Fear plays an enormous role in the way we live our lives. From childhood to old age it shapes our behavior and our perceptions by imbuing certain actions, thoughts, and experiences with a “negative” emotional charge. From the fear of “the other,” to the fear of punishment, to the fear of pain, to the fear of illness, to the fear of success or failure, to the fear of censure or controversy, to the fear of our boss or our mate, to the fear of someone passing us on the street, to the fear of intimacy, to the fear of loneliness, to the fear of psychological exposure, to the fear of change and the unknown, to the fear of death, to the fear of damnation—our lives are filled with fears of every conceivable color and form.
What is fear? Most dictionaries define fear in relation to feelings of apprehension, calamity, and dread. Experientially, fear has to do with the feeling that something unpleasant or even terrible is going to happen. A moment’s reflection shows, however, that fear involves far more than our feelings. It also involves our mind and body. A moment’s reflection also shows us that there are many levels of fear.
Clearly, some forms of fear, as long as they don’t become compulsive, are appropriate in today’s society; some are even healthy. Some fears can help motivate us to live more intelligently. They can help us survive in a world filled with many dangers. Some may even have important spiritual significance. The Psalms (111:10) tell us, for example, that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” And certainly the fear of death, if we could but allow it fully into our consciousness and face it squarely, would help us live more meaning-filled lives.
Most of our fears, however, are neither instinctual nor wise. Most of our fears arise through conditioning by our family, our educators, our society, and our culture. Most of our fears are of things and situations that are either imaginary or don’t really matter. Most of our fears can be summed up by Francis Bacon’s statement that “Nothing is terrible except fear itself.”
The key to understanding fear begins with the observation that fear is intimately bound up with our relationship to our thoughts, with the very way we think about ourselves and the world. For most of us, this relationship is one of identification, of slavery. Our thoughts capture our attention and we lose ourselves in them.
Gurdjieff On Fear
The spiritual pathfinder G. I. Gurdjieff points out that “Sometimes a man is lost in revolving thoughts which return again and again to the same thing, the same unpleasantness, which he anticipates and which not only will not but cannot happen in reality.” Gurdjieff goes on to say that “These forebodings of future unpleasantnesses, illnesses, losses, awkward situations often get hold of a man to such an extent that they become waking dreams. People cease to hear what actually happens, and if someone succeeds in proving to them that their forebodings and fear were unfounded in some particular instance, they even feel a certain disappointment, as thought they were thus deprived of a pleasant expectation.”1
It is clear that our mental anticipation of unpleasantness is one of the major obstacles to experiencing the reality of the present moment. This anticipation not only dulls our perception and makes it impossible to see and hear reality, but it also consumes our energy, exhausting us in the process.
It is also clear that most of us are so identified with our fears that we find it almost impossible to even imagine giving them up. Our fears are part and parcel of our self-image, of our identity. They give us a sense of meaning, however meager, and they are often the unconscious bargaining chips that we use in our exchanges with others.
The Relationship of Fear to Our Self-Image
To understand the relationship of fear to our self-image we need to begin to study the relationship of fear to energy. In his wonderful book Openness Mind, Tarthang Tulku, a highly respected Tibetan Lama, writes that “Fear is nothing but misapplied energy, a mental projection, an idea. When our body reacts to fear, the body itself is not afraid. The fear comes from concepts and thoughts that we have learned to associate with this reaction.”2 It is our belief in these concepts and thoughts that give them power over us, whether or not they are “real.”
In this same chapter, Tarthang Tulku goes on to say that is helpful “to remember that fear is only an association; fear does not exist until a feeling is labeled and objectified as such. When we can let go of our concepts and expectations, there is nothing to be afraid of.”
Though Tarthang Tulku’s analysis does not hold up for instinctual fears such as the fear of falling, and for common sense fears such as the fear of fire (when one’s house is burning down fear is appropriate, since it ensures that we get out of the house as quickly as possible) it is certainly true for many of our chronic fears. To transform our fear, we need to find ways to let go of our concepts and expectations.
This work of “letting go,” however, is a work that we will not undertake seriously until we begin to observe and be sincere about the many negative influences of imaginary fears in our lives. For this a special work of self-observation, of inner sincerity, is necessary. We need to begin to see in painful detail how we are afraid at some level of many things in our lives, and how our thoughts and expectations shape this fear. We also need to see that way in which our fear misdirects our energy and keeps us from living healthy, vital lives. It is this seeing that is the beginning of transformation.
Copyright 2004-2015 by Dennis Lewis