Confronting Fear

Salton Sea, rusted bike.

Salton Sea, rusted bike.

There is a guy amongst my acquaintances whose stated ambition as a runner (and perhaps as a man) is “To crush fear in all its forms”.

While it might work for him, it seems to me to be the wrong approach to take when confronting fear.

I’m not interested in crushing or otherwise defeating fear. I’m not interested in being in a contest with it. I would rather embrace it, welcome it into the family, and teach it not to be afraid.

I don’t see the benefit in engaging in conflicts. I always wince a little when I hear people talk about being “spiritual warriors”. I would prefer not to be a warrior. I don’t really subscribe to “the best defense is a good offense” or the doctrine of preemptive strike or any of that fight stuff. Perhaps I just wasn’t born with that particular variation of the gung-ho gene.

Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn says about fear “When you shine the light, darkness disappears. We may understand this as a kind of fight between light and darkness, but in reality, it is an embrace. Mindfulness, if practiced continuously, will be strong enough to embrace your fear or anger and transform it. We need not chase away evil. We can embrace and transform it in a nonviolent, nondualistic way.”

The idea is not to declare war upon my fear but have an active and abiding transformative peace with it. “I would not look upon anger as something foreign to me that I have to fight,” says Thich Nhat Hahn. “I have to deal with my anger with care, with love, with tenderness, with nonviolence.”

Engaging in battle with myself is counter productive to anything and everything. To be at war with myself is to suffer, and as much as there is a goal to Buddhist practice, that goal is the cessation of suffering, and a fundamental tool towards that end is equanimity, or acceptance. Equanimity is a state of mental or emotional stability or composure arising from a deep awareness and acceptance of the present moment. The Buddha described a mind filled with equanimity as “abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill-will.”

Crushing fear indicates a hostility incompatible with equanimity. To attempt to crush fear is to be at war with oneself, and that can only lead in one direction: down the toilet. I’m not trying to go deeper into that place. I am working to come out it.

When I run trails I am not in conflict with the trail. It’s not a contest between the trail and me. My success is not when I fight the trail but when I stop fighting and work with it. Let’s face a few facts here: the trail is nature. Man has been trying to fight, to tame, to master nature since the cave man days. But nature is much, much bigger than we are. If you doubt that and still think that man with all our wisdom and resources can defeat nature, you should head out to the Salton Sea and take a look around at what just 40 years ago was heralded as the city of the future.

Nature won. Nature always wins. Of course it will always win. Nature is much bigger than me, and I am a part of it.

The idea of man versus nature requires a separation of the two. Is it really reasonable to think that I am distinct and separate from nature? Typically, when we think of nature we include birds, snakes, lizards, wild animals – other sentient beings that have resisted domestication. We exclude pets & livestock. Pets and livestock are on our side of the fence, often literally. But that’s a purely arbitrary distinction. When we get outside of the man made world of concepts and enter reality, we realize we are a part of nature.

I try to do with fear and anger the same thing I try to do with pain.

If I feel the throbbing pain of (perhaps) exhaustion when I run, my success is not from ignoring the pain and pretending it will go away but to observe it with curiosity and without judgment. I don’t run though it as though it’s an external obstacle I can muscle through physically and/or mentally. Instead, I feel the pain throb. I feel the sensations move through my legs. I witness the flow of the sensations. I become engaged by these sensations. They are interesting, and maybe even entertaining. Now lets be clear: the pain does not go away just because I am engaged with it and maybe even entertained by it. The pain is still there. But as long as I don’t fight the pain or judge the pain, I don’t suffer from it. And if I neither give in to fear or fight it, I don’t suffer from it either.

Pain is not a bad thing. Suffering from pain is what’s bad. Fear is not a bad thing. Suffering from fear is what’s bad.

And so I really am not interested in crushing my fear, and I’d suggest that others avoid this approach as well. As long as my mindset is battle, as long as it’s me against whatever-it-is-I’m-fighting-against, as long as I have this crazy notion of such separation that I can actually separate from and fight with parts of my own self, as long as I live a life that involves being at war with reality, I’m going to suffer.

I’ve got better things to do than suffer.

2 replies
  1. Logan
    Logan says:

    That is some serious food for thought. I did drop that goal, as the conflict left me weak and lost. I decided I would rather tire from physical activity and mental pursuit rather than continue to wage war in a struggle with no possibility for “victory”. I still have fears, but there are things I am no longer afraid of.

  2. Geoff
    Geoff says:

    I’m throwing down the Buddhist basics, again. Part of the idea is to eliminate the distinction/barrier between the self and the “outside”, and to stop cultivating the much more western idea of separateness.

    We spend a lot of time fighting things. The voices in our heads, for example – the ones that fuel the self doubt so many of us have. There’s a specific meditation in which, (in the beginning) you just observe, listening to the voices without engaging. And at some point we recognize them as the incessant chatter of the mind and not anything that has meaning or is to be believed. At that point, the voices often seem to abate.

    The idea of meditation is not necessarily to bliss out by silencing the mind – in fact in a mindfulness practice the idea is to be attentive to reality rather than escape or silence reality. And so many of the things we find so troublesome and find ourselves in conflict with often just need to be understood with clarity – a clarity that strips them of much of their power to disturb – and, basically, befriended.


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