation, that they are very sensitive to any criticism or sign of distance in the relationship. This can lead to becoming so demanding for reassurance that they end up driving their partner away.

Fear of attack

Many people have a fear of being attacked. I am using this idea in a broad sense that can involve actual physical attack, but includes verbal abuse and various forms of criticism. To a certain extent the fear of being attacked may even be with us on a genetic level. For most of our 200,000 year history as human sapiens we have lived in an environment with very real threats and dangers. Whether it has been from the threat of being attacked by larger animals, other tribes and clans of humans, or from being overwhelmed by natural threats of fire, flood, drought, and famine.

Unfortunately, many children grow up with some degree of physical or emotional abuse. Children are hit more often than we would like to acknowledge, and many parents turn out to be people with emotional problems that make them periodically take out their frustrations on their children. Parents may lash out physically, but more often do so verbally in ways that demean children. Other parents may not be verbally abusive, but are critical so often that this creates a lot of insecurity, anxiety and loss of self-esteem.

This kind of childhood experience causes some people to grow up with a tendency to feel excessively guilty when they make a mistake or are criticized by someone. This fear of guilt actually causes some people to be overly defensive and negatively effects their social and work relationships. When a person is very defensive it is usually difficult to discuss problems with them. Discussions turn into debates and arguments quickly and the issue gets pushed to the side. This leads to a pattern of problems being unresolved and dormant. 

In work relationships this gets in the way of someone being able to grow professionally because they can’t make use of constructive criticism. It may of course lead to getting fired, but it also probably effects the person not getting opportunities to develop professionally. No one really wants to work with someone who is very difficult to deal with.

In social relationships when problems keep recurring and they do not get discussed openly and there is no sense of progress, this can lead to a partner or spouse feeling frustrated, resentful and distant. This is an unhappy situation for both people.

Fear of losing control

Many of us, if not most of us, like to feel in control in our lives. Couples often struggle for control over issues big and small. Sometimes it is surprising to people how much energy and importance goes into arguing over small things like where to go eat, what movie to see, the television remote.

The struggle for control and the anxiety that arises when we feel we are not in control, raises the question, what are we afraid of losing of?  On one level you could say that people cling to the idea of holding onto a sense of security or safety. A sense of security involves different issues for different people. 

Many people are afraid of losing control of their emotions. Some people are afraid of losing control of their anger because they fear harming someone else. Other people are worried about being rejected if they show a negative side of their personality.

Still others fear the guilt they will experience when they feel they have lost control.

Some people are very anxious about the possibility of exposing their own vulnerable feeling such as sadness, hurt, and dependency. They feel weak when they experience these emotions. Because they negatively judge these aspects of their personality they assume others will also see vulnerable feeling as something to be criticized and looked down on.

This kind of anxiety makes it difficult for many of us to express our needs for support, help, and reassurance even to those they are close to. This can limit how connected someone feels to friends and partners because he or she know there are important parts of themselves that they don’t let other people see. 

Still other people are concerned that if they are not in control of every situation that things will spiral out of control and they will feel overwhelmed. There are different levels of anxiety people can experience. Severe anxiety, like panic attacks can feel frightening and threatening. For some people there is the fear that losing control over their thoughts will lead to losing touch with their sense of identity or self.

Fear of intimacy

Most of us think of having someone to love in our lives as a very positive thing. For many of us we feel it is the most important thing in life. For some people though the opportunity to be in an intimate relationship is complicated and is filled with ambivalence.

When we trust someone we are taking a risk. Will the other person reject us, will they be consistent and reliable, will they make the effort to work out conflicts, will they betray us, will they die and leave us? All these possibilities make it difficult for some of us to allow ourselves to take the risk and open up to trusting someone.

People may have been hurt and deeply disappointed in earlier relationships, and it is too scary to trust again. People who have had very troubling experiences as children around separation issues can have difficulty attaching to a loved one as an adult. Children who have been demeaned and ridiculed by their parents constant criticism may have the expectation as adults that if they trust someone and let down their guard, they will be attacked and humiliated.

Our anxieties and fears can cause us at times to misperceive certain situations and react in impulsive, aggressive ways that make difficult situation worse. At other times our fears may hold us back from being able to engage in relationships and opportunities that could make us feel happier and more fulfilled. In both instances we can see how our fears hinder our growth and increase our pain.

Ways of decreasing our fears

The first step in decreasing and letting go of our fears is to recognize and acknowledge them. When we can identify a feeling of anxiety or fear we can ask several questions that help to formulate it more clearly to ourselves. What am I afraid of may sound like an obvious question, but it can be very helpful because so often people want to ignore or dismiss their anxieties. We don’t like feeling vulnerable, we think it means    

we are weak. In fact, it takes a certain strength to acknowledge when you feel vulnerable.

Usually some kind of situation or circumstance, or what in Buddhism is called a condition, is the focus of our fears. An important test in school, a meeting with someone we feel intimidated by, or that we strongly dislike, an interview for a new job. Beneath these circumstances is the question of what does the situation mean to us and what is the emotional threat.

For instance you might apply for a promotion and have a lot of anxiety about whether you will get it or not. It is useful to ask yourself what would it mean if you didn’t get the promotion? Does it stir up the feeling that you are not good enough or inadequate? Does it lead to feeling you might be smart, but people don’t like your personality? Do you feel you never get a break because somehow you are a bad person and don’t deserve good things in your life?

Clarifying what fears a difficult situation evokes for you helps you to realize that your fears often go beyond the specifics of a situation. They are often amplified and exaggerated by negative expectations and self-criticisms you carry around. Usually the greatest threat and pain in a situation is coming from inside your mind, not as an external threat.

Sometimes a situation in the present resonates with a painful experience as a child. Most people feel sad and disappointed when an intimate relationship ends. For someone whose parents divorced when they were a child, or whose parents were emotionally distant and unavailable, the end of a relationship can stir up feelings of intense anxiety. The loss of a partner can bring up fears of loneliness, or a feeling that something is missing inside that makes you unlovable. The echoes of feelings from childhood make your emotions more intense and the situation seem more threatening.

Being able to formulate and reflect on what your fears consist of, and where they stem from, can help you sort out what the external stressors are, and what are the internal threats. Clarifying your emotional experience in this way helps to decrease fears because when you feel more connected to yourself, you feel more grounded and can think more clearly. This enables you to realize when you may be overreacting to a situation and what are more realistic and effective steps to change or improve a situation.

In many ways a Buddhist approach to understanding and responding to our fears overlaps and complements a psychological perspective. Buddhism and psychology are both interested in understanding and exploring how is the mind constructing it’s experience of reality. 

The first question a Buddhist might ask in response to recognizing feelings of fear and anxiety is who is experiencing these feelings? This leads to the awareness that it our self or ego that is experiencing the anxiety. An important part of practice is to realize how and when we are very attached to our ego and to work at gradually letting go of the attachment. Thich Naht Hahn describes attachment as a kind of grasping,

“We grasp after shadows of reality, trying to catch our sensations, objects of happiness, attainment, or success. We try to grasp at our beloved, or even at nirvana. We are not always grasping out of longing or craving: sometimes we also grasp out of fear. We grasp on to an idea of a separate self, our identity, and we are afraid to lose this identity, to lose our ‘self’ “ (p. 99, The Other Shore).

Another question to ask ourselves is what is our ego attached to? When we are feeling fear or anxiety our ego is attached to some kind of desire. Sometimes the desire is simply to avoid a painful situation that we anticipate. At other times we dread that an attachment to a way of seeing ourselves will be threatened.

For instance, if we get into an argument with a partner we may get anxious in response to our partner saying we are critical and demanding. Our anxiety may be attached to an image of ourselves as being low key and accepting which is threatened by this criticism.

The concept of impermanence can be a valuable perspective in helping us manage our fears. Impermanence teaches us that things are always changing and that there is an alternation between favorable and unfavorable conditions in our lives. Trying to avoid unpleasant, even painful situations is impossible. The attempt to control things, or the wish that things should always go well for us and that we should always be happy actually leads to increased anxiety and disappointment.

Acknowledging and accepting impermanence and the mix of good and bad experiences, I think helps us to better tolerate and cope with the challenges and difficulties that arise in our lives. The other great help that impermanence provides, is the knowledge that problems will pass.

A buddhist concept that for me is linked with impermanence is the law of cause and effect. Situations arise from certain causes and then cease when those causes pass. Our speech and actions are causes that have effects on other people and ourselves. What is helpful to me when I am in a difficult situation is to try to ask myself what is the best way I can respond to the situation. Buddhism has helped me shift from an attitude of why is this happening to me, to one of where do I go from here. This perspective helps me to focus on what is a more mindful response to a tense situation, rather that acting in an impulsive way.

Sometimes when we are meditating a recurrent fear may come to the surface. You might feel anxious in the moment, but the meditative state of mind can also help you look at the fear from a certain distance or with some objectivity. It may sound strange, but I think you can feel anxious and calm at the same time when sitting. Meditation can help acknowledge that you have been carrying a fear for a long time and where it stems from. This can then help you realize you don’t need to hold onto it in the present. Not only does everything keep changing around us, but the self also keeps changing.

Hopefully, if we are more aware and mindful of our fears we can work towards decreasing them and letting them go. This can help us feel less distracted in meditation and less reactive and impulsive in our daily interactions with others. 

Published by wonbuddhismnyc

It is a place of peace and restoration, and a place to learn and practice Won Buddhism and meditation.