Judy Lief, author of the book Making Friends with Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality, offers some basic steps to navigating our fears—no matter the circumstance.
The first step is simple (but not easy): when fear rises up, notice what’s happening in your body and your mind.
On Fear and Fearlessness
Fear is not a trivial matter. In many ways, it restricts our lives; it imprisons us. 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.
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 that 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.
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 hyper-drive. Freeze or panic. Freeze or panic. How do we navigate through those extremes?
There are many stages of working with fear, but a good starting point is to look straightforwardly at your own experience. Slow down and examine your fear. 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?
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. 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.
A version of this article was first published in Lion’s Roar