The Nature and Ending of Fear
From: An Inquiring Mind's Journey:
a book about a life with Buddhism
by Bhante Kovida
Copyright © 1997, 2003 Bhante Kovida
Talk given at the University of Toronto, November, 1997
This evening we're going to explore and investigate together into the nature of fear, one of the most prominent aspects of the human psyche and without doubt, one of the strongest delusions of the human mind. We're also going to see if it's at all possible to end fear through skillful means, through the application of mindfulness, attention, and wisdom. It's very important to understand this aspect of the human condition because fear tends to dominate and distort our consciousness, thus preventing us from being spontaneous, open and loving human beings.
There's a great deal of fear, worry, insecurity, anxiety, etc. in modern society, a great deal of mental suffering, dis-ease, dissatisfaction, delusion. It is ironical that the more secure we become physically as a species, the more insecure we are mentally, psychologically.
Basically, there are two kinds of fear: physical and psychological. Physical fear is much easier to understand; it arises naturally when there's physical danger--as in meeting a cobra snake or an aggressive dog, or someone threatens you with a knife, or something in the house catches on fire, and so on. It's just an instinct for self-preservation; this fact is obvious and we needn't spend much time on it. But psychological fear is much more complex and difficult to comprehend, and this is what we're going to explore this evening.
Now, a useful model for understanding mental fear is that of a tree; you may call this, "The Tree of Fear"--the branches are the various kinds of psychological fears we all experience, the connecting trunk of the tree signifies the connecting factors of fear, and at the bottom of the tree is, of course, the root of fear. First, we'll discuss the various types of fear and then we'll see what the connecting factors are, and then we'll get to the very root of all our fears.
Again, please bear in mind that the speaker is not an authority; he's not trying to convince you of anything or trying to convert you to a particular philosophy or belief. He's not speaking to you as a Buddhist monk, but rather as just a human being exploring with you one of the most destructive conditions in human consciousness. So it's essential that we listen with an open, alert and inquiring mind. This is not an evening's entertainment; we're investigating together, exploring together as spiritual friends a very serious factor of our conditioning. We're all conditioned by fear as well as pleasure, pain, guilt, remorse, desire and aversion. We're also conditioned by language, knowledge, climate, food, formal education, the family environment, and the morality and values of society. An essential aspect of self-knowledge and freedom is to understand the nature of our conditioning, its usefulness, its limitations and what lies beyond them. This is the awakening of intelligence and wisdom, freedom and compassion.
Now, one of the most common fears human beings go through is fear of the future and the unknown: the fear of not achieving, not becoming, not acquiring in the future; the fear of not being successful, of being a failure; the fear of being poor, of not having; the fear of being nobody special, of not having position, prestige, fame, some kind of status, the fear of not being married; the fear of not getting a promotion; the fear of not being accepted, acknowledged, respected, the fear of not being loved, the fear of rejection. If you're studying in university, there's the fear of not passing one's examinations, of not getting a degree, the fear of not having a successful academic career, the fear of not getting a suitable job after university, and so on. In the working world it's the same kind of fear, anxiety, preoccupation. This kind of fear is very prominent especially in our modern, industrial societies, isn't it?
There's also the fear of getting sick, the fear of getting fat, bald, etc.--the fear of becoming unattractive, the fear of ageing and of old age, and the dreaded fear of death, the great Unknown. There's the fear of loneliness and isolation, the fear of not having a partner or companion, the fear of not having a family and future generations. There's also the fear of losing people we love, material possessions, power, status, wealth, reputation, and so on. There's the fear of losing one's job, one's sense of security. There's the fear, of course, of public opinion, of what people say and think about us. There's the fear of ghosts and spirits, the fear of God or the Devil. There's the fear of authority in the home, school, and work environment. And there's the fear of physical and emotional pain. There're so many kinds of psychological fears including claustrophobia, agoraphobia [the fear of open space], the fear of flying, the fear of animal fur, and so on.
The fear of not becoming, not achieving, not acquiring, in the future has its origin in two things: parental/family pressure and expectations, and peer pressure in the school environment; this fear and anxiety will continue later on in the work environment. It begins with the unhealthy but accepted behavior of comparison: parents start to compare you to the other siblings or to other people's children, teachers begin to compare you to other students and you begin to compare yourself to other kids. This helps to strengthen the ego-center or self-image, and in most cases a feeling of inferiority will result; a few students will develop superiority complexes but fear and insecurity always lurk behind that mask of pride, arrogance and conceit, don't they? Conflict is bound to arise when you compare yourself with other students as you'll always find some who're smarter than you are, some who're better looking, more outgoing and popular, some who're better at sports, and some whose parents have more money then yours. Comparison is a no-win situation. People with an inferiority complex are emotionally immature and unbalanced, they having a great deal of anxiety to please others, to prove themselves, in order to be loved and to be accepted. They often experience sadness, frustration, disappointment, despair and depression. People with a superiority complex also have similar problems.
Children whose parents have high expectations of them tend to suffer a lot from performance-anxiety and thus, fear of the future. I met a student once in Malaysia and he told me he always had a lot of fear, anxiety whenever he was studying for an examination. I was surprised at this as he was an A-student; then he told me his story. He was always at the top of his class except for the previous two years in which he came second and third; his parents, both school teachers, were not pleased; they wanted their son to be number one all the time--hence his problem. I reassured him that he was not the problem but rather it was his parents' attitude and behavior. He agreed, smart kid. I offered to speak to his parents but he said he would do it himself; despite being schoolteachers they were indeed suffering from ignorance and delusion, craving and attachment. They were totally unaware of the unhealthy effect their expectations were having on their son. Parents, due to ignorance and delusion with the resulting self-centered interests, often destroy their children in the name of love and caring; their love is always conditional--very detrimental indeed!
The fear of public opinion comes from having an image of oneself, from being too attached to the ego-center or self-image. The mind creates an image around the "me" as an extension of the self-center; the center hides behind this image, it uses this image as a mask or camouflage out of fear and insecurity in order to protect and justify itself. The "me" center is afraid of being nothing special, a nobody. And this image one uses to feel secure and important is bound to get hurt or deflated. Because of the urge to become, to achieve, we spend a great deal of energy trying to promote, aggrandize, justify, protect and defend this self with its image, don't we? Hence the fear of public opinion. So, is it possible not to have an image of oneself or of another? Whether it's a positive or negative image--it only creates suffering and conflict, right? A mind that is alert, sensitive, caring and attentive will not create an image because it sees the danger of thoughts and the imprisoning nature of the self; it is free from past images based on memory and previous experiences and conflict. There is great freedom and wisdom in not having an image of oneself, obviously. If you don't take yourself seriously then you'll not care what people think or say about you, right? If one is innocent and awake, free from the past and the "me" center, then one will not get hurt, there will be no conflict. Abandoning images of yourself and of others is the awakening of loving kindness and compassion, acceptance, goodness and virtue. So, no clinging to ego, no image. No image, no problem.
The fear of losing people, material things, wealth, status, prestige and reputation comes with attachment. To be attached means to be dependent; you are depending on someone or something for your personal happiness, pleasure, comfort and security; you're depending on position, status and power to feel that you're someone special, important, secure and comfortable, to strengthen the ego, the "me". Some people use knowledge in this way, they depend on knowledge in order to feel special and important but knowledge which is mere information is only for the purpose of vanity. If you examine, go behind their words, there's fear, insecurity, uncertainty lurking behind the screen of words and information. It's only empty knowledge. So where there's dependence there must be fear. Do you understand this?
Physical dependence is something different: we have to depend on the doctor when we're sick, we have to depend on the postman to deliver our letters, and sometimes we have to depend on our friends and family members for food, clothing, shelter, and emotional support and inspiration. But to become too attached and dependent on people and material things for our happiness and security only result in fear, disappointment, frustration, resentment and despair, doesn't it? Normally we think that love is desire, pleasure and attachment but this quality of love, which is based on self-centered wanting, craving, only results in suffering and disillusionment, right? Loving kindness and compassion are not based on self-centered desires and interests, it is the profound wish for others to be well and happy and free from harm and suffering. It is only this quality of love [and empathy], which knows freedom, harmony, virtue and peace. With loving kindness and compassion there is the ending of fear, sorrow, and the memories of past conflicts and hurts.
The fear of getting sick, becoming unattractive, ageing, old age and death comes from our wrong view or understanding of the body. Because of our conditioned habit we identify and cling to the body as "me" and "mine", we see the physical organism as a self or belonging to a self or ego-entity. But this is ignorance and delusion. The body belongs to us in name only; it really belongs to the changing and impermanent conditions of nature; it doesn't belong to an ego-personality. If our body really belonged to us, it would obey our commands. Yet if we say, "Don't get old!" or "Don't get hungry or tired!" or "I forbid you to get sick!" does it obey us? No! It takes no notice. If the body was really "me" and "mine", it would never get sick or injured, it would never feel pain, heat or cold, it would never have to eat or go to the toilet, it would never get dirty and smelly, it would never get tired and demand sleep, and it would never grow old and die--it would be young and attractive, clean, healthy and energetic forever! But as you can see, the body follows its own natural laws whether "we" like it or not. There's really nothing wrong with the way the body grows old and gets sick. It's just nature, just the way things are.
So it's not the body that causes us suffering but our wrong thinking or view against the natural flow of things; anorexia nervosa, for example, is a symptom of this wrong view, isn't it? Wanting a river to flow back uphill will only cause us conflict. If we have the right view, we can see that the water must flow downhill, then our minds will be peaceful. Going against the stream is ignorance and delusion, craving and clinging. The real nature of our body is that it is not clean, not attractive, but impermanent and decaying. Physical beauty is only skin-deep, below the skin is unpleasant, unattractive--blood, flesh, sinew, muscles and organs. We experience anxiety only when we want to make it permanent and beautiful. All bodies are composed of the four elements, of earth, water, fire and air. When they come together and form a body we say it's male or female, we give it names and so on, so that we can easily identify it. But, actually, there isn't anyone there, no permanent, concrete, independent entity--only body-mind process, only earth, water, fire and air. If we get excited or infatuated over it, there's only suffering and conflict. There's really no one home.
If you're afraid of illness, ageing and death, then you should reflect on where they come from. Where do they come from? Have you ever asked yourself this important question? Scientific explanations can only give you partial answers. Incidentally, here's a relevant question: why do we get headaches? Can anyone give a satisfactory answer? From tension, yes from influenza, yes pollution hunger from tiredness, yes. Many factors can help to cause headaches but there's a fundamental reason for headaches, which is so obvious that we usually don't see it. We get headaches simply because we have a head! [laughter]. Right? No head, no headaches! Obvious, isn't it? Likewise, we experience illness, ageing and death simply because we have a physical body, simply because we were born. Illness, ageing and death arise from birth, no place else. As soon as we're born we're subject to hunger, tiredness, sleepiness, illness, ageing and death, isn't it? They all go together, don't they? It's like a tree. The root and the branches and leaves all go together. You can't have one without the other. If we look closely we'll realise that if there were no birth, there would be no illness, ageing, or death. We were born due to certain causes and conditions, and we're alive today due to certain causes and conditions, and when these causes and conditions come to an end the physical organism simply shuts down; in conventional language we say that people die or pass away.
One of the main reasons we fear death so much is our reluctance to let go of our attachments, our craving, greed and clinging are so strong and relentless. As we go through life we accumulate more and more attachments, attachment to people, money and material things, attachment to knowledge, experience, to certain activities and habits, attachment to reputation, prestige, fame, position, power, etc., attachment to ideas, ideals, beliefs, concepts, and so on--all of which help to strengthen, to aggrandize, to expand the self/ego-center, right? And death means the ending of the "I", the "me", with all its attachments. The more attachments mean the stronger the clinging to the "me" and the stronger the craving for the continuity of the self, the stronger the craving for eternal life. Hence the strong fear of death, of letting go of all that we know--so there's fear of the unknown! Out of which comes the hope and belief in an afterlife, in Heaven or Hell, in Salvation or Eternal Life, in reincarnation. Thought is afraid to come to an end so it creates these beliefs in the hope of continuing the self after death. The self, the "me", is put together by thought as memory, past experience and knowledge. Meditation is the ending of thought; it is a movement in silence and the unknown. It is effortless awareness, calm attention, moment to moment.
Death is a fear only if we see it as an event in time. We visualize death waiting for us far ahead, and in the course of the years we build up a dread of this enemy--the cruel end--that is hiding behind a bush to pounce on us. Instead of seeing death as something frightening awaiting us, is it possible to bring death from the future closer to us in daily life so that it becomes more familiar and less scary? Is it possible to die while we're alive? Obviously this implies psychological dying, letting go, ending an attachment, a dependency, and living moment to moment. See the extraordinary implications of this! Physical death is 100% certain, we all have to die one day, but mental dying is vital, essential to understanding freedom, awareness and compassion. To die mentally means to end something, to let go of past conflicts and hurts, bad memories, regrets and sorrow, freeing the mind from the past. It means to be alert, sensitive and attentive in the present moment so that the mind is not caught in clinging and grasping, craving and attachment--a feature of the mechanical thinking process. It is only awareness that can free us from our thoughts, memories, and obsessions about the future. In the moment we become aware that our thoughts are just thoughts rather than reality itself, we wake up from their spell and can dwell in the present. When we can mentally end something then the mind is fresh and innocent and open to the new, the unknown; with death there is birth, creation, so that one reincarnates in the moment which is much more important than believing in reincarnation. In the light of awareness one sees the arising and falling away--birth and death--of mental and physical phenomena moment to moment; birth and death are just parts of a process in a much vaster and timeless dimension. So, when we can live moment to moment with alertness and sensitivity, thereby freeing the mind constantly of clinging and grasping, craving and attachment, we can face physical death with peace and wisdom, without fear and anxiety. One can say: "Hello death and goodbye life."
Now let us turn to the fear of ghosts and spirits. This fear naturally come from childhood conditioning, from ghost stories and various superstitions handed down from generation to generation. With vivid imaginations it's very easy for children to see and believe in these ancient stories. In Chinese culture, for example, the belief in ghosts and spirits is very prevalent. There's a special month where they believe the gates of hell open and hungry ghosts roam the earth in search of food, drink, money, entertainment, and other necessities. Offerings of food and drink are placed on household shrines amidst smoking incense sticks to appease the ancestral spirits who are supposed to guide and protect the family. Food offerings are placed outside to appease strange and unfriendly spirits. Chinese operas, plays and puppet shows with accompanying live music are performed to entertain the hungry ghosts; special paper money, paper cars, rickshaws, planes and mansions are made and burnt so that the spirits can use them in the other world; to keep up with the times offerings now include paper credit cards, computers and cell phones. Growing up in Jamaica, I was conditioned to believe in ghosts and spirits from West Africa which were brought over by the slaves. In North America, we might think we are modern and sophisticated people but we also have our superstitions--the number 13 is considered unlucky, for example, and Friday 13th is considered an inauspicious day, right?
The fear of authority in the home, school, and work environment also has its origin in childhood conditioning, obviously. If one has a very strict, serious parent or schoolteacher or school principle then one will naturally develop this fear of authority, right? And this fear will naturally continue in the work place even if your boss or supervisor is not so strict and serious; it becomes a part of our conditioned behavior, doesn't it? There are now certain schools in which the teachers and principles not only act as role models but they participate in friendly discussion groups, with everyone sitting together in a circle either on the floor or on chairs, and discuss human values and potentials and the difficulties young people face. Meditation, Hatha yoga, recreational music and art, and non-competitive sport activities are offered. In this way the students can learn and inquire in an atmosphere of mutual respect, relaxation, encouragement and empathy, free from this fear of authority and the fear of becoming and achieving in the future.
The fear of loneliness, of not finding a partner or companion, is due to ignorance and delusion, in not understanding one's basic state of aloneness. As the saying goes: "We're born alone and we'll die alone". It's our natural condition, it's just the way things are. If you're hungry, can anyone eat for you? If you have to go to the toilet, can your best friend or spouse go for you? Of course not! If you're tired, nobody can take rest or sleep for you, right? No one can breathe for you; this is our natural condition of aloneness. Yet social conditioning does not encouraged us to face and accept our aloneness. We are not encouraged to enjoy our own company; to be alone with the natural environment; our conditioning demands company, constant chatter, and entertainment. They breed dependency and therefore fear, frustration and disappointment. We try to escape from our natural state of aloneness and so there's fear of loneliness, isolation, the fear of not enjoying pleasure with others or with someone special. We could be in the most beautiful place in the world but if our minds were restless or preoccupied we couldn't be able to appreciate the beauty and silence. So, restlessness and mental agitation, loneliness and fear go together. When we're relaxed and peaceful we can appreciate our natural state of aloneness, there's no need to escape, no desire for company or to be entertained. I'm not saying that we shouldn't socialize but that we also need to spend time alone by ourselves, to be silent. An occupied mind is never free and never innocent.
The fear of physical or emotional pain comes from remembering past experiences of being hurt. Say you've had an accident and had to be admitted into hospital or you've been hurt emotionally from a relationship, by recalling that painful experience fear or dread will naturally arise that this experience might happen again, right? Naturally, you do not wish for that painful experience to be repeated. As the saying goes: "Once bitten, twice shy". The mind tends to do this as it's always recalling memory and projecting it into the future. Likewise, say you've had a very pleasurable experience and by recalling it you wish to repeat that enjoyment again--this is the root cause of craving and greed. The mind holds on to pleasure as memory and wants to let go of unpleasant things. We crave for pleasure and we try to avoid pain. The craving for sense pleasures often results in disappointment, frustration, and despair simply because sense pleasures do not last; it is their nature to change and are therefore impermanent and unsatisfactory. Permanent enjoyment is not possible. Nothing can give us permanent satisfaction. Happiness and unhappiness are only temporary mental states, only changing conditions of the mind. With pleasure there's pain.
So you can see that thinking about the past and the future brings about fear, anxiety, and insecurity. The factors of fear, the connecting trunk of the Tree of Fear, are therefore thinking, time as past and future, and desire--craving, greed, becoming, achieving, wanting, not wanting. Not wanting something can also create anxiety and worry, right? We can see that desire, pleasure and fear are interrelated. It is the struggle to repeat and perpetuate pleasure that turns it into pain, anxiety, and frustration. You can watch this in yourself. The very demand for the repetition of pleasure brings about suffering and dis-ease, because the pleasure is not the same as it was yesterday or before. You struggle to achieve the same delight or sensation, and you are hurt or disappointed because it is denied to you. Have you observed what happens to you when you are denied a little pleasure or enjoyment--in drinking, smoking, companionship or sex? When you don't get what you want, you become anxious, envious, hateful, resentful, right? What battles, what struggles we go through! All this is a form of fear, isn't it? You are afraid of not getting what you want or of losing what you have, right? When some particular faith or belief or ideology that you have held for years is shaken or torn away from you by logic or by life experience, aren't you afraid of standing alone? That belief has for years given you satisfaction, comfort, security, pleasure, and when it is taken away or threatened you are left stranded, naked and alone, empty, and the fear remains until you find another form of pleasure, another belief, another security blanket. Fear, pleasure, sorrow, thinking, aggression and violence are all interrelated, aren't they?
Now we get to the very root of fear. What is the root of psychological fear?
Audience: I think it has something to do with the notion of an "I" which is threatened, which we worry about .
That's right, it's the self, the ego, the "me" center. This is the root of psychological fear; it's obvious, isn't it? We spend a great deal of energy worrying about this self, don't we? We believe that this "me" center is a permanent and concrete entity which is separate and independent from the rest of the world. Due to our ignorance and delusion, we spend a lot of time trying to promote, aggrandize, justify, protect and defend this deep-rooted idea of a permanent self. The Chinese attitude of "saving face", for example, is only a cultural, conditioned behavior and desire to protect and defend this self/ego-center out of fear, insecurity and pride. So we have to understand what this self is and how does this idea gets programmed into the brain. It's very interesting.
The Buddha was the first person to realise that the self or soul isn't a permanent and fixed entity in Nature. This realisation was contrary to the popular belief in a permanent self and reincarnation in ancient [and present day] India. The Buddha taught that there was no reincarnation. He realised that the self was only a concept in the mind based on past conditioning; the "me" center is put together by the thinking process as memory, past experience and knowledge. Who we are or who we think we are when we say, "I" or "me", is just a collection of all our memories. If you meet someone for the first time and you start talking about yourself, what do you talk about? Past experiences, memory, right? Which include personal preferences, desires and aversions, ideas and opinions. And we project this self into the future as personal hopes, dreams and plans, because the thinking process is a movement in time, from past to future. If you observe your mind you'll see this: you're either thinking about the past, recalling various memories, or you're thinking about the future--projecting, planning, hoping, becoming, and so on, right? This mental phenomenon occurs regardless of which language one is using. We all share the same thinking process, the same fears and anxieties, desires and attachments. And we all want to be safe, happy and secure, right?
The Buddha also spoke about the unconditioned "self ", that aspect of human consciousness which is not based on past conditioning, not related to memory, past experience and knowledge. This is awareness, attention, and the state of mindfulness that is always in the present moment. With awareness we are able to see the truth of things, the way things are outside of our thoughts, ideas, opinions, images, likes and dislikes. Only awareness can free us from our thoughts. With mindfulness, we can awaken from our mental delusions. This is the Buddha Mind, the Wisdom Mind.
Now, how does this deep-rooted idea of a permanent self get programmed into the human brain? It begins in early childhood when a child begins to speak, imitating sounds from its mother and others in the home environment. This stimulates the thinking process and soon the child begins to use the pronoun "I" as a means of communication, in order to express itself: "I want, I don't want, I like, I don't like". The world is fascinating, magical and mysterious, and the pleasures of the senses are enticing indeed--the desire for sense pleasures begin at an early age. The child also learns to use the words "my" and "mine" as in, "You are my mommy, you are my daddy", "This is my toy, my cup, my bed, my shirt, etc", "This is my hand, my foot, my tummy, I have ten fingers and ten toes, etc.", "This is mine!", and so on. This idea is the beginning of attachment in the mind. The idea that someone or something actually belongs to "me". The "my" and "mine" give vitality to the "I", the "me", thus strengthening the sense that there is a self. So with the constant use of "I", "me", "my" and "mine", the sense of self becomes stronger, firmer, more solid and concrete, and important as the child gets older. The degree of attachment to this sense of self depends on one's innate nature and one's conditioning in the home environment.
Now, what makes the idea of self even more deep-rooted in the mind is the verbal expression of experience through the six senses in daily life--"I am seeing/looking/observing, I am hearing/listening, I am tasting, I am smelling, I am feeling, and I am thinking/imagining." It seems perfectly normal and harmless, doesn't it? But what this does is create the illusion that there's an observer separate from visible objects, that there's a listener separate from sounds, a taster separate from flavors, a smeller separate from odours, a feeler separate from feelings/sensations, and a thinker separate from thoughts/images. In short, a permanent and concrete experiencer, separate from experience. But, in fact, there's no such center of experience; the whole process of existence via the six sense doors [seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking] is simply happening automatically by itself. The whole show is going on by itself; there's no one behind this process, to whom it is happening. We are a process of change, mentally and physically, this process is not happening to a being or self; there is just seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling and thinking, automatic phenomena, when the eyes encounter visible objects, when the ears encounter sound vibrations, when the nose encounter odours, and so on. It is thought and spoken language that create the "I" or "me" as the experiencer, as the observer, the listener, the smeller, the taster, the feeler, and the thinker. I hope you see this fact because this is the real insight of the Buddha. There is no thinker separate from thoughts; the thinker is thought, the thinker, the "I", is a part of the flow of thoughts, right? But see how tricky thought is--thought separates itself as the thinker, the observer, the controller, in order to give itself continuance and permanency, which creates duality in the mind and hence conflict. It's only in the light of awareness and penetrating insight that we are able to cut through the illusion of a permanent and fixed experiencer or self separate from seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling and thinking.
Now, how do we deal with fear when it arises in the mind? Obviously we need to be aware and mindful otherwise we get caught by it. Without awareness we easily get carried away with the restless mind and chase thoughts and ideas, feelings and emotions, we get caught by them and so we become victims of our mental-emotional states--fear, worry, obsessions, greed, anger, lust. We deal with fear, we establish awareness by paying attention to the in-breath and out-breath, by doing this we can observe fear, desire, aversion, etc. more objectively. Instead of identifying with mental-emotional states ["I'm happy, I'm sad, I'm afraid, I'm scared, I'm worried, I'm having fear, etc."], we can note objectively--"There's fear in the mind" or "There's a state of fear"- and then we can remind ourselves that it is only a temporary mental state, a changing and impermanent condition of the mind, and it's not self. There's a big difference between saying, "I'm afraid, I'm having fear", and saying, "There's a state of fear". Do you see the difference? The former is a personal grasping and clinging to fear, and the latter is an objective perspective of fear, right?
It is essential that we don't identify with fear. Due to our conditioning, we identify with everything including the physical body, we take everything personally; we believe that we are a permanent self or individual having a permanent problem or experiencing a permanent feeling or emotion. But this is an illusion. Nothing is permanent and unchanging. Identifying with mental and physical states as "me" or "mine" are just habitual reactions out of ignorance and delusion. All mental, emotional and physical states are temporary, impermanent, unsatisfactory and empty of a permanent self. A happy feeling comes and goes, a sad feeling comes and goes; they do not last and they are not really happening to a self or ego-personality. We only believe this because we are always saying, "I'm happy, I'm sad, I'm upset, I'm scared, I'm angry, etc." By habit, we impose the "I" onto what is happening in the moment, thus creating a duality, a division in the mind, which results in conflict, confusion and struggle. We say, "I'm fearful but I must be brave. I must overcome fear. I must get rid of fear so I can be peaceful and happy."
When we grasp and cling to these impermanent states as "me" and "mine", it is more difficult to let them go. Actually, these mental states [fear, desire, aversion, anger, confusion, doubt, frustration] are not who we really are but rather they're just changing conditions of the mind which arise and pass away. We only react and grasp at them out of ignorance. But we are not hopeless victims of fear, desire, anger and aversion. Fear has power over us only as long as we grasp and identify with it as "me" and "mine", as long as we believe in it and react to it. We keep awareness of the in-breath and out-breath and patiently wait for the feeling of fear to pass away. We allow fear to take its natural course--having risen, it will pass away. With mindfulness, fear goes away on its own, you don't have to struggle to get rid of it. The practice of loving kindness meditation [metta bhavana] is also helpful in overcoming fear, anxiety and worry; it not only helps to let go of negative mental states but it's beneficial in overcoming self-centeredness and therefore fear, anxiety and worry. We'll do this practice at the end of the talk so you can experience its peace and freedom.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk, writer and poet, has a delightful way of dealing with fear and other mental-emotional states. He instructs: "Breathing in, I'm aware that fear is in me. Breathing out, I smile at that fear. That smile is the Buddha's smile, the smile of mindfulness and freedom." It's interesting that when we can breathe and smile with awareness we can change our mental-emotional states, we can change our perspective on things especially when we're caught up in negative and trivial thoughts and moods. It's difficult to remain upset or worried with a smile on your face, right?
Once in southern Thailand, a local monk took me to a small island after a retreat with high school students. We spent a few days relaxing on a small beach not far from the main village. At night we'd sleep out on the sand under the stars and the waning moon, it was quite pleasant and warm, we just used our robes as cover, and there was no need for a blanket or sleeping bag. Then my friend had to return to Bangkok; we said goodbye and I spent the rest of the day swimming and relaxing. I enjoyed the sunset, but as it was getting dark I suddenly realized that I was all alone on the beach and that my friend was far away. Then I noticed the fear creeping into my mind as I began wondering about the possibility of being mugged by local thieves or by western hippies and drug addicts. Suddenly I missed my friend. I hadn't missed him all day, but now, all alone in the dark, out in the open and vulnerable to thieves--I wasn't too worried about ghosts and spirits. I thought of going to the village and renting a room for the night just to be on the safe side; I even thought of the weapons the thieves might be carrying when they came to mug me at 3 a.m., in the dead of night; perhaps they'd tie me up and even slit my throat. The more I thought about this the more scared I became. Then I realised, "Wait a minute! I'm just scaring myself! This is it! This is my big opportunity to deal with fear! I shouldn't run away from fear, I should stay here on the beach all night, watch my mind with awareness so that I'm not deluded by thoughts and the power of the imagination." So, I sat on the cool sand and established mindfulness on the in-breath and out-breath, and observed the mind, letting thoughts, images, fear, desire, etc. come and go, come and go, until there was only silence, bliss and peace. It was indeed a beautiful night under the moon and stars.
A greater challenge came two days later when there was a turn in the weather and it began to rain. There was an abandoned house at the back of this beach and one morning I had a look at this place just out of curiosity. It was filthy with garbage and old clothes, and I remember thinking that I would never stay in this house at night. Also, someone in the village had told my friend earlier that this house was haunted, imagine! Well, the rain wouldn't stop and so I had no choice but to take shelter in this place. The wet afternoon got darker and darker and I had no torch, no candle or matches, no source of light. Again, I realised, "This is it! I must be very mindful and alert tonight otherwise I'll be overcome by fear for sure! I have no choice!" Somehow the open space of the beach area seemed much safer than the dark, enclosed space of this supposedly haunted house. I spread one of my robes on the filthy mattress lying on the floor and sat in meditation as if my life and sanity depended on it. Would hungry rats come tonight to chew on my toes and fingers, I wondered. Having established mindfulness on my breathing, I began to observe the mind's reaction to every sound and to every image that arose in consciousness so that one was not caught by the power of delusion. My eyes got used to the dark, the mind became more clear, alert and calm the longer I sat, and the sound of the rain became more soothing. The fear of spending the night in the house began to go away. I reflected on the life of the Buddha and those early forest monks and yogis, how they'd spend some nights in graveyards, cremation grounds, and charnel grounds with dead bodies exposed to the elements and wild animals in order to overcome fear of death, the unknown, and the attachment to the physical body. I was greatly inspired by their example and felt profound gratitude to all the wise and noble beings of the past. I sent loving kindness to all beings past and present and smiled at fear with mindfulness. I felt great joy, peace, innocence and freedom. That night I had one of the best meditations I've ever experienced thanks to the rain and that "haunted" house. And I was able to sleep quite well and comfortable. Such are the benefits of mindfulness, wisdom and loving kindness. Now, are there any questions or comments?
Audience: How is fear related to neurotic behavior?
That's a good question. Neurotic behavior naturally comes from a neurotic condition in the mind which is when we're totally caught up in our mental world, when we get carried away by our thoughts, images, moods, obsessions and worries, when we are constantly swept away by the rapid moving "mind stream" and therefore get very deluded by it. Thoughts and images are delusions of the mind. Normally, we get carried away with our restless, agitated minds and chase our thoughts, ideas, impressions and conclusions, our feelings and emotions, we get caught by them, and so we create a lot of problems for ourselves and others around us. Some people get totally carried away and do crazy, irrational things, even commit crimes and murder. We are often victims of our own mental states because we don't know how to watch our minds with awareness, with calm attention, and let these mental states go. It is only awareness that can free us from our thoughts.
Neurotic people are constantly chasing their thoughts, moods and emotions and so are enslaved and deluded by them. Their mental world is much more real and concrete than their awareness of themselves and the outer environment. They're very self-centered and insecure, tense and uptight; they're susceptible to fear, worry, anxiety, fixations and obsessions. Psychotic people are totally deluded and imprisoned by their mental states and so their perception of the outer world is very distorted.
Discursive thinking breeds fear and insecurity as this mental process sustains the notion of a permanent, concrete and separate self or ego-personality and from this comes self-centered grasping and clinging, craving and attachment. A neurotic person, if in a relationship, is naturally very possessive and suffers easily from jealousy with the fear of losing the partner. Their attachment to loved ones and to material things tend to be very unhealthy and irrational, they tend to become "control freaks" within the home environment and they create a great deal of conflict and disharmony for their spouses and children. If they get into positions of power and influence, they usually become very dangerous, overly ambitious and deluded and they end up causing a lot of suffering for many people in the work place and in political office. Dictators are usually very neurotic, insecure and deluded people.
Aggressive people are usually insecure and fearful. One aspect of neurotic, insecure behavior is the propensity to criticize and attack others, to put people down so that they can feel safe and secure; and at the same time ready to defend themselves at all cost. Defense, resistance and denial spring from fear. There is the constant urge to defend, protect, justify and aggrandize the self out of fear and insecurity, pride, arrogance and conceit. A neurotic person has the tendency to want to show off and impress others; they're usually concerned with social status, position, prestige, fame, reputation, recognition, wealth, and so on. It is a wish to dominate others, to feel superior and secure, which is a form of aggression and therefore fear and insecurity. Fear is one of the greatest problems in life. A mind that is caught in fear lives in confusion and conflict, and therefore must be violent, distorted and aggressive. It dares not move away from its own neurotic patterns of thinking and neuroses, and this breeds hypocrisy and delusion.
A neurotic mind is naturally very obsessed with the past and with the future; the fear of not becoming, not achieving, not having, not being someone special, not being recognized, etc., is very strong indeed. A neurotic person is easily jealous and envious as he/she is constantly comparing himself/herself with others, which results in fear and insecurity. Fear also arises when one is comparing oneself with what one has been and what one will be in the future, or with what one is and what one would like to be. A restless and agitated mind is never content and satisfied. When you don't compare you are not becoming. Our whole cultural education is based on becoming something, to be someone special and important, successful and wealthy, and so on. Religiously, spiritually, socially we're always wanting to become something.
Comparison is becoming and this breeds fear, anxiety, discontentment, dissatisfaction, dis-ease. To live without any comparison whatever is an extraordinary thing that takes place when the mind is not measuring, when it is still and silent and choicelessly aware of "what is" from moment to moment. With loving kindness and compassion, there is the ending of fear, duality and conflict.
Before we end this evening with metta bhavana [loving kindness meditation], I would like to read something from Achaan Chah of Thailand:
We believe that a self exists, that there's a permanent, concrete, separate and independent ego-entity that sees, hears, tastes, smells, feels and thinks. We believe that a self lives and dies, we believe that other selves exist. This is incorrect view of reality! What we take for self are only ever-changing phenomena. In reality there is no permanent "me", no "he", no "she", etc., these are just labels for social communication. We spend our lives dreaming about things that do not exist. Our wrong view causes us attachment and suffering. We have expectations of ourselves and others and if these do not come through we suffer from frustration, disappointment, resentment, anguish, etc. We are afraid of death and we do not know what happens to the self after we have died. It would be most beneficial if we could see our life as it really is--only changing phenomena. Then we could face with right understanding old age, sickness and death. All phenomena in ourselves and around ourselves are only two kinds of realities--mental [nama] and physical [rupa]. Nama experiences or knows intuitively, rupa doesn't know anything. What we take for a self or a person is only changing phenomena, only nama and rupa. This includes animals and insects. Emotions are also transitory and empty of self. Our whole life is like a chain of moments of consciousness arising and falling away. When we realise that our life is actually only nama-rupa, mental and physical phenomena, which arises due to conditions, we become more patient even in difficult situations.
One should cultivate the reflection on the impurity and unpleasantness of the body for abandoning lust and infatuation. One should cultivate loving kindness and compassion for abandoning hate, resentment, ill will, aversion and fear. One should cultivate mindfulness of breathing for cutting off distracting, obsessive thoughts and images. One should cultivate the perception of change and impermanence and death for eliminating the conceit of "I am" and "This is mine". In one who perceives impermanence and non-self, emptiness and freedom are firmly established.