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Rev. Zesho Susan O'Connell

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What Are You Afraid Of? Cultivating Fearlessness In Buddhism

Posted: 11/08/11 05:01 PM ET

I have been in many meetings over the past several months where the phrase "I am worried about..." seems to be quite popular -- almost a default expression for some people. What I notice when this phrase is used is that is has a strong effect on my energy. It feels like dropping an anvil on my buoyancy.

Although there are some fears that seem wholesome -- the fear of hurting others, the fear of death or injury that encourages us to put on our seatbelts, etc. -- I believe that it is hardly ever helpful to dwell in fear or to spend more that an initial few moments breathing into it. However, to deny all fears, is just another way of providing distance from fears. Am I really fearless if I am not intimate with my fear?

I have a history of acting "fearlessly," developed by early childhood physical challenges, including many surgeries. But as I have studied the strong reactions I am having to other people's expressions of fear, I have come to see that I am not immune. I also am afraid, and what I am afraid of is fear itself. Having spent a couple of childhood years in a full body cast, I am afraid of the paralysis that extreme fear can cause. I notice that in order to avoid the anxiety of uncertainty in a situation, I will move quickly to solutions. This is how I know I am not intimate with my fear.

None of us are immune to fear. Indeed, the Buddha taught that, at the base, all beings experience a state of anxiety, fed by our habit of resisting the impermanence of our existence.

So how does this align with the Buddhist teaching of offering fearlessness to others? What exactly is fear? What is fearlessness? According to the Abhidharma-Kosa, fear is an unwholesome state of infatuation. Another definition is: thinking vividly about what we don't want to happen in the future or dwelling on an unhappy past event. Fear is a mental attempt to control a negative outcome. And I would add that, to me, "worry" is the shark fin of fear.

What are the teachings about antidotes to fear? To genuinely free the mind from fear, we can't simply deny that there's any reason for fear. We have to overcome the cause of fear, the delusion that makes fear unskillful -- the delusion that we are unchanging beings who need to protect ourselves from what we are separate from. This is both a spiritual and a practical exercise, for if we obsess over non-existent or trivial dangers, we'll squander time and energy building up useless defenses, diverting our attention from genuine threats.

In order to overcome our delusions around fear we need to practice both calming and insight: samatha and vipassana.

Samatha is practiced in the Zen tradition as "radical acceptance." Here is a Zen story about this state of mind: A fierce and terrifying band of samurai was riding through the countryside, bringing fear and harm wherever they went. As they were approaching one particular town, all the monks in the town's monastery fled, except for the abbot. When the band of warriors entered the monastery, they found the abbot sitting at the front of the shrine room in perfect posture. The fierce leader took out his sword and said, "Don't you know who I am? Don't you know that I'm the sort of person who could run you through with my sword without batting an eye?" The Zen master responded, "And I, sir, am the sort of man who could be run through by a sword without batting an eye."

Radical acceptance is supported by vipassana: the insight into and confidence in adaptability.

Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard says that "worry is a misuse of he imagination." In his essay on fearlessness he proposes the several ways to constructively use this very same imagination in insightful and adaptive ways: accept the facts with realism; know that we can always do better, that we can limit the damage, find an alternative, and rebuild what has been destroyed; take the current situation as the starting point; know how to rapidly identify the positive in adversity; be free of regret. All of this can be easily discerned against the background of a serene mind.

Fear is the starting point of fearlessness. Do not try to cast it out; rather, as Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche said, regard fear as the kindling to build a big fire of fearlessness.

Fearlessness is not the absence or denial of fear, it is intimacy with fear. What are you afraid of?

 

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