Conquering Fear


By Jayaram V

Fear is the natural, emotional and instinctive response to a perceived or imaginary threat. It is expressed or experienced as an emotional reaction towards something such as a person, animal, object, activity or situation. It is the single most important emotion experienced by us as well as the animals, especially those with well-developed nervous system.

Fear is an expression of our self-preservation instinct. Its purpose is to serve as a warning signal in the face of danger and instability and induce the subject either to face it or avoid it. Fear is also used in nature by both animals and men to establish dominance over others or force others into subjugation. Fear is both instinctive and learned. Our experience of pain and suffering teaches us to learn defensive ways in which we can deal with fearful situations and our memories associated with them.

We experience fears both physically and mentally. Comparatively, our mental experience of fears is more problematic because it can be triggered by our imagination rather than actual events with its ripple effects being felt in our bodies also. In some ways, fear serves both as the cause and the effect. Our fears feed upon one another and perpetuate themselves. They take on many disguises and may become mixed up with other feelings and emotions in our consciousness so deeply that we may find the task of resolving our deep-rooted fears very challenging and time consuming.

Fear As The Driving Force

Fear is perhaps the single most important factor responsible for the development of our civilization. Our civilization is a product of our collective effort, guided by our larger vision of self-preservation through social contract. Our fear of the unknown, of the perils of nature, of the insecurities of forest life and of being alone and vulnerable, led to the emergence of communities and civilized life and all the good things that came out of them, including the orderly society in which we live today with a certain degree of freedom, dignity and feelings of security. In the earlier days, the kings and rulers managed their subjects through fear of authority and fear of God. The fear of punishment and public disapproval continue to be major deterrents, without which orderly maintaining law and order in our society would not have been possible.

Fear is the most dominant under current in our consciousness. Most of our thoughts and actions are induced by it. In fact there is no exaggeration in saying that we spend our whole lives in trying to cope with our fears and in finding effective remedies or defenses against it. We can trace our successes and achievements, our behavior and responses, our relationships and interactions directly to the fears and anxieties hidden in us. Fears can either make or break us. Depending upon how we react to them, our fears may act either as destabilizing or motivating factors in our lives.

We are prisoners of our own fears. We are bound to them and limited by them. What we do and what we achieve in our lives are defined by our fears and our ability to cope with them. Our lives are but dramas written and enacted according to our fears and feelings of insecurity. Our dreams, aspirations, achievements and talents are shaped and hewn in the furnace of our fears. They are bound to them, like a boat to its rudder. In our anxiety to find stability and security in our lives, we indulge in various actions and inactions. We cultivate certain attitudes, beliefs, prejudices, thoughts and behavioral tendencies, which define what we are, what we do and who we are. We control and regulate our lives and of others and resolve our vulnerabilities in a world and a reality that is impermanent, unreliable, ever changing and in many ways incongruous. We create plans to deal with a future that defies certainty. We become egoistic, aggressively selfish and self-centered, sacrificing our values upon which rests the integrity and continuity of our world. We build walls of defense all around us, from which we rarely find ourselves free. We create a structured life, which in the end leads us to the very situation from which we wanted to escape at the outset.

The Manifestations of Fear

Fear manifests itself in various ways. Fear is responsible for personality disorders and abnormal or subnormal behavior among people. Some of the problems arising out of fear are: anxiety and nervousness, panic attacks, feeling stress, lack of confidence, aversion to people and places, introversion, inferiority complex, timidity, shyness, hesitation and lack of initiative and so on. Fear induces negative responses and negative feelings such as avoidance, withdrawal, neurosis, low self-esteem, inadequacy, timidity, conformity, aggression etc. Fearful people tend to avoid facing problems and situations that are emotionally upsetting, resulting in procrastination, silence, pretension, falsification, guilt, blaming others etc. Sometimes fear may manifest itself as aggressive tendencies, as a defensive and subconscious reaction against intense fear. Aggressive people are usually timid people.

Types of Fears

Fears can be either simple fears, which most of us experience in our day-to-day lives, or more intense fears caused by extreme conditions and situations, which expose us to intense danger or insecurity or phobias which are deep rooted, persistent, irrational and unrealistic fears of particular objects and situations, grounded in our past and usually independent of our current reality. Some examples of phobias are fear of darkness, of crowded places or of heights and o narrow spaces. Fear knows no age. We experience different fears during different phases of our lives. As time goes by, we may leave behind some old fears and acquire new ones. Fear in its extreme form assume the shape of terror, an emotion that is often used by people to coerce and control others. In the mythology of the world terror is associated with evil, and evil characters using terror in order to achieve their ends.

The Causes of Our Fears

While phobias are caused by some experiences rooted in one's past, the following factors are usually responsible for the more ordinary fears.

  1. Intense situations. People suffer from fear and anxiety when they are exposed to some extreme physical stimuli such as severe cold, or high temperatures or a hostile terrain that is unsafe and dangerous.
  2. Unfamiliarity. We are usually anxious and distrustful of things about which we have no previous knowledge. People are usually afraid of the unknown, the inexplicable and the unfamiliar.
  3. Lack of information. When we do not have sufficient information about an event or situation, we suffer from feelings of anxiety and fear depending upon how important the information is.
  4. Uncertainty. People who are familiar with the stock markets know how uncertainty causes volatility in stock prices. Uncertainty produces anxiety and fear, the reason why many people seek astrologers and fortune tellers to feel comfortable about their future.
  5. Past experiences. Many fears of ours are learned from our past, from our own experiences or from those of others. If we find ourselves in situations where we experienced fear before and have not been unable to resolve them, we will experience fear repeatedly.

The Spiritual Dimension of Fear

From a spiritual perspective, fear is an indication of egoism and lack of trust in oneself and in God. When we believe that we are all alone in the universe and that we have to face the hurdles of life all by ourselves in a competitive environment in which we are uncertain of our future, we suffer from anxiety, fear and uncertainty. It puts great burden on us, physically and mentally, and subjects us to stress. This is the burden of a non-believer who wants to travel all the way through the dark tunnels of life all by himself, which requires great strength and character that are rare to find. As the Bhagavadgita emphasizes time and again, when we believe that we are the doers of our works and are the rightful owners of our possessions and achievements, we take upon ourselves a great karmic burden and the pain and suffering that come with it. The greatest fear of an egoist, atheist or agnostic who believes in himself but not truly in a higher power, is the fear of death and of the emptiness and nothingness that may possibly comes with it. People who entertain such views about themselves and about God cope with such fears by not thinking about them or by making themselves busy in the illusion of activity or some life purpose. Belief in eternity and unity with God is a hope and a possibility that soothes and comforts, but denied to us if we come to accept our sensory reality as the only reality and our existence but a brief interlude between birth and death.

Our clinging and attachment also cause fear. The possibility of separation from what we like and union with what we dislike produce feelings of anxiety, fear and pain. When we are attached to things dearly, we are constantly gnawed by the fear of losing them. When we are not willing to let go of things we become stuck with our memories and subject ourselves to conflicting emotions and pairs of opposites. When we are attached to things and memories, we cannot enjoy the present moment. We cannot let go of the past and all that has happened in that space. It is a baggage we carry all the time and in the process lose sight of the truth of being us and of staying with the moment here and now. The anxiety arising out of the illusion of time as a linear movement, the conflicting emotions associated with the constant aging of our physical bodies and the processes of becoming and changing, sickness and death, and of loss and gain, arise from the attachment and clinging that is so deeply intertwined with our thoughts and emotions in our consciousness. Fear of death, of sickness and diseases and of loss and suffering are the major motivating factors in our spiritual quest for liberation. We have a great example of this in the early experiences of the Buddha before he left his luxurious life to seek answers for them.

In one of his talks Jiddu Krishnamurthy1 states comparison or comparing oneself with another as one of the reasons for fear. In his words, comparison implies measurement and as long as we are measuring ourselves against others in order to become something and achieve something, we are susceptible to fear. Another reason for fear, according to him, is desire, the desire to be something or achieve something, which creates conflict, competition, struggle and influences the way we think and act unmindfully.

Coping with Fears

Fear is our natural and instinctive response to a perceived threat that may be either real or imaginary. The positive aspect of fear is that it is intended by nature to be a protective mechanism to safeguard us against the perils of life. While it is true, our fears can potentially interfere with our lives and greatly limit our capacity to live peacefully and realize our goals. They can prevent us from being who we and what we are capable of. They can limit our vision of life and perpetuate feelings of inadequacy. However since most of our fears are learned responses, we have a choice to standup to our fears. We can change our thinking, our responses and our actions to manage them courageously. We can learn to live confidently by making a conscious and self-directed effort in that direction.

Become aware of your fears by practicing mindfulness

We can manage most of our fears by becoming aware of them through self-introspection, by paying close attention, being mindful, alert and attentive to their movements, not in a meditation room but all the time. As we become mindful of our fears, we realize how they arise and what activates them, which in turn will teach us how we can respond to them differently and break the habitual patterns of thinking associated with our fears. When we find ourselves in fearful situations, we have a choice either to let our emotions take control of ourselves, or remain in control and let the emotions play out their movements without affecting us.

Confront you fears by being in the present

Fearful people tend to deal with their fears usually by surrendering to them or by not taking risks or by avoiding them or by withdrawing from fearful situations or by simply doing nothing. This strategy may give temporary relief, but not without creating long-term negative sense of inadequacy, helplessness, low-self esteem, frustration and unhappiness. People who suffer from these feelings end up either as victims or victimizers letting out their negativity in undesirable and harmful ways. You have a choice either to continue to suffer passively or fearfully when you are invaded by fearful emotions or stand up to them with full attention and trust in yourself. We have to accept the simple truth that life is all about choices and in case of our fears too we have choices to deal with them. Since most of our fears are either irrational or imaginary, we can learn to deal with them firmly and realistically, with awareness, attention, maturity and understanding, by doing what we fear most, guided by our reason and grounded in the reality of the present, rather than by our fears and memories of our past.

Exorcise the demons through visualization

In Tibetan Buddhism monks use a special visualization technique called Chad to gain control over their fears. This is a tantric practice said to have been introduced in Tibet by a Buddhist monk from India sometime during the medieval period. In this practice, a monk spends time, in a place usually avoided by ordinary people, such as a graveyard or a dark cave or in an underground cellar, in the dark or the middle of the night, all by himself to practice meditation, where they visualize their fears, giving shape to them in all gory detail, and feed themselves mentally, with compassion, to ferocious monsters and hungry demons. The technique is said to be very effective in exorcising one's fears permanently and bringing peace and quiet to one's mind. In Tibetan Buddhism we see the Buddha being depicted in ferocious forms. There is a reason for this. It is not because God is evil or ferocious. It is because in God we find a reflection of our own fears and aspirations, of what we are and what we think. By contemplating upon these images, the monks learn to know about the dark side of their own consciousness as well as the world in which they live and learn to live with them, with understanding and compassion, without being touched by them. In tantrik Saivism also similar techniques are used to stabilize our minds and release our fears.

We also can gain control over our fears by practicing visualization. We do not have to go to graveyards or secluded places. We can do it right here and now. We can practice it wherever we are and in whatever situation we find ourselves. It is a powerful technique available to us right now. We can use it to change our thinking and attitude towards our fears. We can conjure up vivid images of objects and situations in which we experience fear and learn new responses to deal with them. We can visualize our worst fears and imagine ourselves facing them courageously and emerging as winners. We can dissolve our fears by the power of our own thoughts and images.

Transfer the burden of your fears to God

Your fears are born out of your belief that you are separate from the Creator and the rest of the creation. It is a sign of lack trust or faith in you and in God. You are afraid because you do not believe "sincerely" that God is with you or God is part of your life. You do not believe that you are part of a larger divine plan and that you are playing a role assigned by yourself. You do not see the larger picture that stretches beyond this life and perhaps several more lives yet to come. Fear is the price we pay for our egoism and lack of trust in God. We can burn our fears and anxieties in the altar of our devotion, by offering our lives and ourselves to God as a mark of surrender, accepting Him as the real doer and performing our actions with complete trust.

Let go of your fears through detachment

Attachment does not mean simple attachment with material wealth or some particular relationship or object. Everything that is holding you back from being who you actually are is an attachment. Your memories, your likes and dislikes, your faith, your prejudices, your thoughts, opinions, judgments, your relationships, your concerns, your anxieties, your fears, your love, your anger, your envy, your name, your identity, your family, your wealth, your habits, your talents, your skills, your beliefs, your knowledge, your gods, your friends and relations and a myriad other things are different manifestations of the same attachment that has now become so much part of your consciousness that you are now part of an existence in which you are not what you are and you do not know who you are. When you overcome this attachment, when you learn not to cling to things, you become free not only from your fears but from everything. You may try to accomplish freedom in bits and pieces, by overcoming one weakness or the other. But these are piecemeal solutions. It is like trying to chip away a huge mountain with a little hammer. The permanent solution comes when you pay attention to all your attachments and deal with them comprehensively through a spiritual solution, by seeking an enlightened guru and following his path of wisdom, light and detachment.

Bhagavadgita Translation and Commentary by Jayaram V Avaialbe in USA/UK/DE/FR/ES/IT/NL/PL/SC/JP/CA/AU

Suggestions for Further Reading

1. The Flame of Attention by J.Krishnamurthy, 1983.

2. Image Credit: the image used in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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