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Fear & Fearlessness

I have had a few conversations recently about fear. This primal emotion seems to be working strongly in many people’s lives at the moment and is worth exploring.

So what is fear? It is an emotion, a complex thought that makes us act. It tries to make us act to defend ourselves against a perceived threat. It is one of our very primitive emotions that worked really well in the stone age but can cause us trouble in this modern complex age.

Buddhism has, over the years, tried to address this emotion so that we can understand it and not be overwhelmed by it. The relief from fear is one of the qualities that a Buddha can bring to the world and those they meet. So it is something that we, as Buddhists, should be exploring in our own experience and the experience of others around us; our friends, relatives and work colleagues.

It can be very easy to perceive everything around us as threatening – as a danger to life and limb. There is some truth in this view but on the whole our life is very safe. We live in a peaceful time, in a well ordered and well financed country. Even our work situations are governed by Health and Safety laws that protect us. This has not always been so. The 1939-45 war, in which a previous generation did fear for their lives, finished about 80 years ago. There have been many wars since then, some that this country has been involved in, but they have not directly impacted the people of Ipswich.

However, we still feel fear. For some of us this fear clouds our whole life, making it very difficult to function day to day. Just to complicate matters, we not only fear physical danger but we fear other experiences, such as being made a fool of, being made to feel shame or just getting things wrong.

So why do we let this primitive emotion take charge of our lives?

To some extent it is a product of how precious we view our life, how important we think we are, how unique we see ourselves. So we can see that fear (and other strong emotions) are a way of increasing our ego. The Buddha might describe it as one of our ‘house builders’, that build the sense of individual self. The Buddha’s goal is to stop this house-builder and Enlightenment, Nibbana, is freedom from this type of activity, freedom from fear and the passions of our emotions.

It is not easy to overcome fear. Our society, the media, in its many forms, uses fear to sell its wares. Fear seems to sell products better than anything else. Recently the fear of not having fuel for our cars led to an incredible rush to buy petrol and diesel, clearing the country’s stocks within a day. A marketing person’s dream.

Luckily, many of the Buddhist practises that we do, help us to gain a level of control of our fear and, if practised diligently, would lead to the eradication of fear from our lives. But that is probably a long way off for most of us. And so, when fear arises in our experience, we should be careful not to get caught up in its whirlwind that will drive our Wheel of Life round and round at an ever increasing pace.

Step back from the situation, meditate on it and try to get a more subjective view of that which is causing the arising of fear within your mind. Thinking a bit more about the Wheel of Life, we need to dwell in the ‘gap’, and feel the fear.

Fear is the driver of our ‘flight or fight’ response. This response is associated with a faster breathing rate so that our muscles have enough oxygen to do just that, fight or run. So when we notice our breath changing, maybe becoming faster and shallower, we can bring to mind our practice of the Mindfulness of Breathing and work with our breath, take a few deep breaths and begin to calm our minds.

A little bit of fear by itself is not too bad an emotion, it keeps us safe after all. But fear often has associated with it other strong emotions such as rage or anger, to answer the call for ‘fight’, and anxiety, helplessness and depression on the ‘flight’ side of the responses.

We can all too easily become stuck or function in a complete state of fear, constantly looking out for danger and seeing the negative side of every experience. If we are in this state then it will take us some while to free ourselves from this wrong view. We can start by meditating for short periods, to look at emotional responses, to talk with Buddhist friends and listen to their advice.

Fear, strangely, is also contagious. We are able to notice and sense fear in others and, therefore, we are more likely to adopt a position of fear ourselves. This is a useful quality if we are directly involved in a major disaster but not so useful in everyday life. This is the quality that makes us ‘panic-buy’ when we hear of something that will threaten our ability to do whatever it we feel we must do and cannot live without.

The Covid pandemic may have made many of us feel that life is full of danger and the world is no longer the safe place we may have once thought it was. We start to see danger around every corner and we can become disabled or overwhelmed by fear. We must learn to use fear to help us and not hinder us. So wearing a face mask, taking hygiene precautions because of the fear of catching and passing on the virus are sensible activities. However, we do not need to agonise continuously and become anxious about the current situation. Fear is a call to action and when we have taken the appropriate action we can dispense with the emotion of fear.

Fearlessness is also contagious. If we experience someone who is fearless we realise that we too can also become fearless. One of the three major types of Dana, or giving, is giving someone protection from fear. It’s the essence of the abhaya, the no-fear mudra. This is the famous gesture of the Buddha which you may have seen on a picture or statue of Buddha where he holds up his hand, palm out. This simple gesture expresses Buddhist fearlessness in profound simplicity.

If you are aware of the Five Buddha mandala you may know that the Buddha Amoghasiddhi represents fearlessness.

At what point does fear completely disappear? In the case of Shakyamuni Buddha, that happened at Bodhgaya under the Bodhi Tree when he achieved Enlightenment. When you become a Buddha, you become fearless. So the Enlightened Mind has no fear, those of us not Enlightened, can take refuge in the Buddha, take refuge in the Buddha’s quality of fearlessness, and continue our progress towards Enlightenment.

The Buddha talks directly about fear and fearlessness in the Abhaya Sutta. Here he addresses directly the fear of death, the root of all that which we fear. He gives examples of four types of people who are free of fear and four types who suffer from fear. It is interesting to hear that one of those fearless people that the Buddha describes has a strong ethical practise, that includes offering protection or support to those that feel fear.

If you are not familiar with this Sutta then it would be well worth your time to reflect on the Buddha’s words. You can read a translation of the Abhaya Sutta here:

However, we don’t have to wait until we are a Buddha, we can start to develop fearlessness now. Fearlessness also comes from kindness and goodwill in the face of whatever oppresses or scares you. You are afraid but, instead of fighting what faces you, you embrace it and accept it. You can develop loving-kindness as a direct antidote to fear.

Fear is about the future, a terrible future that you are predicting to happen. We don’t live in the future, we live in the present moment. If we can try to stick with the immediate situation we can reduce or even remove our fear.

When something keeps coming up in meditation, such as fear, that’s a signal that you need to deal with it. You need to process it. You need to process it thoroughly and fearlessly, to feel it and experience it, then let it go and come back to the moment.

So, to overcome fear and become fearless, we need to follow the Buddha’s advice; to practice the three-fold way of Meditation, Ethics and Wisdom and join those who are also practising in this way.

The next month at the Centre looks very interesting with many new opportunities to further your spiritual progress and reach that goal of fearlessness.

November 2021

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