Fear of Fear Itself

You might recognise the title of this week’s blog as paraphrasing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous line that he delivered it in his presidential inauguration speech in 1933, in reference to the challenges facing America as the Great Depression reached its lowest point:

“…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5057

The fact that this statement still resonates nearly 100 years later points to it being more than just a well used sound bite; it has a timeless element of truth in it that we can recognise intuitively.
This quote came to mind for me recently when I found myself dealing with a situation that brought up a lot of strong feelings of fear, but once I dug deeper into the experience I found that one of the biggest elements at play was that I was having fearful reactions to the feelings of fear themselves. You might remember my post earlier this year, “The sound of not so silent”, where I explained my long standing experiences of something that could be described like misophonia, a strong reaction to particular trigger sounds. I hadn’t cured myself of the problem at that point, but I had found myself much more able to tolerate background noise up to a certain level. Well, the building work next door is almost finished, but my neighbour across the road is now doing some building at the weekend, a DIY job on his garage, so the opportunity to practice with it isn’t over yet.

One Sunday I was sitting meditating and heard a radio going on, it was indeed the neighbour across the road and his brickie friend getting set up. Being a DIY job, he probably wasn’t as used to getting told to turn the radio down as professional builders were so his radio was louder than I had gotten used to. The physical reaction to it was instantaneous, my kidneys gripped tight, my heart rate picked up, my body became restless. For reasons I won’t explain right now, finishing this meditation early or sloping off to a quieter room wasn’t an option on this day though – I really needed to find a way to finish the sit if I could. This was useful in itself because it forced me to stay put in a situation that I would normally have ducked out of at the first opportunity, but it certainly didn’t make it any easier to work with. I struggled through the feelings of wanting to escape from the situation for a while, but managed to keep myself on the cushion.

I knew that I was going to have to deal with it somehow, so I turned my mind to investigating the experience. Behind the annoyance at the disturbance, the stories about how unreasonable it all was at 8.30am on a Sunday, about how long it might last, I recognised – as I had previously in my earlier post – that there was a fear reaction to the sound. This time I thought about why I might have reasons to have fearful reactions to sound, and I uncovered a lot of different memories; there were a lot of experiences in my life which associated sound – particularly music – with reasons to be alert to danger. But somewhere in the middle of understanding these memories I had a sudden shift in my awareness, instead of focusing on the sound my attention went onto the actual feeling of fear. I realised that it wasn’t the phenomenon of the sound itself that I was reacting to, it was the feeling of fear that it had triggered. In my mind I said to myself, “oh, all of this is a fear reaction”. Up until that point if you had asked me what the problem was that was causing me distress, I would have said the sound from my neighbour’s radio, but once my awareness shifted I saw the problem causing my distress was this fear reaction.

In a split second after that insight, I then realised that the wider problem was that I was reacting fearfully to the fear reaction; once the first feeling of fear kicked up then the rest of it was me mentally thrashing about trying to get away from it. The disorientation was being caused by the panicked mind running through its dread script: “I can’t take this, I can’t last it out, I can’t handle it, what will happen if I can’t handle it, when will it stop? What if it never stops? What if I am like this forever?” It was this feeling of being ungrounded, of the mind spinning and the body reacting to it, that was actually more distressing than the initial fear reaction that started it all. These two insights put together were immensely empowering, suddenly I was able to separate out the reaction to the sound from my fear reaction to it, and from my consequent panicked reactions to the feelings of fear. What was really powerful about this was that two of these issues were pure sensation – the fear reaction, and the subsequent reaction to it – and dealing with pure sensation is the bread and butter of Buddhist practice. Once I had the two sensations isolated, then all I had to do was to sit through them and let them change on their own, just the same as dealing with a sore knee in meditation, or an errant thought. And that part was surprisingly easy, given how strong the feelings of fear had been. As I sat with them, they just melted away, in the same way as any other sensation.

Now I hope you know that I am not going to now say “and so all you need to do to get through your fears is to sit through them”, because you can see that it wasn’t that simple. I was just sitting through the sound of the radio to begin with, and that on its own didn’t change the situation. Even all the work I had done up to that point wasn’t enough to stop the fear reaction from coming up, it still needed a lot more investigation until I finally got to the point where I just had a sensation to deal with. Then, and only then, was the solution to just sit through it. Getting to that point is a very personal process, what triggers me is unlikely to be what triggers you, and what works for me is therefore not guaranteed to be what works for you. I’ve written previously that fear doesn’t get much coverage in the Pali suttas. The Buddha gives little time to it as a specific issue, and his Dhamma talk “Fear” [1], Thanissaro Bhikkhu suggests that the reason for the lack of teachings on fear is that the focus was more on the emotions that were behind the fears rather than the fears themselves. There are multiple reasons for feeling fear, so to tackle the issue it isn’t possible to give a one size fits all solution; instead we have to do some work ourselves to find out just what emotions are driving our fear, and then we can apply an appropriate response:

“You have to analyze fear not as a single, solid thing, but as a compound of many different factors, to see which part of the fear is dependent on the greed or passion, which part is dependent on the aversion, and which part is dependent on the delusion. Then, when you’ve taken care of the underlying emotions, you’ve taken care of the fear.”

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/meditations.html#fears by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

The teachings tell us that the root cause of fear is clinging, but quite how this will manifest can be quite different, and when you are in the middle of feeling fear someone telling you “it’s okay, it’s just clinging”, will do nothing to change how you feel. What the Buddha does instead is to get us to look at those more immediate feelings like confusion, anger, terror, weakness, and to deal with them, because it is our deluded responses to those that perpetuate the problem. Mindfulness is crucial in this because:

“…it teaches us to focus our attention, not on the object of our fear, but on the fear in and of itself as a mental event, something we can watch from the outside rather [than] jumping in and going along for a ride.”

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/fear.html by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

This, it seems, was what had been creating a lot of the problem for me; once a feeling of fear had arisen I was being taken for a ride by it, and not a ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ ride either but a scary rollercoaster of a ride. But for me there was also an extra layer, I found out that most of the aversion I had was to the feeling of fear that the rollercoaster brought up, so it was actually this secondary reaction that was sending me into a tizzy.

The Buddha did speak of his own practice with fear before he was enlightened in MN4, the Bhayabherava Sutta. He explains how he worked with his feelings of fear when he would stay in the forest:

“while I dwelt there, a wild animal would come up to me, or a peacock would knock off a branch, or the wind would rustle the leaves. I thought: ‘What now if this is the fear and dread coming?’ I thought: ‘Why do I dwell always expecting fear and dread? What if I subdue that fear and dread while keeping the same posture that I am in when it comes upon me?’

“While I walked, the fear and dread came upon me; I neither stood nor sat nor lay down till I had subdued that fear and dread. While I stood, the fear and dread came upon me; I neither walked nor sat nor lay down till I had subdued that fear and dread. While I sat, the fear and dread came upon me; I neither walked nor stood nor lay down till I had subdued that fear and dread. While I lay down, the fear and dread came upon me; I neither walked nor stood nor sat down till I had subdued that fear and dread.”

https://suttacentral.net/mn4/en/bodhi trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi

It’s a bit of a blink and you’ll miss it direction, but what the Buddha is showing us is that the solution to fear is to try to stay with it until it subsides. Whatever posture he was in when the fear came over him, he stayed in that posture until the fear had gone away again. He didn’t do anything to try to escape from it, he just stayed with it, and allowed it to come to an end naturally. He was already an advanced practitioner by that point, so he was able to see the experiences for what they were. Once I was able to see what was really going in my experience, I too was able to just stay with it until it went away.

I did find some interesting things after the fear had melted away that I wouldn’t have predicted. I always thought that loud sounds were somehow imbued with the quality of ‘annoying-ness’, and therefore thought that the issue was that I had to learn how to deal with annoyances; I felt like my threshold was just set much lower than everyone else’s and that’s why I was so bothered by it. But after the fear response had subsided, my experience of the sound was that it had no real properties in it at all – it was just sound. Not only that, but the sound of the radio that had been absolutely front and centre in my attention was now pushed back into the over all soundscape of my environment, and actually it wasn’t the loudest sound around me at all. The whirr of my computer fan was actually louder in terms of decibels than my neighbour’s radio was, and I found that I could switch my attention between all the different sounds around me in a way that had been impossible before – the sound of the radio would always pull my attention straight back to it. I found this really fascinating, and somewhat disconcerting, because it showed me that fear had completely warped my perspective. Once the fear had kicked in then I couldn’t see or hear reality at all, the fear totally distorted the picture coming back from my sensory inputs and made a fairly quiet sound the loudest thing I could hear. It made me wonder how much of the real picture I had been missing out on, and how much my fears were being driven by these distorted perceptions rather than the things that caused the fear themselves. What does the world really look like, I wondered?

A few days later I was reluctantly trying to coax myself into a moderately cold shower, and my mind had a lot to say about it. For some reason it was convinced that today I couldn’t handle it, even though it was the same process I went through every day and nothing was otherwise different. After a few goes at pep talking myself into it, it occurred to me that this experience too was being driven by a fear reaction, just like my response to the neighbour’s radio. But again it wasn’t a fear reaction to the cold water, it was a fear reaction to that initial fear reaction. It had all the same hallmarks – the restless mind, the sense of ‘I can’t handle it’, the feeling of being in a spin; this is what I was really reacting to. I got myself into the shower and tested my hypothesis, as I turned the temperature down I watched for that fear reaction, and I found it. As before with the radio, as soon as I could see my experience for what it was – a fear reaction to a fear reaction – that changed the whole thing, and with the sensation of fear separated from both the initial trigger and the fear reaction it created I was able to let the feeling subside quite easily. Just as before with the sound of the radio, I found that the actual sensation of the cold water had nothing fearful in it, it was just cold water, all the fear had been coming from my mind again.

Later I was sitting in meditation, by now I was starting to look out for that particular combination of spinning mind and stories about not being able to handle it, and it wasn’t long before I spotted it again; this time I realised it was because my leg was starting to go numb. I had never really made an association between fear and my meditation posture before, but I could see really clearly that this was exactly the same type of fear response to a fear response as in both of the previous situations. It seemed that on some level ultimately I was scared of not being able to tolerate the discomfort thats feelings of fear created; and this reaction was one that was actually coming up all the time in meditation. I realised that it was the driving force behind those occasional urges to look at the clock in meditation, ‘in case the timer isn’t working’; it was behind the wriggling and restlessness when my meditation posture wasn’t quite right; behind asking myself ‘how long have I been sitting? How long is left?’ Once I had uncovered how common it was for me to have these reactions, I realised that pretty much every time there was some kind of mental noise or proliferation going on I could mostly trace back to a fear reaction of some sort. Even as I watched the breath I was able to pick up a subtle anxiety between the end of an exhale and the start of the next inhale, a craving for more air, and a stream of thoughts that sparked into life off the back of it.

What I found off the back of these insights was that it was much easier for me to sit still in my meditation. I’ve always had a bit of a dodgy back and struggled to get my spine to align in just the right way, I assumed that my inability to stay in the same position for more than 15 minutes was because of that. And I do still think it was a contributing factor; I’ve done a lot of work since my operation at the start of the year to roll my shoulders back and straighten my posture which has undoubtedly made some improvements, but until I made the connection between fearful reactions to the thought of not being able to tolerate the discomfort of a bad posture I was still prone to fidgeting and rearranging myself. But now I align myself as well as I can at the start of the meditation, and I haven’t felt the need to move after that except to pull myself up a bit if I have started slouching. If I get numbness in my legs I don’t interfere with it, I just watch out for any fear reaction and I deal with that instead. If I get any feelings of restlessness I know to look for a fear reaction and once I find it I deal with that instead of poking about at the restless feelings.

I keep finding these fear reactions over and over again, lurking in every corner of my life, both in the sublime aspects and the utterly mundane. But these aren’t out in the open phobias or conscious anxieties, like being scared of spiders or misophonia, these are subtle little niggles, little nudges of aversion away from something and towards something else. When I don’t look closely enough I just hear a stream of thought, and when I am not being mindful enough I can find myself blindly following those thoughts. What I can now see is that for me some of those thoughts are just a symptom of something else, and when I am able to step back for a moment and see that then the situation changes very quickly. I’m not going to say that I think all thoughts are just fear reactions, because I don’t know if that is the case or not, but I can certainly see that a lot of particular types of thoughts have their roots in feelings of fear and anxiety. It has been an illuminating experience for me, but one that has only just begun, there is a lot more to be uncovered I’m sure.

Photo by blueberry Maki on Unsplash

[1] https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/meditations.html#fears from Meditations 1, Forty Dhamma Talks by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

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