The Roots of Fear

Last week I wrote about fear and that I had noticed a connection between my own thought process and fear reactions. The famous spiritual teacher Krishnamurti believed that thought was actually the cause of fear, that it was the proliferation of the mind when we encounter some danger that triggered out fearful responses. This does echo my experience to some extent, but my mind keeps going back to the cause of fear in the teachings – clinging. How does that process work?
There are several places in the teachings where we are given examples of how clinging causes fear, such as in this striking dialogue between the monk Adhimutta and the bandit chief who is planning to kill him:

“[The bandit chief:]
Those who
for the sake of sacrifice
for the sake of wealth
we have killed in the past,
against their will
have trembled & babbled
from fear.
But you —
you show no fear;
your complexion brightens.
Why don’t you lament
in the face of what’s greatly to be feared

[Ven. Adhimutta:]
There are no painful mental states, chieftain,
in one without longing.
In one whose fetters are ended,
all fears are overcome.
With the ending of [craving]
the guide to becoming,
when phenomena are seen
for what they are,
then just as in the laying down of a burden,
there’s no fear in death.”

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/thag/thag.16.01.than.html trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Intellectually it is easy to understand what Adhimutta is saying, he isn’t attached to any element of his physical or mental existence, so he has no reason to fear losing his life. But much as I understand this, when I try to relate to this at the point I am feeling fear, there is very little impact on what I am experiencing. This intrigues me though, because often a teaching will cut so incisively to the heart of an issue that simply having knowledge of the teaching is enough to make a dent in the problem, but this answer to fear didn’t even touch the sides. I wondered why that could be, and decided to do a little more investigating to see if I could find the connection between clinging and fear.

I found this small, obscure sutta uncovered by Bhikkhu Bodhi reassuring because it does at least indicate there is some kind of connection between fear and thoughts in the way that I experience them. Only eight lines long, the sutta finds a young god named Subrahma coming to the Buddha for advice about his own predicament with fear:

“Always anxious is this mind,
The mind is always agitated,
About problems present and future;
Please tell me the release from fear.”

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_37.html by Bhikkhu Bodhi

This is an experience I know I can relate to: the relentless churning of things to do, things to remember, things to not forget, memories, conversations, all kinds of noise going on over and over in our minds. We often put this down to the busy nature of our lives, and the pace and demands of the modern world, but here we find that Subrahma – who lives in one of the heavenly realms – seems to have the same problems that we do. In some ways this is an important detail, because it invites us to consider the possibility that the pressures of our external circumstances might not be the main reason for our stresses. If a god living a life of bliss in a heavenly realm can still have the same experience of fears and anxieties as we can, then it suggests that the fundamental issue must be something other than the grind of a hard life. In the Buddha’s reply to Subrahma though he doesn’t say anything about thoughts, but instead reiterates the message that clinging is the problem:

“Not apart from awakening and austerity,
Not apart from sense restraint,
Not apart from relinquishing all,
Do I see any safety for living beings.”

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_37.html by Bhikkhu Bodhi

While he doesn’t say clearly that clinging is the reason for the distress, the Buddha is suggesting a solution that is clearly designed to tackle clinging. It is only by relinquishing – letting go – that he can see it is possible for beings to feel safe, without any fear. The logic is that when we are attached to something we don’t want to let it go, and our fears come up in response to the possibility that we will either lose the thing that we have got, or not get the thing that we want. And those ‘things’, as Bhikkhu Bodhi points out, aren’t just limited to material possessions:

“Asleep in the deep night of ignorance, we cling to our possessions, our loved ones, our position and status; and most tenaciously of all, we cling to these “five aggregates” of form, feeling, perception, volitional activity, and consciousness, taking them to be permanent, pleasurable, and a truly existent self.”

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_37.html

We can potentially cling to everything that we know through our senses, including our senses themselves, and of course in Buddhist psychology the mind is also treated as a sense, so this includes the contents of our thoughts too. Ideas like position and status, our reputation, our friendships and relationships, can become sources of clinging too if we have a fixed idea about how we want them to be. If you want to be popular with everyone then anything that might threaten that – such as what someone might think about you – can be translated into a fear over not getting what you want – which is to be popular.

With this array of things to cling to uncovered, I decided to do a bit of an experiment to look more closely at the thoughts that came up in my mind, and to see if I could trace back what the underlying driving force behind them was, looking for any connections with clinging and/or fear. For the sake of simplicity, I chose to treat every thought that came up in my mind as an erroneous one. Yes I could have filtered out ‘useful’ thoughts but this can get a bit cumbersome at times, so to keep the operation straightforward I just lumped every thought into the ‘clinging/fear’ category. Whether any of my thoughts actually are useful is an entirely different question, but I trust in whatever brings important things to mind that if there is a pressing matter that it will flag it up to me again. As a thought popped into my mind, I immediately corralled it into the ‘clinging/fear’ category, which helped to stop me from getting distracted by the tone or content of the thought, and allowed me to treat it as an object for my investigation.

For each thought I asked myself if there were any feelings of fear or disquiet accompanying it, and any way that this thought could be connected to me wanting something or not wanting something. Interestingly enough, in this particular experiment I found that just about every thought I had could be traced back to a wish to have something (chocolate, money, holidays, an identity, etc.), a wish to have something be a particular way (I want this to be easy, quick, real), a wish to not have something (problems, fear, a big bill), or a wish for something to not turn out a particular way (badly, slowly, messily, dangerously). Not only did I find that my thoughts were fairly preoccupied with clinging in various different ways, I also saw that each of these thoughts was either accompanied by out and out fear, anxiety of differing levels, or a more subtle feeling of something being at risk. This made sense of the feeling I had last week that there were feelings of fear lurking around in every aspect of my life; even having a poor meditation posture was sparking off fear reactions and I can now see why. Either the issue is that I am clinging to being comfortable in meditation and don’t want to be in pain, or I don’t want to be uncomfortable so I try to wriggle away from anything that might cause that, or both.

Although many times these fears and anxieties didn’t come with a perceptible physical response, they did stimulate streams of thoughts, and I found that as I went on with my experiment that all I needed to do was to pay attention to the thoughts because almost all of them would be found to have some kind of feeling of risk of losing something at the heart of them. I still felt like I needed to unpack the teachings a bit more at that point though, because even though I had found a clear connection between wanting things to go my way and feelings of fear, I still didn’t quite see fully how wanting something could translate into fear and anxiety. But when I considered the issue through the lens of the chain of dependent origination I found a way in to the matter: clinging is caused by craving, and me wanting things to be a certain way is craving.

Now craving has a very important place in Buddhist teachings, because in the second of the Four Noble Truths it states that craving is the cause of dukkha, a multifaceted word that gets translated as suffering, stress, or unsatisfactoriness. What makes it all the more important is that the Buddha described the purpose of his teachings as being only for the ending of suffering, so understanding craving is at the heart of freedom from suffering.

The Buddha, in his description of dukkha, gives us this familiar list of examples of what dukkha is and when we might experience it:


“Now this, monks, is the Noble Truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.”

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.than.html trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

The two categories I felt were most relevant to my investigation of fear and clinging are association with the unbeloved and separation from the loved. Bear in mind that this doesn’t only mean people we like and dislike, but it also refers to anything that we like or dislike:

“And what is the stress of association with the unbeloved? There is the case where undesirable, unpleasing, unattractive sights, sounds, aromas, flavors, or tactile sensations occur to one; or one has connection, contact, relationship, interaction with those who wish one ill, who wish for one’s harm, who wish for one’s discomfort, who wish one no security from the yoke. This is called the stress of association with the unbeloved.

“And what is the stress of separation from the loved? There is the case where desirable, pleasing, attractive sights, sounds, aromas, flavors, or tactile sensations do not occur to one; or one has no connection, no contact, no relationship, no interaction with those who wish one well, who wish for one’s benefit, who wish for one’s comfort, who wish one security from the yoke, nor with one’s mother, father, brother, sister, friends, companions, or relatives. This is called the stress of separation from the loved.”

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.141.than.html trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

I think it is important to note that these types of experience listed above do create a stress in us, a tension between what we want and what we have actually got. This tension brings up a feeling of discomfort in us, sometimes a very obvious one but sometimes a very subtle one. It is this feeling of discomfort that we react against, and that is where our clinging comes from. We only want pleasant feelings and we want to avoid unpleasant feelings, so we cling, grasp, and grab desperately at anything that might stop us from feeling discomfort. Unpleasant feelings in themselves are not the cause of dukkha though, it is wanting pleasant feelings but getting unpleasant ones instead that makes it an experience of dukkha. This is neatly captured in one of my favourite ways of understanding this feeling in experiences of dukkha, in Leigh Brassington’s interpretation of dukkha being ‘a bummer’, because it really underscores that dukkha isn’t the thing that happened but the fact that you didn’t want it to happen, and it leaves you feeling ‘bummed out’.
So with this discomfort caused by not getting what you want in mind, I now felt I could see some of the connections between fear and clinging a little better. When we crave things we always run the risk of experiencing dukkha, and it is the fear of dukkha that pushes us into using clinging behaviours in the hope that we can increase the chances of getting the thing that we crave and reduce the chances of experiencing the discomfort of dukkha. The more we fear dukkha, the more we will try to avoid it; our clinging will increase and so will our feelings of fear.
But Bhikkhu Bodhi gives a good description of how dukkha goes beyond just a feeling of discomfort and works its way into our behaviours and attitudes :


“It [dukkha] appears again in our inner reactions to disagreeable situations and events: in the sorrow, anger, frustration, and fear aroused by painful separations, by unpleasant encounters, by the failure to get what we want… Our lives, for the most part, are strung out between the thirst for pleasure and the fear of pain. We pass our days running after the one and running away from the other…”

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/waytoend.html by Bhikkhu Bodhi

When I look at Bhikkhu Bodhi’s list of reactions caused ultimately by the desire to avoid dukkha, I have a better appreciation of why the suttas treat fear as being more like a symptom than as being the problem itself. In that context, focusing on trying to deal with fear directly could be seen as being like taking a remedy for the common cold – the ingredients in these medicines don’t cure the cold, they only treat the symptoms. We can try to tackle our fears head on, but, like the cold remedy, while it may help to make us feel better temporarily it isn’t really dealing with what is causing the problem.


Initially I had wondered why craving wasn’t the cause of fear, but I think I can understand why clinging is the more pertinent cause. Craving on its own doesn’t have to cause fear, it is possible to tolerate the discomfort of craving, as any ex-smoker can attest to, without it bringing up any feelings of fear. But when we won’t accept the discomfort, that is when we start flailing and clinging, and once we have started clinging, the concern at not getting what we want has morphed into fear.
Much of the work we do in practice is around being able to tolerate feelings of discomfort, and in this context I can see why that is such an important skill to cultivate. In the beginning of our practice it can help us to step back from clinging, by being more able to accept things not turning out the way that we wanted them to. Then it can help us to tolerate the discomfort of craving, without spinning off into unhelpful and unskilful responses. Then eventually it can help to release us from the clutches of dukkha completely, when we can remain untroubled by unpleasant feelings and no longer feel the need to try to avoid them.


This whole investigation started several weeks ago when I uncovered the action of my fearful responses to feelings of fear, so this way of understanding the dukkha-clinging-fear process kind of completes the circle. The fearful responses I had to fear were the clinging stage; me being able to sit with the feeling of fear was letting go of the clinging and tolerating the dukkha that comes with craving. The feelings of fear will only be fully uprooted when I have no mental resistance to unpleasant feeling, and that comes with enlightenment so I am not expecting it to happen any time soon. But it still leaves me with some useful directions on how to work with my fears, because I can see how much of a role being unwilling to tolerate discomfort has to play in it. Many of my fears seemed overwhelming, but little by little I have been able to unpick some of them, and the more I understand about the interplay between craving, dukkha, discomfort, clinging and fear, the more I can see that it might be possible to unravel a few more of my knottiest issues.

Photo by Emma Gossett on Unsplash

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