“Some see something to fear where there is nothing to fear, and some see nothing to fear where there is something to fear.” In this episode, I will talk about fear from a Buddhist perspective. Fear is universal but there are perhaps some fears that are skillful and others that are unskilful.
Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 142. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. And today I’m going to talk about fear.
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October seemed like a good month to talk about the topic of fear with Halloween and all the preparations that go on at least in the US and other Western cultures. This is the month that you see all the movies on TV are about horror films and scary things and I thought it would be fun to talk about the concept of fear from the Buddhist perspective.
I think this is a fascinating topic to explore because all of us experience fear. Fear is a universal thing. We all experience it and it’s completely natural. Like all other emotions, fear is just an emotion. There are however learned fears and there are hardwired fears. I recently read an article that talked about how, for example, the fear that we experience at loud noises. That’s something that’s hardwired in us that we don’t necessarily learn that, it’s from day one that we fear loud noises. Also, the fear of falling seems to be one of those fears that is hardwired in us and I’m sure there are others.
But for the discussion of fear, I think first and foremost, it’s helpful to frame our fears within the lens of skillful fears and unskillful fears. The Buddha taught that some see something to fear where there is nothing to fear and some see nothing to fear where there is something to fear. And this is more or less along the lines of what I want to talk about with this topic of fear.
Useful fear may prepare us to take skillful action while unuseful fear only leads to unskillful action. And that’s how I like framing this. That’s how I like thinking about my own fears. For example, a skillful fear would be avoiding touching a poisonous snake while an unskillful fear may be fearing the coiled up hose in the dark shed because I think it’s a snake, but in actuality, it’s only a coiled up hose. So that’s kind of along the lines of the Buddhist perspective of fear. I’m far less concerned with talking about the fear that we think of when we think of fear of the dark, fear of heights. No, I’m much more interested in talking about fears, like the fear of rejection that may cause us to live unskillfully.
It could cause us to live an entire life where we’re not fully in harmony with our authentic selves, with how we actually think and feel. Because if I fear, for example, the judgment of others, I may be experiencing unskillful actions in my life, living life, a certain way to avoid the fear of judgment of others. That may be an unskillful fear. So that’s what I want to talk about.
When we talk about fear, we think of the ultimate fear, right? Perhaps the fear of death, the fear of separation from our loved ones, the fear that we experience from uncertainty and the unknown. Those are big concepts to think about. And I think they’re good to think about, but for practical purposes, I think it’s more important to think of the fears that affect our day-to-day lives and a lot of the experiences that we’re having in our day-to-day lives.
And for me, it’s important to explore where does my fear come from? And you’ve heard me mentioned before in this podcast, the notion of the Buddhist teaching of craving, which is essentially what will suffering, that the moment I want things to be other than how they are suffering is what arises or discontent, dissatisfaction, anguish, however you want to word that. But that feeling that arises when I want something to be other than how it is seems to be very intricately connected to this notion of fear. I’m fearing how something is because it’s not matching how I think it should be. And that’s one of the ideas that is talked about in Buddhism on this topic of fear. And again, it’s wanting things to be other than how they are. And I think what makes this worse as far as fear goes, is that we’re experiencing new layer of fear.
So like many emotions, fear is something that we all experience. But when we experience it, we have a relationship to the experience we’re having. And for most of us, it’s aversion, aversion to fear. So if I start to experience fear and I have an aversion to fear, then I start to fear the fact that I’m experiencing fear a lot like being anxious about being anxious or being mad about being mad. And I think this is something that’s worth considering because we can always ask ourselves when we’re experiencing fear, is this question, am I adding to this? Am I adding a new layer? Because for me, this is not necessarily a discussion about fear where we come up with some solution where we learn how to eliminate fear, but instead it’s a conversation about understanding the root of our fear and changing the relationship we have with fear as an emotion. For me, this is all about getting to know my fears intimately and gaining wisdom and insight into the nature and the root of our fears.
You’ve probably heard about the teaching of the three poisons in Buddhism, and the three poisons are desire or craving, aversion or anger or hatred, and then the third one is ignorance. So these three, desire, aversion, and ignorance are called the three poisons because they kind of taint and poison everything that they encounter. And when we are operating under one of these three we’re essentially living more unskillfully than we could if we were not operating under one of these three influences. At least that’s how I like to think of it.
There are writings where the Buddha referred to ignorance or wisdom as the cause and the solution to fear. And I thought this was an interesting concept to explore. The idea again of ignorance or delusion, which sometimes those are used interchangeably in the context of the three poisons. But the notion that ignorance can often give rise to fear, and then coupling that with this teaching that we encounter often in Buddhism as well, which is the teaching of the confusing the coiled hose with a snake.
That to me is a very good visual representation of an instance where ignorance gives rise to fear. I’m a little cautious about how we use the word ignorance because I’m not thinking about ignorant as in, “Oh, you’re so ignorant.” No ignorance is just simply the lack of knowledge of how something actually is. And if you think about that, if you’re walking into the shed and then you look down, it’s dark, right? And you see this coiled hose and you immediately think it’s a snake, that’s a very natural response. And you would certainly feel fear because what you are perceiving is one thing, but it does not match reality. And that’s where ignorance comes in. Ignorance of no fault of my own, I am perceiving something wrong. And if I were to immediately act on that, let’s say I turn and run, or I have a shovel and I start hitting the hose, that’s unskillful action, because now I’m hitting the hose and then by the time I turn the light on and realize this wasn’t a snake, I may have damaged the hose for example.
So the idea here is that by shedding more light on it, by turning the light on in the shed, physically, I can start to see things more clearly and I recognize, “Oh, that wasn’t a snake that was a hose.” Now I get at that this can be very hard to do in the moment. If you are struck with fear because fear causes you to react and do things. I get that. And this one always hits home for me because I really do have a fear of snakes. But I like this notion that in the moment that I think is that a snake, if I were to run out of the shed first that might be better. Then I come back with a flashlight and realize, “Oh, that wasn’t what I thought it was.” Then I spend time to turn on the light. Then I spend time looking closer. That’s skillful action. I’m doing something that’s skillful and I gained wisdom.
What was the wisdom? I gained the realization that the hose was a hose and not a snake. Now, again, taking this to the fears that we typically experience in our day-to-day lives. For me, this is where this becomes a powerful concept. As I go throughout my life, I will discover certain fears that I have. For example, the fear of rejection. I think a lot of people experience this fear. This is a fear that may be unskillful, and I may be experiencing this out of some form of ignorance. In other words, I haven’t sat with this fear because it’s uncomfortable and I haven’t shed light on it. I haven’t spent enough time with it because our natural response typically to something that’s uncomfortable or unpleasant is aversion, right? We don’t want to, I don’t want to sit with this emotion. I don’t like how this emotion feels.
So then I start doing unskillful things. So let’s just use this as the example, I have the fear of rejection of others, and that fear causes me to avoid at all costs the possibility of somebody rejecting me. So now I’m with a group of peers and they all like to, let’s just say, again as a dumb example, they all like to dress a certain way. They all like to wear the color red. And here I love to wear the color blue, but I’m so afraid of being rejected by them that now I start to wear the color red. And perhaps that’s something that I don’t feel that good about. I don’t feel great about the fact that I’m wearing red, but what trumps that feeling is the fear that I have of being rejected.
So again, I get that this is kind of a weird example, but think about how often this actually happens in life. I’m sure you’ve experienced this, I know I’ve experienced it. Where you are starting to live a certain way, do certain things, or avoid doing certain things all out of the fear that you may have for something like the fear of rejection or the fear of judgment or something along those lines. And for me, this is a very powerful thing, to be able to recognize nice that when I’m experiencing some form of fear, I can actually pause and I can say, “Wait a second, why do I fear this? Why do I fear rejection of others?”
I can spend time with this emotion. I can process it. I can look deeper. I can gain insight and wisdom. I can turn the light on shed. And at some point, I may realize, “Oh, that thing that looks like a snake, actually, isn’t a snake. It’s a coiled hose.” So that to me is what I’m after with this topic, with this concept. I’ve thought a lot about the fears that I have fear of rejection is one. I think that’s a common one that people have. One that I’ve talked about in the podcast before is the fear of not being liked. And I’ve sat with this one long enough that I, I feel like I have a thorough understanding of the root of it. And having grown up as a twin, for example, I always wondered, do people like me or do people like us? In other words, are you my friend because of my own merits and my own personality, or are you friends with us because of the dynamic that we are together as twins?
As we got older that transitioned into this belief that, well, maybe the only reason people like me is because people like my twin, and it caused me to experience a lot of fear that I think would fall under this category of unskillful fear, or perhaps fear that’s instigated by some form of ignorance, which is not understanding the picture of reality and I’m seeing something that actually isn’t there. And I’ve spent time with that fear. And I’ve overcome that fear. And at the end of the day, it’s not necessarily that the fear goes away, but the relationship that you have with the fear changes, I’m not afraid of that fear. I’m not afraid of feeling that fear.
When that thought arises, let’s say I’m interacting with friends and suddenly the thought pops up, they don’t like you, they just like your brother. Or they like you, the dynamic of you and your twin together. Now, I’m not sure afraid of that feeling, it’s not uncomfortable, I almost smile. I’m like, Oh yeah, there’s that feeling? Yeah. I don’t know that that’s true though. There’s no way for me to really know that. And they’re still my friends, so I don’t have to believe my own thought. And I feel like the relationship with the fear changed and because the relationship with the fear changed, perhaps what would have been some form of unskillful action or unskillful thought or unskillful something, didn’t take place because I wasn’t afraid of the feeling of fear.
Now, there would have been a time in my life when that wasn’t the case. The fear of not being liked maybe would have made me do something that I wouldn’t normally do or say something that I wouldn’t normally say or not say something that I should have said or not do something that I should have done. And that’s what I’m after here. That’s what I’m hoping to convey in this podcast episode to you as the listener is that you also like me, and like everyone else, we have fears. And the fears that you have roots. And if you can get to the root of your fear, and you can and shed light on it and you can spend time with it, perhaps you can change the relationship that you have with it. Perhaps you’ll gain some sort of insight or wisdom, and you’ll see something new the same way that you would, if you were to turn the light on in the room and now you see a little bit more clearly and the thing that you thought was one thing, actually, isn’t that thing.
And then with that wisdom, with that new knowledge, with that clarity comes a new way of being. A new way that changes what you were experiencing before. And that’s what I wanted to end this on. Perhaps fearlessness is not necessarily about the absence of fear, but the absence of being afraid to experience fear. I think about fearlessness versus bravery. And I think fearlessness implies that there is no fear, but there’s no bravery in that. If I’m not afraid of something it’s not accurate to say, “Oh, I’m brave about flying because I’m fearless when I fly.” No, I think bravery would be somebody who’s afraid to fly, but they go fly anyway, that would be brave. For me to just go fly, if I’m not afraid to fly and I go fly, there’s nothing brave in that. I’m just doing, doing what I do. So that’s another concept I wanted to end this podcast episode on is when we think of bravery and we think of fearlessness rather than thinking the goal is to become fearless maybe the goal is to be a little bit more brave.
In spite of the fact of the fear that I have of being rejected by others, I’m still going to live an authentic life where I risk the possibility that yes, some people will reject me, but I don’t have to lose sleep over the fact that I’m not living authentic to myself. That’s the idea that I wanted to convey in and end this on. So next time you’re experiencing a form of fear. You sense an aversion to that emotion you’re experiencing maybe that’s a good time to turn and face it and see if you can gain wisdom from the encounter with the fear. This reminds me again of that encounter of the Buddha and the serial killer on Angulimala. And I always think about this visually, right?
Imagine there’s the Buddha in the forest and then here comes Angulimala. Everybody runs from Angulimala. Nobody likes him because he’s a serial killer, but the Buddha stood there and faced him and that really surprised Angulimala to the point where he stopped and he was like, “Why aren’t you running? Why aren’t you afraid from me?” And that gave rise to the opportunity for them to speak. And by speaking, and by understanding and expressing things, the relationship changed and Angulimala didn’t feel the need to kill the Buddha. And then according to the story, it’s just a story, right?
Angulimala had a change of heart and he became a monk. And I just think that’s such a cool lesson that can be extracted whether that story happened or not. I think it’s a fascinating story that by not being afraid, or perhaps there was fear, I don’t know, but by turning and facing the thing that everybody’s scared of, and instead engaging with it, having dialogue, the outcome changed and the skillful action that came out of that was Angulimala quit being a serial killer and instead became a monk.
So I like to think of the relationship that I have with my fears is like the relationship where I’m the Buddha and here comes my fear running at me with a knife, it’s Angulimala, and I try to be skillful with that fear and I face it and I try to understand it. I try to turn the light on in the shed and see, is this really a snake? Or is this a hose? If it is a snake I’m going to run, but if it’s not a snake, then maybe there’s some other more skillful action rather than running from this thing that I’ve been scared of.
So that’s my invitation to you. As you think about your fears, as you encounter your fears, especially the learned fears, or perhaps maybe we’ll call it the unskillful fears. You may discover that some of the fears that you have are skillful and some unskillful. And the ones that are unskillful you can engage with, you can change the relationship with that fear and perhaps something new and something skillful will arise out of that. Thanks to the wisdom that was gained.
So thank you for taking the time to listen. That’s all I have for this podcast. Thank you, until next time.