When Fear Arises

Tuesday, June 23, 2015 - 5:17am

When Fear Arises

I spent this week at a conference titled "Fear and Trust in Self and Society" put on by the Mind and Life Institute. If I were going to try to single out the most predominant historical obstacle to my feeling truly happy, I’d say it is fear. We all know some variant of those long lists of potential hazards to our deeper happiness, those habits that can arise (sometimes again and again) and seem to take over: craving, sloth, anger, jealousy, conceit… and many more.

It’s not that I am immune from each of the others. Most of us observe a medley of these states as we practice introspection. But, I’d say fear has probably been the dominant note played, certainly in my earlier life.

Not that fear is necessarily all bad. It can be a tremendous motivating force to not stay stuck. Fear can galvanize us to search for new and creative solutions to whatever we are facing — to demand that we get up and get going and tell us we must find allies and friends instead of thinking we can just go it alone.

When we get enveloped in fear, though, a more overwhelming state of apprehension shapes our choices, challenges our relationships, and becomes a fairly steady state that keeps us from trying to work out solutions to our various dilemmas. It becomes toxic.

Fear also isn’t an easy feeling to allow, to take some time with, to face with clarity and compassion. I wonder sometimes how much destructive action takes place because we find we can’t easily just sit and know we feel afraid. To avoid the feeling, we reach for anything that will give us a sense of power, however fleeting the sense of power — and however destructive the act. This has great implications not just for our personal lives, but for the societies we create and maintain.

Of course my relationship to fear has changed tremendously through the years. One of the definitions of mindfulness is being able to see the distinction between what is actually happening and what we tend to add to it. Maybe fear is what’s actually happening, and we add shame, or blame, or anger at ourselves, or a sense of helplessness, or identification (“This is all I will ever feel. This will last forever. This is who I really am.”) to it. That’s a pretty toxic brew. Coming back to just acknowledging the fear allows us to take a closer look at it.

One of the interesting things I’ve discovered about my own fear is that, despite the common aphorism that we are afraid of the unknown, by and large that’s not when I feel afraid. By looking directly at my fear without adding a whole bunch of stuff, I’ve seen that, while I certainly can be afraid of the unknown, I’m mostly afraid when I think I do know and it’s going to be really bad. It’s the stories I tell myself that intensify and extend the fear. When I remind myself that actually I don’t know how something will end up, I feel a sense of space, “Hey, I don’t know.”

It’s a great relief. It’s a tool I use if I feel fear arising, and it’s quite effective. If I remember to let go of the stories and the add-ons, and hang out with what’s happening, there’s spaciousness there. And there’s peace there, even in the presence of fear.

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Sharon Salzberg

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears monthly.

She is a meditation teacher and the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She is the author of many books, including Love Your Enemies, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, and Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace.


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"But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah Knows, while you know not." Quoraan

I remembered this last verse "And Allah Knows, while you know not" while reading your article. thank you

Wow, beautiful quote. Thank you for this!

I can handle fear until I feel trapped in a situation that I am not prepared for, and a lot of people are relying on my success. In situations like that I lose all sense of constructive thought, and snowballs into a self fulfilling prophecy.

This lines up with what I've been practicing for some years now. My own efforts stemmed at first from trying to identify why I kept doing the same things over and over despite their being destructive to my own well being. This led to a look at Buddhism which focuses on letting go of attachment, which is another word for the "stories we tell ourselves" the author refers to.

Thank you for sharing the tool you use. My life is pervaded by the sort of fear you describe -- the things I do know that are going to be really bad. I live with an adult son who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, which I've learned not to fear as I did in the beginning. But he has well-advanced diabetes that he cannot acknowledge nor treat, and I live in fear of finding him in a coma, his going blind, losing limbs. He also self-medicates with alcohol and is an alcoholic. The grief I suffer over what my loving and brilliant son has had to face is compounded by the fear of the other shoe dropping, as well as not knowing what will happen to him when I die since I am his only support. I fear he will decompensate, end up in jail, be shot by police. Of course I don't know this, but it has happened before, and the trauma of it is still with me.

Sometimes it seems - and this post is a good example - as if Vipassana's form of mindfulness is all about the self, feeling truly happy, at peace, spacious, even in the presence of, for example, fear.

Is there a context where mindfulness is about being the nation/city/village/congregation/family, or truly unhappy, or in conflict, or in narrowness?

Mindfulness may not be enough for people like me, those who have anxiety severe enough to be called PTSD. This is something I'm very interested in, how Buddhist practice can help those of us with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. Marsha Linehan developed a program for those with personality disorders, which has been adopted in treatment for other mental illnesses, but does not exactly address them....Thank you for this and your teachings of a lifetime.

Dear Ms Salzberg, oh that Mr Roof could have stumbled on this piece in his internet search instead. Thank you.

This is so powerful! Thank you for these wise words.

I struggle with anxiety, and recognize that many of my coping mechanisms are motivated by the fear I feel. Being able to distinguish between the emotion itself and the layers I add on to it will I think, help me to let go of some of that worry of the unknown (or known, as it may be...).

I too add to the distress of a fea edil emoticón, the what might happen. All stories of what will be with out this ir that, or him or else. But then, I think it's all Grace for something far out beyond my imaginings. And even I go back and forth trying to develop that faith, the questioning raises more distress.

Thank you for sharing.
Thank you for acknowledging.

Thank you for this, it makes me think about the relationship between our own fears and other people’s. Where i chose to live, in South Africa, fear is seemingly constant for most. It has been lodged in our bodies by violence, or formed around the knots of anxiety created by the threat of violence or daily degradations. But i spent much of my youth outside SA and managed to not be given my requisite parcel of fear to carry around. I am afraid at times and there are fears i hold but I feel they are different from the prevailing fear that most middle-class South African's have been handed or have cultivated over the years. And now i find myself having to resist taking on other people's fears. They ask me, constantly, "do you feel safe?", and well-meaning people question where i live, and where i ride my bike, and how i travel to work, and they worry. But i am not certain that the fears that come from 'reality' are easily separated from the fears that arise from a constructed reality. And my life and choices often fly in the face of other people's constructed worlds so that my simple actions, based on careful choices seem to be reckless. But I can’t ride a bike with my eyes shut and I can’t take on the fears of others just to make them feel better. I can only find ways to keep spaces open within myself for weighing situations and judging the value of fear without unnecessarily cultivating a destructive and isolating emotion ‘just in case’. Some fears take hold of us, and we struggle to put them down, or “…just sit and know we feel afraid” but we often pick up other people’s fears, and allow ourselves to be carried along by them, carrying a burden that frees no one and leaves us ensnared behind the security fences.

I grew up in Pretoria and moved to Cape Town 3 years ago. Visiting my mom and some friends up here this week and immediately sensed the fear and anxiety in the air! Gruesome crime stories told around the fire doesn't improve matters... Stopped reading the news quite some time ago, and prefer to frequent places like this online :) It made a big difference in my life, when I stopped exposing myself to all the brutality! Brene Brown once said the news nowadays reads like this: "this is what may happen to you, and this is who is to blame". She's right! The news, or "The Daily Horror Show" as I call it, is no longer part of my reality, and my anxiety levels have dropped tremendously! The news makes me lose hope in humanity, and places like On Being (and many others) restores my hope in humanity.

Fear for me is about not being able to handle or cope with a situation... so it's really related to "know how" or knowledge(preparation)in general. Not being able to handle(control?) an unexpected situation can turn into feeling overwhelmed and confused, which then turns into a feeling of personal "disintegration"almost...at which point I try to use the acronym: Feel your feelings Examine your expectations Accept what is Respond with resilience.

Thank you for the acronym...useful to recall in those unexpected times.

It is true that when I feel afraid and acknowlegded it and feel the body sensations that come with and practice mindfulness I feel free and joyfull

Having lived a life that contained immense tragedy, fear is certainly familiar. Generally my first step is to analyze the fear - is it real or not? If real - well there's 911. but what about 'not real'? Like meditation and other aspects of Buddhism, the best way to reduce fear is to reduce the ego. Meditation connects one with all, thereby reducing the emphasis on 'I'. But one of the best and timeless ways to 'get out of yourself' is to give to others. Volunteer, join a charity, help out a friend.

For me, how I talk to myself about the fear that is bothering me makes a huge difference in how I am affected by it. My inner dialogue affects my real life so I must be careful to not let the reactive fool speak, but the calm, cool and collected voice do the talking. Easier said than done!