Facing Fear

How can we meditate when we're too scared to get on the cushion? Lama Tsony gives us advice on practicing with fear.

Lama Tsony

Lately I’ve been dealing with a lot of fear during my meditation practice. It seems to come from nowhere, and it either focuses on a specific attachment or it manifests as a more existential, nameless sort of thing. How can I deal with this?

© Lizzie Abelson Fear is what happens when reality collides with our personal fiction. Our practice is based on expectations—expectations about who we are, why we are practicing, and what our practice should be. As our hope disintegrates, it may be replaced by fear. Our characteristics, personality, all of our beautiful plans and ideas are like snowflakes about to fall on the hot stone of our meditation practice.

Maybe you’ve poked through boredom and have had a first taste of spaciousness. Until your experience has become stable, the fear remains that your dreams, your life, and your base could fall apart. The more you contemplate space, the more you are aware of the dissolution of everything you have assumed to be real, lasting, and reliable—including your motivation and your practice. Now it all feels transitory and unreliable. This crisis, rooted in dissolution, translates as fear.

This is a seminal moment in our practice. Each time it manifests, each time we are aware of fear, we have a choice: we can acknowledge our problem and work with it, or we can run away from it and seek refuge elsewhere: distractions, pharmaceuticals, weekend feel-good-about-yourself workshops, whatever. We are free to refuse the disappointment and the dissolution. We don’t have to put ourselves back into the situation where the foundation of our being is shaken by the experience of impermanence and emptiness.

But if we decide to continue, if we’re convinced of the sanity of the Four Noble Truths and decide to take refuge in the dharma that the Buddha taught, we need to be courageous. We can choose to take refuge in the brilliant sanity of enlightenment, the Buddha; trust the process of the path, the Dharma; and rely on the experience of those who guide us along the path, the Sangha. We can choose to explore our mind, learn about its problem areas and hidden treasures, but it won’t be comfortable. The guidance of a spiritual friend or teacher is crucial at this stage of our practice.

At the same time, we can be nice to ourselves, accept ourselves as we are and let go of what we are pretending to be. Our crisis is a normal phase. We all enter the spiritual path as ego-based beings, and as such we have ego-based hopes and fears. Practice is virtually never what we expect. We feel like we’ve got it all wrong, thinking, “The more I meditate, the worse I become.” My teacher, Gendun Rinpoche, always responded to this by saying, “When you see your own shortcomings, it’s the dawn of qualities. If you only see your qualities, there’s a problem.”

It’s true that if we continue to try to create our personal nirvana through our practice, we’re going to suffer even more. If we use the practice tools that develop intelligence and clarity with a confused, selfish motivation, reality is bound to collide with our fiction. This is where practice is supposed to bring us. This is the proof that the dharma works. It’s the end of our confused, fictive world, and the dawning of truth.

When fear arises within our meditation, we apply an antidote. Recognizing what is happening at each instant as mind, we remain in the present. It is important to remember that patterns don’t have to repeat themselves. Through remaining in the present, we can let go of the past and the future—the headquarters of our fears. We recognize and then we let go, whether coming back to the focal point of our meditation—posture, breath, visualization—or nonconceptual space. Through motivation, honesty, and confidence you can practice with your fears and go beyond in them in a way you never thought possible.

Lama Tsony is head of the monastic community at the Dhagpo Kundreul Ling hermitage in Auvergne, France. He travels throughout the U.S. and Europe, teaching and leading meditation retreats.

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LizGraham@comcast.net's picture

As Krisnamurti asks: who is observing? Answer: fear.

Julie Miller's picture

My view on this subject is that fear is bound to arise, once, as the writer suggests, we've had "a first taste of spaciousness." Great as that feels; experiencing such expansiveness involves a recognition that our own personal experience of existence is as impermanent, as fleeting as anything else in samsara.

Whatever their articulated reasons, it seems to me that it is a rare person who does not enter practice seeking to make their current embodied life better, and suffering more bearable.

When one reaches a point in spiritual practice where once realizes- as Lama writes- that: "your dreams, your life, and your base" not only "could fall apart" but actually are falling apart, and in fact never had any more cohesion or permanence than the rest of this floating world, that's a foretaste of emptiness.

No matter the tradition, facing down your own extinction is the fulcrum of all fears.

wilnerj's picture

Let be. Fear emerges and it has deep roots. Little by little I see what it truly is. But the fear remains. But little by little there is the hope of its eventual disappearance.

drgayle's picture

There seems to be a fine distinction between the "personal nirvana" and practicing courageously through the fear. Ineveitable the idea of something feeling "better" is in the background of dealing with NOT reacting to fear, so how can there not be a "personal nirvana" or what is the difference between that and basically ameliorating the fear? seems like a "catch 22"...

Tharpa Pema's picture

You raise a good point.

For me the difference has been between 1) running away from what I fear--telling myself lies about reality to make myself feel better--and 2) moving toward the fear--staying with it until I get used to it, i.e., until my physiological fear-arousal symptoms decrease through accustoming myself to that which I fear.

At a certain point, I stop worrying about whether my "feeling better" is itself a warning sign. It's okay to feel good! It's the running and the lying that cause the harm. The "feeling better" is win/win if my actions bring benefit to others and myself.

Dominic Gomez's picture

One of the symbols of a buddha is a lion: fearless in the face of samsara (life's realities).

jungsoo's picture

Great article, thanks.
I hung on the first sentence for a little while and came up with a different conclusion - Fear is the fiction itself and the collision with reality is that crude alarm clock!

ninamcpherson@me.com's picture

Excellent! Thank you!