Anxiety, Fear & Buddhism
So many of us live our lives in fear. We’re afraid of failure, of being vulnerable (and risking rejection), afraid of not fitting in, of messing up, of letting ourselves and others down. We’re afraid to stay stuck and just as afraid to get well; afraid of depression and equally afraid of happiness; we fear pain and distress, ridicule and blame and we even fear our own thoughts and feelings!
From a Buddhist perspective, fear is at the root suffering. The Buddha taught that all beings feel a deep sense of fear or anxiety, which stems from the fact that we resist the impermanence of our existence. Partly because of this reality – that fear is accepted as an innate aspect of the human experience – any person who wishes to awaken is considered a “warrior”. The path of self-growth and introspection – of learning practices of mind, body and spirit that lead us toward our highest selves (and ultimately, enlightenment or “nirvana”) – is one of great bravery and courage. We train, as warriors, in overcoming suffering, in liberating our hearts and minds so that we can become free – which is to say, fearless.
But what does this mean exactly? How do we learn to be fearless, especially when our brains are wired to perceive potential threats?
We study fear, we begin to learn it and understand it. We stay with it, leaning in to the discomfort. One of the biggest traps of fear is that it isn’t real: fear is an illusion, an illusion that keeps us tethered and imprisoned (as Rumi said, “Why do you stay in prison, when the door is so wide open?”). Our minds tell us fearful stories that we take to be true, and then we run and hide and self-destruct. Have you ever noticed how much better you feel after sharing something with someone, telling another person about something that you believed to be deeply shameful? Fear loses its power over us when we turn and face it, when we see it for what it really is and in doing so, empower ourselves not to believe it.
Renowned Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron writes about fear in her book “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times”, sharing the following parable:
“Once there was a young warrior. Her teacher told her that she had to do battle with fear. She didn’t want to do that. It seemed too aggressive; it was scary; it seemed unfriendly. But the teacher said she had to do it and gave her the instructions for the battle. The day arrived. The student warrior stood on one side, and fear stood on the other. The warrior was feeling very small, and fear was looking big and wrathful. They both had their weapons. The young warrior roused herself and went toward fear, prostrated three times, and asked, ‘May I have permission to go into battle with you?’ Fear said, ‘Thank you for showing me so much respect that you ask permission’. Then the young warrior said, ‘How can I defeat you?’ Fear replied, ‘My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face. Then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me. But if you don’t do what I say, I have no power’. In that way, the student warrior learned how to defeat fear.”
We are taught to respect fear just as we’re taught to honor and respect all emotions that arise within us. Each one of them – joy and sadness, pain and anxiety and relief – are waves in our oceans, no more, no less. So we accept that fear exists and we validate our experience. And when we turn and face it head on – when we tell a friend about that one secret that’s been eating away at our insides, or announce at a meeting that we’re alcoholics, or admit to a therapist that we’re struggling and need help – we’re no longer imprisoned by fear. We’re stepping up to the plate, taking responsibility for our lives and our happiness and in doing so, we become free.