“Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.”
A story goes that in the early years of knowing each other, Eric and Ajan were sitting together in the basement of some rooms they were renting.
One evening, they were sitting there talking together. In his hand, Ajan was holding a propane burner which they used for cooking. This is shaped like a little bottle, with a pipe on the end, out of which there is usually a flame used to heat a stove. It looks something like this:
In this case, something went wrong (it’s not clear exactly what), the container split at one end and fire began to shoot from near the mouth of the bottle itself, not from the end of the pipe, and Ajan’s hand caught fire. Suddenly he was holding a bomb.
If this were a story of any normal person, it’s very easy to imagine what would happen next: screaming, panic, propane bomb flung from the hand, and resulting catastrophe after that as fire spills out and other things catch; the basement starts to burn, the rafters overhead to break, and the two men either perish there, or escape with everything destroyed.
But Ajan is not normal, he is a meditator. If any fear arose in him at that moment, he saw it and removed it right away, almost at the instant when it arose. He looked across the table at Eric, showed him his burning hand and said “Look at that Eric! What should we do with it?”
Eric looked at the burning hand and calmly, without hesitating, reached out and turned off the burner. The fire disappeared as suddenly as it had appeared. And the two men laughed.
Most of us have, strangely enough, learned to see fear as something that can actually be useful, that can save us from danger. I just typed “fear” into Google, and one of the first results I read was this: “Fear serves survival by generating appropriate behavioural responses.”
To put it simply, fear supposedly helps you survive because it makes you do the right thing when you are in danger. It is therefore said to be a good thing when there is a real threat to our lives, although of course in some situations it might be less helpful than others. It is supposed to be ‘rational’ to feel fear in the middle of an earthquake, and ‘irrational’ to feel fear when you see some dirt on your hand.
Ajan likes to tell of a time when he used to be constantly attached with fears both rational and irrational, and was unable to remove his fear no matter what he did. He tells a story of when he was asked by his teacher “How many foods can you eat?”
“I don’t know, sir,” he replied, “countless.”
“How many mouths do you have?”
The teacher looked at him and spoke very slowly, putting weight on every word. “How many objects of fear? Countless. How many fears?”
“Ahh – Just one.”
Talking about rational fear and irrational fear is really giving a false idea. In reality, fear is always the same thing. It appears in the mind in the same automatic way regardless of its object. Nobody has ever taken a rational decision to feel afraid; all fear arises in us by itself, having nothing whatsoever to do with reason or logic.
Acting out of fear, we cannot think clearly. When fear is driving, we follow our first instinct, our first gut feeling, which is not always the right thing to do (in the story above, for example, the normal gut reaction to fear would have been to throw away the burning object, which would have resulted in a rather ugly scene.)
Of course, it is also possible that our fear can lead us to do something useful – if somebody attacks us it might make us punch them, for example – but we don’t choose the action, we are not in control of what we do, and we can do something entirely destructive to ourselves at this moment. How many people have pulled a trigger of a gun in fear? How many have destroyed their lives this way?
When we meditate and can remove our fear, we can still choose to run away or hit back at what is attacking us. But now we choose to do it, calculating the consequences of our actions. We are in charge, not blindly following our fear.
Another story from those times: some years later, it happened that Eric was on the roof of a building he was constructing on his land, fixing the roof panels. It was wintertime and icy cold, and a thin layer of ice had formed on the surface of the panels. In one moment, Eric lost his footing and started to slide down the roof, which was quite steep. There was a twenty metre drop to the ground.
At this moment, which passed in the blink of an eye, several things happened very quickly. Eric saw that he was going to fall, and that to move in a panic trying to get a foothold would be completely useless; the roof was too slippery and the distance too short before he would fall into space. Instead of letting the fear of falling come and take over in his mind, he looked for what he could do.
It happened that that day, just next to the building, was standing a rented truck with a long arm reaching up towards the roof, with a strong cable for the purpose of lifting material. Eric saw that he could catch hold of the cable to break his fall, but that he would have to let himself slide from the root in order to be close enough.
This was an action that went completely against instinct, completely against the first reaction that fear would have had him make. But he was watching his mind, and he did not let the fear arise.
And so he waited, and deliberately let himself slide further down, down, and all the way off the roof and into space – where he was able to catch the cable from the truck, and break his fall. Afterwards he was not breathing heavily, nor was his heart beating faster than usual.
People don’t think it’s possible to drop fear or to prevent it. We have all heard “feel the fear and do it anyway,” and we have the idea that “working through the fear,” or “seeing through the fear” is the best we can do, it doesn’t even occur to us that it might be possible to remove it completely.
When Ajan was in Thailand, he visited a hall packed with people waiting to hear speak the most famous teacher of meditation around. Sitting on the benches in front reserved for those in the monk’s dress, Ajan waited until the man was before him before speaking directly to him.
“Let me ask you a question: If I hand you unexpectedly a burning hot coal, do you drop it?”
“Yes,” said the teacher.
“So: Can you teach me how to drop my anger and fear, as fast as dropping a burning hot coal?”
The famous teacher had no answer for Ajan; he stayed silent there. It was Ajan’s way of testing him, and he did not pass.
People who are as practiced as Eric and Ajan can remove their fear in this way: as though it were a burning hot object, the moment it brushes them they drop it, before it can find a way in.
It is not the same as ignoring it and thinking clearly in spite of it, nor is it equal to suppressing it and keeping it under control for the moment, only to fall apart in shock afterwards when the danger is over.
It means to be totally unafraid, even when holding the burning lamp in your hand, to have no fear as you slide down the roof, maybe going to your death. It’s only possible with the constant practice of right meditation, along with profound renunciation.