Filed in Theravada

Inviting Fear

Amaro Bhikkhu guides us through a meditation on fear and teaches us to tame it with attention. Amaro Bhikkhu

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© Sylvia PlachyAbove all, a materialistic society desires certainty—it seeks to guarantee it; passes laws to enforce it; wipes our the pathogens that threaten it; and lets everyone have guns to protect it. Even the seemingly innocuous habits of inking in plans and clinging to beliefs and opinions are the reverse-image of the uncertainties that the heart yearns to be certain about.

Yet, if we seek security in that which is inherently uncertain, dukkha, or discontent, is the inevitable result.

Fear is a discomfiting friend. The impulse is to get to a place of safety, but where in the phenomenal world—either mental or physical—could that be? The insight of the Buddha, informed by his own experiences of exploring fear and dread, encourages us to make a 180-degree turn. Whereas the instinct is to shrink away from the threatening aspects of life, his injunction for those who wish to free the heart is to contemplate frequently the following:

I am of the nature to age, I have not gone beyond aging;
I am of the nature to sicken, I have not gone beyond sickness;
I am of the nature to die, I have not gone beyond dying;
All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become
otherwise, will become separated from me.

For that which is threatening to the ego is liberating for the heart.

By turning to face the inarguable facts of nature, the habit of investing in unstable realms is interrupted. It shines the light of wisdom on the issue, reveals that we've been looking for certainty in the wrong place, and thus frees up the attention to realize where security can be found.

This needs to be examined in the light of personal experience, but in traditional Buddhist terminology, such security is said to be found in the Triple Gem: the Buddha—the awakened, knowing faculty of the heart; the Dharma—the truth of the way things are; and the Sangha—the noble, unselfish response. For when the awakened heart knows the way things truly are, what springs forth is harmonious and virtuous action. Undiscriminating awareness is dependable. The reality of Nature is dependable. Harmony is possible.

How can we arrive at such security?

There are many ways to meditate on fear. One is to wait until it appears adventitiously. Another is to invite it in—when we send out invitations we can be a little better prepared for who shows up at the party.

Perhaps for both methods of approach the first thing to bear in mind is that fear is not the enemy—it is nature's protector; it only becomes troublesome when it oversteps its bounds. In order to deal with fear we must take a fundamentally noncontentious attitude toward it, so it's not held as "My big fear problem" but rather "Here is fear that has come to visit." Once we take this attitude, we can begin to work with fear.

Begin by sitting quietly and focusing the attention as clearly as possible on the present moment, using a simple tranquil object to establish equilibrium—the natural rhythm of the breath is good for this purpose for most people, moving in the empty space of the heart .

Once such centeredness has been established, deliberately bring to mind something that will arouse a fear reaction. For example,

"Anthrax in the mail"
"Nuclear war"
"Suicide bombers"

—or any other memory, imagined possibility, or Image that triggers the compulsive effect.

Once the seed crystal has been dropped into the mental pool and the consequent flow of thoughts and images has begun, make a definite and concerted effort to withdraw the attention from the stories the thoughts are telling. Bring it instead into the sensations of the physical body.

Where do I feel the fear? What is its texture?
Is it hot or cold?
Is it painful? Rigid? Elastic?

We are not necessarily looking for verbal answers to all these questions; rather, we are just trying to find the feeling, accept it completely, and not add anything to it.

"Fear feels like this."

Many find that fear locates itself primarily in the solar plexus, sitting like a tightened knot in the belly. Just feel it, know it, open the heart to it as much as possible. We're not trying to pretend or force ourselves to like it, but it is here—right now it's the way things are.

Let this process run for at least ten minutes, then consciously let it wind down—not suppressing it, but, as when it's time for guests to leave, make the hints, and let the event wind down naturally. It might take a while, but that's fine; just let it run out at its own pace. During this time, reestablish the breath as a focal point, and use the exhalation to support the fading of the fear-wave.

Once it has come to an end, focus the attention on the feeling of the breath, moving as before in the empty space of the heart. Let the heart be clearly conscious that the fear cycle has come to cessation: it arose out of emptiness, returned to emptiness. It was florid and impactful in its appearance, but the overarching quality, now having been seen directly, is its transiency.

Now we know ...

The effect of this practice is to train the heart, so that when the next wave of fear arises, from whatever quarter, something in us knows. The intuitive wisdom faculty is awakened and recognizes: "I know this scenario—don't panic—it looks impressive, but it's just the fear reaction." It becomes vastly easier to avoid being sucked into the vortex of anxiety.

The feeling is not pleasant, but the heart knows, with absolute certainty: "It's only a feeling." And if action needs to be taken, then that action will be motivated by wisdom, kindness, and sensitivity to time and place rather than by neurotic reactivity and habit. ▼

Amaro Bhikkhu is co-abbot of Abhayagiri Monastery in northern California, in the lineage of Ajahn Chah and the Thai forest tradition. He has been a monk for twenty-three years.

Image: "Bird on a Wire" © Sylvia Plachy

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youngc23's picture

I thank Amarro Bhikku for this article on fear. It is quite helpful. Also, I identify a lot with the comments made by kh1044.

As an older practitioner, there are long periods of time when REAL fear doesn't come up in daily life or in sitting sessions. Certainly, as kh1044 says, there are times when fright does arise, but true fear, the feeling that paralizes and debilitates one, often stays in the shadows. It seems to beg us to look for it. And, as we get older and closer to death, that desire to look for the fear that has always been just beyond reach becomes more urgent, for we just might lose the opportunity to learn from it and dissolve it in this lifetime. Certainly, patience, vigilance, and constant practice help; however, after a great deal of consideration, I gather that it's also beneficial to take a deliberate, non pursuing approach to arouse fear from its subtle depths, and invite it, as Amarro Bhikkus says, to come forward. For example, death, pain (like neuropathy), and loss have many levels which create such an avenue of invitation.

Carroll Young

Dominic Gomez's picture

"Nothing is to be feared but fear itself," said Francis Bacon 400 years ago with regard to fortune and change of fortune, and how a person with fortitude will not be shaken. OTOH, someone who is fearful will suffer much by these changes. He referred to fear as the inner enemy.

patrice16953's picture

i can only add my voice/heart/mind to the chorus above. this article is reminiscent of a teaching received from Robin Korman in Level III of my Shambhala training. at the very end of his last talk he encouraged us to "recognize when fear is the motive (which is 98% of the time), embrace the fear, go through the fear, come out the other side." many, many thanks for elaborating on this subject. your araticle is far beyond helpful.

robertomainetti's picture

greaat article...thank you very much....i love the definitions of buddha, dhamma, sangha...the taking care of fear...i liike to read it slow and practice at the same time...thank you

kh1044's picture

I was a fearful child; my mother often over-reacted to situations that she considered dangerous, and I took my cue from her. As I got older, I began to think of it in terms of "Fright" and "Fear". The dictionary may consider them the same thing, but my personal view holds "Fright" as the instinctive response to danger or threat. This is a good thing; it is what allows us as animals to survive. The quickening of the pulse, tightening of muscles, chemical reactions in the brain and body, heightening of the senses, and the "stop the world" phenomenon that makes time seem to slow down. It's all good, natural, and might be one reason why some combat veterans return to war.
"Fear", on the other hand, I regard as the debilitating state of "fright, un-faced". By refusing to acknowledge our fright, to see it for what it is, and to earn from our feelings and reactions about it, we become its prisoner. We live in a constant state of concern about the next time we will meet that thing that we fear, whether it be physical, mental, or spiritual. Nothing is so pinching to the spirit than to live in chains of our own creation.
I learned to free myself of Fear by examining my feelings about it, and deliberately courting the chance to face it. When I did that, I could see that Fear was just a feeling I had allowed to control me. By taking control of my response to those feelings, I mastered them. I am still frightened, at times, but the fright never has a chance to become Fear, because I understand that it is my choice, and I choose to be free.

buddhasukha's picture

I really appreciate this article. Next time I feel any negative emotion I will try this meditation. I will also try to remember to tell myself "It's only a feeling." That can be easy to forget!

Betsy's picture

I am one who experiences a lot of dukka around fear. I am grateful for this teaching of skillful means to deal with fear and anxiety. It is very reassuring and calming to remember these practices when fear arises, "I know this scenerio - don't panic - it looks impressive, but it's just the fear reaction."

Zoozyq's picture

Thank you, Amaro Bhikkhu, for this wisdom awakening gift. _/\_

mahamudra's picture

to be able to perceive that less is more and enough is enough and to sense the peace of truely being humble towards our own Fate

an amount of suffering might be a necessity
like climbing the mountain in order to obtain a view with heartmind
instead of compulsive separationism
so easilt intoxicated as we are by wester consumerism