By way of introduction I will start with Krishnamurti’s words: ‘We are boiling with fear all the time.’ Simple and direct. Sometimes, however, this boiling with fear is not evident. I am specifically thinking of a dharma course a few years ago which I gave on fear and practice. After some time a number of students said, ‘I didn’t know I had so much fear. I didn’t know that we could, at least partially, hide fear.’ The point is that this all-pervasive quality of fear is an important piece of truth that is very important for us to become familiar with.
Krishnamurti also said, ‘To find out if there is actually freedom one must be aware of one’s own conditioning, of the problems, and above all one must be aware of fear. The self-interest in our life is the cause of fear—this sense of me and my concerns, my happiness, my success, my failures, my achievements. Where there is self-interest there must be fear and all the consequences of fear.’
In addition to creating fear, these statements are a strong invitation to practise with fear. The question of how to practise with fear is a very popular one in dharma circles. Sometimes, however, there is this contradiction: we ask about practising with fear while being afraid of practising with fear. We would like to do it but at the same time are afraid of doing it. Once again that shows how all-pervasive, how insidious and how very close fear is to us. We are sincere when we ask about how to work with fear but we don’t realise that there is this fear of practising with fear. We fear the unknown, that is to say, we fear the unknown consequences, the unknown development of the practice. Also there are very down-to-earth fears like the fear of missing something if we practise; I am thinking in terms of the sitting practice. There might be a fear of missing those habitual activities that we would be engaged in if we didn’t practise. Fear of missing sleep, of missing the news, of missing whatever it is that we are in the habit of doing. The crucial area is fear of fear.
Generally speaking I think we need a foundation, some familiarity with meditation practice, some stability, some energy, some trust. I am talking about a subtle energy; it is not a vigorous kind of energy that we might always dream of. By returning incessantly and more and more equanimously to the breath, a subtle energy builds up. We might not even realise that this is taking place. From that energy trust slowly grows, and trust is the antidote of fear. The foundation of practice is crucial.
Another important element which seems to be obvious but which I have seen overlooked time and again is using very small fears as a training ground. I don’t know, I think that maybe ignorance has many facets, many aspects. To make ourselves oblivious to obvious things is perhaps another aspect of avijja, another aspect of ignorance. Small fears are more easy to deal with than medium and big fears, so it is an excellent ground for training.
We learn to see the way fear works and the way we empower it. In this way we become equipped to deal with bigger fears. Otherwise it is hopeless. We want to work with fear but are not equipped to do so and consequently fear overwhelms us and the fear of fear increases. That is not such a good result. It takes skilfulness in experimenting with small fears and being able to strategically withdraw when fear becomes too strong, when we don’t feel able to deal with it, and then to practise watching the breath or metta [loving-kindness] and forgetting about facing fears. A moment will then come when it is possible, and we should learn not to miss that moment. This is part of the training, part of the practice; it is part of the insight into understanding the best way of practising, the best way of dealing with our fears. It is also another aspect of self-knowing.
If, first and foremost, we become more at ease with fear, there is the possibility of acquiring a better understanding of it. Usually avijja (ignorance), the root cause of suffering, manifests as confusion. We can be functional, effective and bright, and still be very confused. And fear is a big part of that confusion. We might prefer to think of ourselves as being confused rather than being full of fear. As Krishnamurti said, ‘We are boiling with fear all the time.’ We might think that is an exaggeration, but you know we are kind of boiling with fear all the time! Fear of fear is at work. It has to do with our sensitivity; it is an expression of our sensitivity, as are all the emotions. But something should melt around this issue. Sensitivity implies pleasant and unpleasant things, otherwise it wouldn’t be sensitivity. Being sensitive only to pleasant things wouldn’t work. Imagine developing compassion without sensitivity to suffering (and fear is a form of suffering), compassion couldn’t develop; it would be fake compassion, which is a frequent thing.
The Buddha talked about noble truths. Now, the first noble truth is dukkha (discomfort, suffering). Why is it a noble truth? Because through the recognition and understanding of suffering we walk towards liberation. So there is a sacredness to suffering, therefore there is a sacredness to fear. I remember Patrul Rinpoche said something like, ‘When you are meditating, all sorts of negative feelings cross your mind, and your mind is a sacred space.’ It is not that dukkha (suffering) in itself is ennobling. If it were, the world would be a different place. It is rather that the Four Noble Truths together have a transforming power, but the first one is recognising suffering as suffering, recognising fear as fear, being comfortable with the fact that we have sensitivity and we suffer, and we are afraid because of that sensitivity. But that same sensitivity is what creates an aspiration to true happiness. That precious sensitivity—once we learn how to deal with it in the right way (samma)—will generate only goodness. But if we don’t know how to deal with it, it is trouble.
Dukkha (suffering) is a big word, but certainly it has very much to do with this overwhelming tendency to become frustrated and dissatisfied with what we have. It takes nothing for us to get dissatisfied, frustrated. We have this great facility, this incredible inclination to be dissatisfied at any time and within just a split second. This passionate inclination is dukkha (suffering). And it generates fear. So we are asked to recognise dukkha and work with dukkha, but there is a screen between us and dukkha which is fear. We are afraid of dukkha; we are afraid of discomfort; we are afraid of getting dissatisfied; we are afraid of frustration. We could say there are two reasons to work on fear. The first is because fear itself is suffering, and the second is because fear screens us off from accessing all the other forms of suffering. So, if we don’t deal with the fear of discomfort we can forget about working with discomfort.
It is interesting that we are afraid of the effect rather than the cause; we are afraid of discomfort rather than attachment. Attachment is also all-pervasive. We want things to go in a certain way, we want people to be a certain way, we want to be in a certain way ourselves, and so we get constantly frustrated because things are their way. The frustration is a result of attachment. Yet we are afraid of frustration and couldn’t care less about attachment. Nevertheless, that is the cause, oh yes!
One of the fruits of the work, we might say, is the development of a healthy fear of attachment. Being afraid of impending danger—you know a car is coming at full speed and the child is crossing the road—is intelligence, Krishnamurti would say, not fear. So, an intelligent fear of attachment instead of a compulsive fear of frustration would be a nice replacement.
Discernment has to do with seeing, with putting one’s finger on those contradictions in which we live, in which we wallow. The practice is a big help in getting more clarity. What we tend to do is look at the wrong enemy, intensely; we look at the other side. Attachment is here, the danger is here, and we look over there, and we feel confused.
An organic growth of trust will come through working with the Four Noble Truths, and so working with discomfort. When we see that our practice develops first and foremost through working with discomfort, working with dukkha, when we start putting our finger on it, this is a very good cure for fear, or fear of fear. In other words, we see that from working with discomfort, more freedom comes; we slowly become less fearful of discomfort. Maybe our first reaction is the old one, fear. But then, if something has got into our system, what follows starts feeling different—different quality, softer, more accepting, more at ease, more at ease with suffering, more at ease with fear. It is a different scenario; it has a different feel to it.
I think I should also say a few words about our fear of impermanence. If we consider impermanence, reflect on it, we may come to understand that being afraid of impermanence is basically being afraid of life and death. Obviously, if we are afraid of impermanence, we are afraid to die—normal, natural. We are afraid of living and we are afraid of dying. Impermanence is the changing nature of things. Impermanence is life. Impermanence is time. We think only of the ending of things as impermanence. This is because of some cultural conditioning. But impermanence is the changing nature of things. If winter doesn’t end, you can’t have spring—that is impermanence. In order for a birth to take place, the conditions prior to birth must end. We are taught that the goal of the practice is the anattadhamma, is the thing which doesn’t die, beyond time, beyond life and death. And yet practice wants time, wants change; practice wants impermanence. We cannot have practice without impermanence. We often don’t think like this. Maybe we feel that impermanence is bad, and we resist it. We want things to be the way they always were:
‘Why are you doing this?’
‘Because I’ve always done it.’
‘Why don’t you want to move?’
‘Because I’ve been here for many years.’
‘But that’s the better home.’
Fear of change can paralyse us. Fear of change is not very malleable; it is not very light. Remember, fear is different in a mind which is tractable, pliable, malleable. A few years ago I lost a very dear friend of mine. We had been friends for some forty years and he was like a brother. Whenever I remembered him or passed his home, there would be a sense of regret that he wasn’t there any more. Whenever I went into a personal retreat, I would soon get this strong image of him and, again, feel regret. Later I realised that this wallowing in regret was preventing me from seeing how much gratitude I had for this friend, how much I had received from him. So then every time his image came back I opened up to gratitude. The gratitude had been there all along, but it had been hidden under a layer of regret which prevented the gratitude from naturally coming out. From that moment on—this was not a practice—just gratitude would come up. It felt so much more natural. It also felt much more like him, you know, friendship. I would have rather had him around, of course, but he is not around any more, yet the gratitude is there, lots of it. After this experience I discovered that every time we have any kind of regret, we can turn it into gratitude—and it works.
On the one hand regret is natural, but on the other hand it can be one-sided, negative, bitter. They say that we have a great facility, a great inclination towards bitterness, towards being negative, and we justify if in all sorts of ways, ‘Of course I’m bitter. He died!’ But why of course?
There is a Jataka story I like very much. It is about a family of three generations all living in the same home. They were a very pious, devout Buddhist family of olden times, and were familiar with working with and reflecting on impermanence. Someone asked them, ‘How come that you three generations are so happy together?’
And the answer was, ‘Because of impermanence.’
‘Now, wait a moment, what do you mean?’
‘Yes, since we know that life is so short we exchange good things and lots of loving-kindness among ourselves. Because time is short, we fill it up with good things.’
Extraordinarily logical, but our conditioned mind is sometimes not so logical. So, anyway, this family lived a very full life, a full-hearted life. At a particular point, one man in the house dies and someone asked his very old father, ‘How do you feel now that he’s not around any more?’ And he says, ‘Well, I’ve lived for a number of years. At first I didn’t have a son and I wasn’t unhappy, and then a time came when I had a son and I had him for many years, and I was happy. And now I am without my son, but I am not unhappy.’
This is a teaching about what happens when a life is lived very fully, with a full heart. There is loss—the father didn’t say that he wasn’t affected by this loss—but the fullness of life reverberated in the situation after the death of the person. This is a different way of describing and thinking about impermanence, and it is more real. The consequences of experiencing it are not negative at all. On the contrary, it is liberating. I suspect that as long as we are grasping this solid, fixed entity that we think we are, as long as we are grasping this I/mine, it is more difficult to get in touch with something of real value. To the extent that we start to let go of this fixation with I/mine or of self-interest, as Krishnamurti says, then we start having hope, not hope in the sense of expectation, but some kind of mysterious hope, a mysterious inkling of well-being despite it all.
First published in the February 2006 Buddhism Now