drowning in fear – is there a way out?

I think, therefore I am. I feel, therefore I am. I am anxious, therefore I am. I am sad, therefore I am. I am stressed, therefore I am. 

When I am in fear, I am fear. It is fear walking, fear talking, fear thinking, nothing else. Fear drives, fear decides. Nothing but fear. All I see is fear, all I am is fear. 

It is like I have fallen inside a tank full of molasses, or tar – I see nothing but black. I don’t see a tank, I don’t see a world outside the tank, I don’t know the existence of that world outside or that this tank is full of tar and I have jumped inside; all I know is black. The same with emotion – when I am in the emotion, all I see is the emotion. 

Later, when someone pulls me out of the tank, I will realise “Oh, the world is not black after all – true, it was just the molasses that made everything unclear, I was in that tank of molasses.” In the same way, when the emotion is gone, then one is able to divide the emotion from oneself and say, for example, “sorry I acted that way, I wasn’t thinking straight because I was so afraid.” As long as you are the emotion, in it, you cannot divide yourself from it or observe it, let alone remove it. 

The emotion bends and makes crooked all my actions, my thoughts and my speech. Emotion cannot think straight, only crooked. 

Do we have a choice about emotions? Can we choose not to get emotional, not to feel the emotion, can we say no to emotions, negative or positive? 

Everyone will say no. We don’t have a choice, feelings and emotions arise whether we want them or not, we are not responsible for them, we don’t choose to feel them, we can’t remove them. Nobody will ever try to get rid of an agreeable emotion, but most have their own way of ‘dealing with” a disagreeable emotion (sadness, fear, anger, anxiety and so on), or trying to get rid of it. For example we might: 

a) distract ourselves or change the subject (watch a movie, talk with friends, work, exercise, anything that puts the attention somewhere else by force.) 

b) Practice rites and rituals, chanting mantras, asking for a blessing, or asking for help from the gods to feel better

c) Keep the emotion inside but not allow ourselves to act on it, suppressing it and struggling with it and eating ourselves from inside.  

Nobody can remove it, you never find anyone who can tell you clearly how to simply remove anger, fear or anxiety, so as to choose with wisdom.

The Buddha’s teaching is the teaching to remove evil from within, to remove moha (inattention), lobha (love, greed, attachment) and dosa (aversion, hatred) from within. And if we pay attention carefully, we can see that all the emotions both positive and negative that disturb the mind and lead away from peace (whether anger, jealousy, fear, anxiety, stress, sadness, guilt; or desire, love, enjoyment, pride, pleasure of the senses) are all born from these three; inattention, love and attachment; and aversion or hatred.

How can we ever hope to remove moha, dosa and lobha, if we cannot drop the emotions that are born from them? If we can’t cut a branch or leaf of a tree, how can we hope to cut the trunk, even less uproot it? 

The teaching of the Buddha is the only teaching that shows us how to let go of these things directly and immediately, if only we could understand it properly.

When the Buddha was practicing as a Bodhisatta, before he had attained liberation, he was practicing to remove fear; going to places full of dread – graveyards and dark forests, full of objects to arouse fear; for the express purpose of practicing to remove the fear as it arose.

If fear arose when he was sitting, he would not lie down or stand up until he had removed it. If fear arose when he was standing, he would not sit or lie down until he had removed it. If fear arose when he was lying down, he would not sit or stand up until he had removed it. 

(If you are interested in reading this sutta in full, you can find our translation of it here. If you would like to compare with other versions, there are several to be found on this good resource.

From this we can know that even as one who is not yet a noble one and has not yet seen Dhamma, it is possible to let go of fear. If it is possible to remove fear, then it is possible to let go of any other unwholesome emotion. 

Yet when there is fear, I am fear, when I am in the tank of tar, I see nothing but tar.

Then how is it possible that the Bodhisatta was able to remove it? If we don’t try to find the answer to this question, we are not students of the Buddha. 

First of all, he had understood this very important fact: that nothing in this world, no object that can touch the senses, can be blamed for our suffering.

He went in search for freedom from suffering, freedom from birth, old age, sickness and death, these things that are fundamentally woven into the fabric of our reality. We cannot put the blame on any outside enemy for these things, we cannot try to solve them by changing something outside. The only place to look is inside. 

And so, when he was working to remove fear, he was working on the base of having already realised that fear was the problem, not the object of fear – otherwise he would just have avoided the graveyards and the dark forest, like anyone else. 

As long as we think that the object is the problem, there is no possible escape from whatever emotion grows based on that object, whether it be fear, anger, greed or anything else. This is the first thing that we have to understand in order to be able to practice rightly according to the Buddha’s teaching. We will work to let go of fear (or agitation, stress, anxiety) not because it’s unpleasant and we want to feel better, but out of understanding that, no matter what has caused it to arise, this emotion is a problem, and not accepting that this problem should remain. 

How can we address this problem in a way that will enable us to deal with it?

Though everyone experiences feelings both pleasant and unpleasant, who can tell us how they are formed, from where they are born? 

How can we put a separation between “I” and the fear, when I am fear? how can we climb out of a tank of tar? 

Who is afraid? “I am” afraid. 

We must look more precisely at this “I” and divide it.  We cannot eat a whole pizza, without cutting into slices! Where is “I”, what is it?

Is it body or mind? Is the body afraid? No – fear is in the mind, but what is the mind and where is it? Am I the mind? Can I control how the mind works, can I decide not to have fear? 

The understanding we need to develop is this: I am not the body, and I am not the mind either. 

Then where is fear (or agitation, anger, anxiety or stress)? How is it formed, how does it grow? 

If we can get rid of the idea that the fear is ours and that “I am afraid”, then we can start to understand how fear works, to understand how it is born, what is its food, what are the conditions in which it grows, and also how to remove those conditions. We will see that the fear arises totally automatically in the automatic machine of the mind, based on an object that touches one of the senses. This object is the food of fear as long as the attention is hooked to the object of fear, fear keeps on growing. 

(A more in-depth explanation about the food of fear/anger/any emotion can be found in this article.)

 We need to understand where to look, to put our attention, in order to look inside, to look into the mind where the fear arises, not at the object of fear, what we see and what we hear that is fearful to us.

Therefore do not look at what you see – look who sees.Do not look at what you hear. Look at who hears. 

The mind has to be trained to turn back towards itself. All the trick is to become aware of what is inside, to have the attention inside instead of outside. It is a training and a practice that takes so much effort and determination, it must be undertaken with great dedication, otherwise all will be forgotten at the most crucial moment when emotion is coming to take the drive in the mind. But if we can train it properly, then we will be able to drop fear, or stress, anger or anxiety – right at the spark where it starts, before it can grow into a big fire and burn in all our thoughts and actions.

We can understand the theory but it is quite a different matter to put it into practice. This is why we need to quite literally “practice” meditation, and this is why by “meditation” we do not refer to a task of simply concentrating on any object, or watching the breath; meditation is the practice of training the mind to come back to itself, to watch itself.

Just as any sports player knows, you train by throwing a ball against a wall and practicing to catch it, so that in the “real game” you can do the exact same thing, and catch the ball – meditation is nothing more than a practice of the exact same thing that you will need to do in normal conditions. We have to create an observer, a guard for the mind that will bring the mind back to looking at “who sees, not what you see” , not allowing it to roll continuously in thoughts, emotions and all automatic actions.

Throughout countless billions of lives, the mind has not been trained in this way, it has simply been an unobserved, unwatched, unknown automatic machine, its habits very deeply engrained, like a river that has eroded the soil and carved a deep, deep valley for itself throughout so many thousands of years.

Now we have to dig a canal and build a dam, and make the water run in an entirely different direction. Training our mind to come back to itself and drop whatever emotion or thought is rolling in it is like digging the canal, building the dam – at first it is extremely hard work and requires a lot of effort, then gradually it becomes easier, slowly, drop by drop, the water begins to flow into the canal itself, and by its own force to remove more soil, so the mind becomes more and more used to turning back, to coming back where it belongs.

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