The Uses of Fear

September 25, 2008

There are three qualities that the Buddha listed as the roots of unskillful behavior: greed, aversion, and delusion. Some psychotherapists have asked why he didn’t list fear as the fourth, because psychotherapy tends to see neurotic fear as the primary source of mental illness. Why didn’t the Buddha have the same understanding?

Because he saw that fear has its uses. It’s not always unskillful. If you go into a forest, it’s right to be fearful. If you weren’t fearful, you’d get complacent and careless. You could die. When you think about your own mortality—how fragile your life is, how fragile your health is, how fleeting your youth is—it’s right to feel a certain amount of fear for the future: How are you going to fare when aging, illness, and death hit you? Think of the Buddha when he was still a young prince, and how he saw an old person, a sick person, a dead person. Think of the fear he felt in realizing that all of the areas in which he looked for happiness in life were subject to aging, illness, and death as well.

The feeling he felt on realizing that is called samvega, which is sometimes translated as urgency, sometimes as a sense of dismay. But it can also be translated as terror: looking into the abyss and seeing you’re about to fall into it. But the story doesn’t stop there. The fourth person he saw was a forest mendicant. And the feeling he felt on seeing the mendicant was pasada, confidence: If there’s a way out, this is it.

This dynamic between terror and confidence informs all of the Buddha’s teachings, all of the Buddha’s practice. Which means that a sense of fear is a legitimate part of the practice. It’s a legitimate motivation for wanting to get your mind to settle down, for wanting to gain some insight into why you are suffering. You realize that if you don’t gain control over your mind, then when aging, illness, and death come, you’ll be at a total loss. At the same time, you have the confidence that if the mind is trained, then you can handle these things and not suffer.

So fear is a legitimate reason for coming to the practice. In fact, it’s probably the most legitimate of all. We don’t like the feeling of fear. The experience of fear is very uncomfortable. We feel small, weak, and threatened. This feeling can become unskillful when it gets mixed up with greed, aversion, and delusion. But a clear-sighted sense of fear combined with confidence that there is a way out can actually get you on the path.

This combination of fear and confidence is what translates into what the Buddha said is the root of all skillful behavior: heedfulness. You realize that there are dangers, but if you’re careful, you can avoid them. If the dangers were inevitable, there’d be no reason to be heedful, for nothing you might do could make any difference. If there were no dangers at all, there’d be no reason to be heedful, either. But there are dangers in life. And it turns out that the dangers lie not so much in aging, illness, and death, but in the way we think about things. Our greed, aversion, and delusion: These are the dangers. But the care with which we learn how to manage our thoughts, our words, and our deeds provides the way out.

So heedfulness reminds us of the dangers but also says, “If you’re careful, if you’re mindful, if you’re alert, if you’re discerning, you can gain release from those dangers.” That’s why we’re here meditating, learning how to train the mind so that it can recognize greed, anger, and delusion when they come. A large part of the problem is that we don’t recognize these qualities for what they are because delusion by definition can’t see itself; often it gets mixed up with the greed and the anger so we don’t recognize them either.

To get past that, you have to learn how to observe your own mind to sense what you’re doing that’s skillful, and what you’re doing that’s not. And to do that you have to observe your thoughts to see where they lead: to pleasure or pain. This is something we don’t normally do. We prefer to get involved in a thought world, totally in that world, trying to shape it whatever way we like. Then, for one reason or another, we drop that, move to another one, and then to another one. It’s like hopping trains. If you’ve ever tried to trace the trains of your thought, you know that they’re a lot more complicated than the railroad network here in America. You hop on a train of thought and find yourself in Burma, England, in the middle of Russia, up to the North Pole, down to the South Pole, out to Mars and Saturn, with brief stops along the way when you’re feeling hungry, tired, or hot.

It’s back-and-forth all over the place. And when our thoughts are totally out of control like this, no wonder they cause suffering. They can latch onto any object and worry it to death—and worry us to death. Unless the mind is trained, it has very little ability to step back and see what’s going on. You need to learn how to see where your thoughts go. In other words, you step out of the thought and see it as a part of a causal process. This thought leads to that reaction, that reaction leads to that thought, that thought leads to that reaction, and so on. To get out of these trains of thought, you also want to see how each thought gets put together. Why do thoughts arise to begin with?

When you understand these processes, then you can step back and—when you notice that a particular thought is leading toward suffering—you can drop it. You can disband it. The more alert, the more mindful you are, the more quickly you can do this until you get to the point where there’s just a brief stirring of a thought—even before it becomes a coherent thought—and you can zap it. You recognize that it’s going to go off in an unskillful direction and you stop it in its tracks by breathing right through the little knot or bundle of energy around which the thought was about to coalesce.

These are some of the skills you develop as you meditate. This is one of the reasons why we start with the breath. We start by thinking about the breath, because if you keep your thoughts concerned with something right here in the present moment, you can start to see the processes of thinking, what’s called fabrication, in action. The breath is called bodily fabrication. It’s what helps to create your sense of the body, the way you feel the body from within. And then you combine that with directed thought and evaluation, which are called verbal fabrication. In other words, you keep directing your thoughts to the breath and then you evaluate it: How does this breath feel? Is it comfortable? If it’s not comfortable, how can you make it better?

This brings in the other level of fabrication, which is mental fabrication: feelings and perceptions. Your perceptions are the labels you apply to things. In the case of the breathing process, this has to do with how you perceive what’s going on when you breathe. When you visualize the breathing process to yourself, what is that visualization like? Is it helpful or does it actually cause harm? If you think of the body as a bellows—pulling the breath in, pushing it out—it’s going to make the breathing process tedious, tiresome. If you learn how to perceive the breathing process more as an energy flow, not just the air in and out of the lungs, but the quality of the energy in the body as a whole—from the top of the head down to the face, down to the torso and down to the legs, and down the shoulders and out the arms—then the breathing is more pleasurable. The whole body is involved in this quality of breath, breathing, energy flow.

The body is wired in such a way that it can actually pick up energy from within itself, one part feeding another. The energy doesn’t have to come in with the air. In fact, the air coming in and out is simply a byproduct of the energy flow in the body. Try holding that perception in mind and see what it does for the breathing. See which parts of the body’s energy can feed the parts that feel starved. If that gets too complicated, just get back to directing your thoughts to the in-and-out breath, evaluating the in-and-out breath, and leave it at that. But as you get more sensitive to the full process of fabrication, you begin to realize what you’re doing is creating a thought world here that includes all forms of fabrication: breath, which is bodily fabrication; directed thought and evaluation—verbal fabrication; and your feelings and perceptions—mental fabrication. They’re all right here.

When they’re all right here, you’re in a better position to see how thoughts and emotions form, how they disintegrate, where they lead. Because it’s inevitable as you’re trying to focus on the breath that other things will come up. In the beginning you realize this only after they’ve taken you far away. You find yourself on the coast of Norway: “How did I get here?” But in the beginning, don’t try to trace it back just yet. Just say, “Okay, I’ve got to go back to the breath.” And fortunately you don’t have to travel every inch of the way from Norway back here. Just drop Norway and you’re here, back with the breath. With the next thought you’re in Africa. Okay, drop that, and come back to the breath. With the next thought you’re thinking about tomorrow’s meal: Drop that, come back to the breath.

An unskillful reaction to all this is to get frustrated. The skillful reaction is to realize that this is what the mind’s been doing all along, so it’s going to take time to change its habits. The important lesson to draw is not to be surprised when the mind wanders off like that. Learn to anticipate it. You realize, “Okay, it’s going to wander off again, so watch for the warning signs.” How does that happen? A sudden curtain falls over the mind and, when the curtain is raised, you’re off someplace else, as in a play. The curtain drops on Act One and when it rises again, you’re in Act Two, off someplace else. How and why does the mind hide these things from itself? And how do you know that it’s about to happen?

When you can anticipate that it’s about to happen, you’ll notice it’s because of a sense of irritation or boredom or antsiness in the mind. Even though you’re standing with the breath, the mind is beginning to look someplace else. When you can catch that happening, remind yourself that it’s a sign the breath isn’t interesting and comfortable enough. Start asking yourself more questions about the breath. How could it be more comfortable? What kind of breathing would feel really, really good, gratifying, refreshing right now? You can ask the different parts of the body. “Hand, what kind of breathing would feel good for you? Left hand, right hand, stomach, legs, chest, abdomen: What kind of breath would you like?” And then let them breathe in whatever way they like.

The more interesting the breathing process—the more you can see the good impact it’s having on the body—then the less likely that the mind will wander off. And the more easily it’ll come back. At the same time, you’re learning some important lessons about how the mind creates thought worlds, and how it creates suffering in the process. This way you can learn how not to engage in those processes, developing the skills that will protect the mind from its own worst habits.

So as you’re practicing breath meditation like this, you’re doing something concrete about all your realistic fears: If death comes, aging comes, illness comes, if somebody drops you off in the middle of nowhere in the dark, how can you keep your mind under control so you don’t suffer? By doing what you’re practicing right now. You’re giving yourself some concrete skills that can underlie a realistic sense of confidence that you can manage your mind, that you can learn how to train the mind, regardless of the situation. This combination of fear and confidence constitutes the heedfulness that underlies the whole path. You become heedful to try to develop skillful qualities, i.e., qualities of mind that will lead to good results, leading you away from suffering; and to abandon and avoid unskillful qualities, the ones that cause suffering. If you develop your mindfulness, your alertness, your concentration, you can do this.

So fear isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s an important part of wisdom, recognizing that there are dangers in life. It’s a necessary function of the mind, anticipating that dangers are going to happen. The important thing is not to let the fear get tied up in greed, aversion, or delusion. You want to bring more mindfulness, more clarity to the issues you fear, and to gain more skill in the qualities that will help you avoid those dangers.

That’s the important message of the Buddha’s teaching. After he saw the forest mendicant, he became a forest mendicant himself to test and see if the confidence he had placed in that way of living was really well placed. And his awakening proved that it was: It is possible to find a happiness that’s not touched by aging, illness, death, or separation. And as the Buddha said, this realization came not through any special qualities on his part. It came through developing qualities of mind that we all have, that we all can develop, such as ardency, alertness, and resolution, but especially heedfulness: the skillful sort of fear that can get you on the path and see you through to the end.

So don’t hate your fears or fear your fears. Learn how to educate them. When they’re educated and trained, they’re part of the path to the end of suffering. This is part of the Buddha’s genius: He took things that many of us don’t like about the mind, things that actually cause trouble in the mind, and learned how to tame them, to train them, so that they actually become part of the path to the end of suffering. In this way, you can reach a place in the mind where there really is no more reason to fear. As Ven. Ananda said, you use desire to come to the end of desire. In the same way, you can use fear, treating it wisely, to bring yourself to the end of fear. And as it turns out, that’s the only way you can get there.