The Nature of Fear

In this classic piece from the Lion’s Roar archives, Joseph Goldstein explores the different types of fear, and how we can sit with fear and hold onto it in our practice.  

Joseph Goldstein
5 May 2020
Photo by Ray

Imagine yourself a great lover of music, about to hear the world’s greatest musician perform an unknown composition. Imagine yourself listening to that performance. How would the mind be? How would the attention be as the music unfolded? There would, I think, be a sense, of no anticipation and no dwelling on a particularly nice phrase, because always in each moment there would be the next unknown note, the next unknown development of the music. There would be a quality of presence of mind, of openness of mind, without anticipation, without attachment, without resistance.

It is possible for us to live our lives like that, to see that actually in each moment there is a gift of experience. Can we be with it in such a way that there’s no anticipation of what’s to come, no anxiety, no worry, no clinging to what is actually there in the moment? Can we be without attachment to what’s already past?

We have an underlying panic about our experiences because we don’t understand the nature of fear.

There’s a possibility of wonderful spontaneity if somehow we can settle back into the moment and allow the natural unfolding of our lives. The words sound so simple— What prevents that? As we practice, we see that the tendency of mind is to hold on, anticipating, resisting. What’s underneath that attachment and resistance, that conditioning which prevents the spontaneous opening to each moment?

If we can investigate in a careful way what is beneath attachment, beneath resistance, often we find that there’s some basic fear working. Underneath attachment is the fear that we’re going to lose something. So we hold on, we try to preserve it. Underneath resistance is the fear of experiencing something we don’t want, so we create a barrier.

How can we work with such a deeply conditioned force that influences and conditions us in so many ways? For the most part we have avoided exploring the nature of fear, taking a direct look, and so in an unconscious way, it drives us. Chuang Tsu, the Taoist sage of ancient China, said, “Little fears cause anxiety, and big fears cause panic.” We can see how those qualities operate in our lives. We have an underlying panic about our experiences because we don’t understand the nature of fear, we haven’t looked at it carefully.

Part of the great beauty and power of dharma practice is the growing appreciation that the dharma is part of the totality of our lives. It’s not something that we do separate from the rest of our lives. “Dharma” means “reality,” it means truth,” how things are. When we understand dharma practice in this way, fear, along with every other aspect of experience. becomes eminently workable. It is not something apart, which we have to avoid. Rather, it is simply another facet of our experience, of how we relate to ourselves and to the world.

What are we afraid of? What are the basic fears that most of us share? One is the fear of pain. We’re afraid of feeling pain, and so we construct our lives in such a way that we try to avoid it. Yet, pain is a very interesting part of our experience.

The Buddhist cosmology includes different realms of existence: the lower worlds of suffering; the human realm; and the higher realms—the heavenly planes. The human realm is in some ways the most interesting, because it is a combination of pain and pleasure. If we live our lives always afraid of pain, then we cut ourselves off from a major part of life’s experience. When we try to create an exclusively safe, secure, painless, comfortable place, a great part of the vitality of being a human being is lost. This is not to suggest that we take a simple-minded attitude toward all pain; that is, when you put your hand in fire, you don’t necessarily say, “paining, paining, paining,” as it begins to burn up. Obviously some pain is a danger signal, and we must pay attention to that and respond to it.

The kind of pain that’s very interesting to work with in sitting practice, is the pain or tension that we’ve accumulated through past actions of clinging, grasping and feeling aversion. Each of those reactions has stored a tension or kind of knot in our energy system; so as we sit and pay attention, we begin to discover that our mind- body system seems to be a collection of energy knots, of blockages, of tensions. If we can see out fear of that kind of discomfort and still allow the mind to become soft, open and relaxed, we begin to understand that it is possible to begin releasing that kind of knot, that kind of tension.

Generally, fear is of something in the future. Say you’re sitting, and perhaps there are places in your body that are hurting. The pain itself, the sensation itself, is not the problem, and you respond to it with acceptance. But then comes the anticipation: “If I keep on sitting, something awful is going to happen.” Fear arises from that future anticipation. Very rarely does fear arise in response to an experience in the moment. There may be intense sensations or feelings—surprise or shock—in response to the moment, but those are not fear.

We can learn so much about the nature of aversion, the nature of judgement, and the nature of opening, through a willingness to be uncomfortable. We can see how we try to protect ourselves from discomfort constantly, not only while sitting. One of the things I like very much about the winters in New England is that they’re so intense. You know, the cold is so cold. Sometimes you go out in the end of December or in January, and even your breath is like ice. It’s easy to observe the mind’s conditioned reaction to that—which is to contract everything. The mind contracts; the body contracts. It’s a wonderful opportunity, going out into that cold, into the severity of it, to see if it’s possible simply to open, to say “Okay, what’s this experience like?” And there’s a wonderful sense of strength and vitality in such an ability to open. It requires paying attention to the conditioning of fear, how it closes us, and then seeing that we don’t have to follow that habitual pattern of mind.

Life actually is so fragile.

There’s another kind of fear which, in some ways, is even more difficult and subtle to work with: psychological fear, fear of being insecure, fear of being vulnerable, fear of being exposed. What would happen if I were totally open and exposed? People wouldn’t like me. If they saw me as I know myself, they would not like me, respect me, be friends with me, love me. They would judge me harshly. All those fears of being vulnerable, being open, being exposed cause us to construct a self-image which we present. “Joseph is a nice guy.” We put that image out there in front, while really all this dark, murky stuff is lurking behind it. Then we think that we’re fooling people. But the mask is transparent, because everybody sees everything anyway.

When we investigate that fear of being judged, of not being loved, of not being accepted, we see that it really has nothing to do with other people. Instead, it has to do with the fear of experiencing certain of our own feelings and emotions. It is we who are judging ourselves, not accepting ourselves, not loving ourselves. What is it that we’re afraid to see, to be with, and to open to? You might imagine someone sitting in front of you who has the power to look into your mind. If they could see your mind totally, what would you try to hide? What part would you like to cover up and protect? That is the place to investigate—and to open up to, to begin to love and to accept.

If we can do that, if we can be totally ourselves, without any pretense, if we can allow ourselves to feel vulnerable and insecure, then there is a wonderful sense of freedom. We don’t have to protect anything. Being vulnerable and exposed, even though we’ve been conditioned to be afraid of that, can actually be wonderful because it is a moment when the armor loosens.

I had an experience of that loosening in a very memorable way several years ago, when I did a sesshin with Sasaki Roshi. He’s a great Zen master and capable of tremendous ferocity, and tremendous compassion.

He works with koans. You see him four times a day, and you never know what you’re going to get when you go for an interview. At my first sesshin, he gave me my koan. I sat; then I went for the first sanzen, or interview. Everything is very formal: you bow and say your koan; he waits for the answer; you respond. So I went in and did all that, and he looked at me with this look of total disgust on his face: “Hmmmn, very stupid.” And that was the end of the interview. Out. Go in the next time: “Ah, too much self.” Out. Go in the third time: “Hmmmn, more meditation.”

This went on day after day. Each time I went in, it would be an utter dismissal, as if I did not understand anything at all about anything. Totally stupid. And meanwhile the form of the sesshin was very formal, very tight, and with no chance to distract oneself. The pressure built up, and he was still telling m how stupid I was. Finally, by the third day, my mind was posing all kinds of doubts: “I’m a Vipashyana yogi. This Zen stuff is okay, but it’s not really what the Buddha taught. I’m going back and do my Vipashyana today and not be bothered by this guy.” So on the fourth day 1 went in, and I had given up, 1 didn’t care anymore. I just shrugged my shoulders. Then he did something very skillful. He gave me an easier koan: “How do you express Buddha nature while chanting the sutra.”

Okay, it seemed pretty obvious: just go and chant for him. Only the koan that he gave me, which happened to be easy to understand, also happened to touch a very deeply conditioned fear in me. I had a third grade singing teacher who told me to mouth the words while everybody else was singing. Since then. I’d had a strong fear and inhibition about singing or chanting. When he gave me this koan my heart started pounding.

I went back to the meditation hall and practiced a Japanese chant. I repeated a few syllables of this chant about ten billion times in my mind, going over and over how I would present it to Sasaki. At the next interview 1 was feeling totally nervous, fearful and raw. I sat down and did the exchange bow, said the koan, and started to chant these ten syllables. By the third syllable, I forgot what the chant was. My mind went blank, and 1 was feeling totally exposed, turned inside out, and really fearful of the whole situation. He just sat there: “Hmmn.” But in that moment, when I was totally open in that way, he looked at me as if in that instant he had become the bodhisattva of compassion. He looked at me and said, “Ah, very good.”

Those words touched my heart because there was nothing protecting it. It was a beautiful teaching in the value of being vulnerable, in the value of being willing to experience. In that state there is openness and possibility, and the potential for real contact, real communication, and very deep love.

Another kind of fear deeply conditioned in us, and very much a part of our culture, is the fear of death. We don’t look at death very much in Western cultures. We don’t look at the process of decay and aging, and don’t relate much to dead bodies. We pretend that doesn’t happen. Underneath all that pretense is a real fear of dying. What is the fear of death about? It’s a very strong conditioning, especially when we don’t clearly understand the nature of our mind and body. We think that this mind- body is something solid and secure-self, me, I. Naturally, when we have that viewpoint the possibility of the death of “I” is frightening.

To begin penetrating the nature of this mind-body process we must see that it is literally—not metaphorically, but literally—being born and dying in every moment. We see that there is nothing solid, nothing static, nothing steady which goes from one year to the next, one month to the next, one moment to the next. This mind- body is a flux of constant creation and dissolution. When we can experience that, feel it in a very immediate way, then the fear of death dissolves, because we see that there is nothing there to hold onto.

Now think for a moment of what your experience actually is from moment to moment. It’s a sound, a sight, a thought, a sensation, an emotion, a smell, a taste. Moment to moment, they are arising and vanishing, being born and dying. Then what is the fear? The fear comes from attachment, that we try to hold on. But, of course, as we can see so clearly if we are attentive, whether we want to hold onto it or not, the very nature of the process is constant, immediate, and continuous change. There is no possibility of holding on. In meditation practice, by developing a careful attention to the moment, this process of flux becomes so clear. In that awareness of the insubstantiality and impermanence of all this, the mind is de-conditioned from its grasping and clinging. We begin to become one with birth and death, and see them happening every moment of our lives.

Life actually is so fragile: the heart will stop beating one day; the lungs will stop going. Being aware of this, one gets a sense of what this mind-body process is actually about, and can work with the fear that comes up. seeing that the fear is not related to the present experience, but to some future anticipation.

The fear of pain, fear of certain emotions orfeelings, fear of loneliness. fear of anxiety, fear of sadness. fear of anger, fear of being vulnerable, fear of death—how can we make them an intrinsic part of what we’re doing here? The first attitude is not to take the fears lightly, not to dismiss them with a mere intellectual understanding, but rather to have respect for them, because they go very deep. Then we could see that we don’t have to be afraid of the feeling of fear. Mostly we never get behind the fear itself. When fear arises the body gets anxious, there’s vibration and anxiety, but we could see that it’s okay to feel that way, we don’t have to run from it. If we keep running from the feeling of fear, then we have to build barriers and defenses, close ourselves off in a narrow, tight little way of living. And, of course, the fear is still there.

The resistance at times gets very subtle; our minds get very tricky. When fear arises in any set of circumstances, whether it’s fear of pain or fear of death, the first step is to see that it’s just another feeling, like sadness, or happiness, or anger, and to become friends with it. From that foundation of acceptance, then we can really begin to work with our fears with some degree of discriminating wisdom.

This doesn’t mean being reckless, but it does mean being willing to take risks—just jumping into whatever it is. If you’re afraid of the dark, go out into the woods. Just to see how it is.

We don’t have to go through and act on every fear that we have, because that could become another fixation of the mind. Rather, the aim is to learn from some experimentation that we don’t have to be afraid of fear. Once we learn that, then fear doesn’t matter. Then we just live our lives, and when fear comes up, we can act anyway. Practice is really challenging in that way—coming right out to the edge of what you’re willing to be with, what you’re willing to do.

It’s also important to keep a sense of humor. One of the occupational hazards of meditation is that for some reason people often become very grim in their outlook, as if grimness were mindfulness. Grimness is just grimness; it has nothing to do with awareness. Don’t think that it’s a necessary component to practice.

Another way of working with fear is by developing loving thoughts. When loving feelings are strong in the heart, then there’s a sense of communication and contact with oneself, the environment, and with other beings. But you can’t pretend. I had a funny experience while I was visiting in Western Massachusetts. I was walking down a road, just a dirt road, and passed a house. A dog there started to bark, really angry, barking quite ferociously. 1 was standing there thinking,” Be happy, be happy, be happy!” and as I was saying that to myself the dog ran over and bit me! I saw how you can’t use love to manipulate, because then it’s not really love. When you’re putting it out as, “Be happy, be happy,—but stay over there,” that has zero to do with love.

When fear arises, it means that we are at some edge of what we’re willing to be with, what we’re willing to accept. Right there is precisely the most interesting place of practice, because that is where we have set a limitation, a boundary for ourselves. If we can see that and recognize it, then that is the place to work, to look, to explore. That is the place to open.

Joseph Goldstein

Joseph Goldstein

Joseph Goldstein is a cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, where he is one of the resident guiding teachers. He is the author of several books, including One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism.