So much of our suffering—as individuals and as a society—is caused by fear. In fact, according to Buddhism, fear is at the very root of ego and samsara.
It helps to explore how we can work with fear from the point of view of the path, the student’s journey. How do we walk the path of fear? Fear is not a trivial matter. In many ways, it restricts our lives; it imprisons us. Fear is also a tool of oppression. Because of fear, we do many harmful things, individually and collectively, and people who are hungry for power over others know that and exploit it. We can be made to do things out of fear.
Fear is a very tricky thing. Sometimes we put up a pretense of virtue, but really we’re afraid of being bad. Are our good deeds true virtue or just fear? Fear also stops us from speaking up when we know we should. Fear is often what causes people to leave the path of dharma. When things start to go deep, beyond self-improvement, they encounter fear and say, “This path is not for me.”
The essential cause of our suffering and anxiety is ignorance of the nature of reality, and craving and clinging to something illusory. That is referred to as ego, and the gasoline in the vehicle of ego is fear. Ego thrives on fear, so unless we figure out the problem of fear, we will never understand or embody any sense of egolessness or selflessness.
We have our conscious day-to-day fears—of a close call, an accident, a bad health diagnosis. But then there is an undercurrent of fear, which is very relevant to practitioners. This undercurrent of fear lurks behind a lot of our habits. It is why it is so hard to just sit still or stand still or stand in line—not doing anything in particular—without feeling nervous and fidgety. We have a fear of being still.
Why do we spin out so many thoughts all the time? We sit and try to quiet the mind but it just rumbles on and on, churning out masses of thought, small and large and pink and yellow and bland and slimy. Why? It’s because of this undercurrent of fear. It’s as though we have to keep things moving. We have to keep ourselves distracted at some fundamental level. We have to keep our momentum going, because it’s pretty scary to think of it stopping. Once we have separation and duality, we have to maintain the momentum. The problem with ego and duality is that at some level we know it’s a sham, but we have to keep at it. So part of the undercurrent of fear is the fear of being found out, of being exposed as a big fat phony who is creating a solid illusion out of thin air.
Fear has two extremes. At one extreme, we freeze. We are petrified, literally, like a rock. At the other extreme, we panic. We run around like maniacs and our mind goes into hyperdrive. Freeze or panic. Freeze or panic. How do we find the path through those extremes?
There are many stages in the practitioner’s journey of working with fear, but it is very important to know where it begins, so we can get off on the right foot. The starting point is called the narrow path, where you look straightforwardly at your own experience. You examine fear and dissect it into its components. Where does it arise? What is the sensation when you feel afraid? What kind of thoughts race through your mind when you are in a state of fear? What’s your particular pattern? Do you panic? Do you freeze? Do you get really busy and try to fix everything? Do you get angry? At this stage in the path, you try to understand your experience, try to break it down.
To do this, it helps to see things as they arise—before they become full-blown and you are caught in their sway, at which point you can’t do much about them. In meditation practice you slow things down, and that allows you to see the subtle arisings. By slowing things down, you can interrupt the tossing of the match into the pile of leaves. You can say, “I don’t need to go there. I see what’s coming.” You catch things when they’re manageable. Understanding, examining, knowing, slowing down—those are the first steps in working with fear, the beginning of the path to fearlessness.