1   2  
  3   4  
  5   6  
  7   8  
  9   10  
  11   12  
  13   14  
  15   16  

8. Who says it’s Wrong to Feel Afraid

Seeing the false as the false
and the real as the real,
one lives in the perfectly real.

Dhammapada verse 12

As our retreat draws to a close and we start talking again, several people have mentioned how during the retreat they’ve had to encounter a lot of fear. Although on the outside there was nothing to be afraid of, and we couldn’t have been with a nicer and safer group of people, this didn’t stop fear arising. Amongst all of us here, I wonder if there’s anybody who hasn’t experienced fear at some time on this retreat? I wonder what our reaction to that fear was? Was there anyone amongst us who didn’t ascribe a negative value to that fear; who didn’t say to themselves that it was wrong to feel afraid?

So who is it that says that it’s wrong to feel afraid? When we experience fear, and we hear a voice within us saying we shouldn’t be afraid, who is saying that? This is an important question and I would like this evening to look into it.

Listening carefully

When we first hear this question, we might hear the emphasis as, ‘Who says it’s wrong to feel afraid?’ as if we could find out who it is that says ‘it’s wrong’ and teach them to say that it’s okay. This would be an understandable kind of reaction. When we find something disagreeable, our initial reaction is often to try and find the responsible agent. But what happens if we change the emphasis of the question to ‘Who says its wrong to feel afraid?’

If we feel afraid, I would suggest that what is called for is to feel it fully, to feel fully afraid. We need to understand that this same character who says ‘It’s wrong to feel afraid’ also says that it’s wrong to feel all sorts of other things. He or she is endlessly judging and condemning. This is the one that is getting off on the world, consuming the world, feeding on the world through praise and blame.

The Buddha said that to feed on praise and blame is like feeding on other peoples’ spittle, on that which is better spat out or vomited up. This compulsive condemning mind feeds on taking the position of judge, on judging things as right, wrong, good or bad. Part of us really enjoys being so superior in handing down this judgement.

This same one starts laying on the praise when things are going well and we find our experience of life agreeable. A voice says, ‘You’ve really got it together; you’re doing really well. In no time, all sorts of people will want to listen to your pearls of wisdom. You’re flying; you’re on the way home.’ This character feeds on praise and blame, gain and loss, success and failure. This is the part of us that the Buddha said was a slave to the world. The energy it lives on is false and unsustainable.

We don’t need to feel bad when we come across this way of getting false energy. We don’t need to condemn it. We just need to see it for what it is. That which sees this false way is itself real. The Buddha said, ‘Seeing the false as the false, we attain to the real; mistaking the false for the real, we stay stuck in the false.’ When we see ourselves consuming false energy, which is what we are doing when we are being judgemental of our fear, we see that tendency for what it is. Finding identity in judging and condemning is a very limited identity, and it’s also an exhausting identity. It means always having to try to succeed and win. We will always have an enemy to try to get rid of. By contrast, the one who walks the way beyond right and wrong and good and evil abides as the awareness which sees, which listens, which knows, and which receives all experience willingly.

Fear is just so

So our practice is a way of moving out of the tendency to indulge in habits of condemning, of being for or against our fear or whatever else it is we’re experiencing. Our practice is that of assuming the disposition of one who receives into awareness that which is, silently listening, and feeling freely. Fear is just so – no judgement. Fear, in the beginning means, ‘I feel afraid.’ But if we keep listening to it and feeling it, the ‘I’ falls away and there’s just feeling fear. Fear. And there is awareness, a presence in the middle of our experience, not pushing nor pulling, not accepting, not rejecting, neither for nor against, neither not for nor not against. But it’s not that I then have a new-found fixed identity as awareness, because I can’t own this presence. Any feeling of wanting to own and be secure we can also simply receive.

Then we start to recognise that our desire and fear go together, that they are inextricably joined. When we see this connection between desire and fear we don’t want to get lost in desire any more because we see that whenever we get lost in wanting we’re building up fear for the future. Fear is the other side of desire. If ‘I’ am caught in desire, what ‘I’ don’t see is how much I’m caught in the fear of not getting what I’m desiring. If we live freely with our feelings of wanting and desiring and wishing, if we live seeing clearly, knowing accurately, then the fear of not getting what we want is just that, it’s just so, it’s not a problem. But when we grasp at the desire to get, we also grasp at the fear of not getting, even if we don’t see it. We wonder where so much of our fear comes from. Why is it that more extravagant people, people who live more opulently, have more fear? Because they follow desire more. Fear and desire go together. As we work on being true with one, we discover a more true relationship with the other. If we want to be free from excessive desires then we need to look at how we feel about fear. When we feel afraid, we receive the fear into awareness. If it’s really strong fear, which it can be at times; if it’s terror even, or panic, at least let’s try and remember to inhibit the tendency to say this is wrong. We’re not saying that it’s right; we’re not trying to feel good about it. But we’re bringing into relief those voices within us that are saying that it’s wrong to feel afraid. It’s not wrong to feel afraid, it’s not right to feel afraid. When we feel fear we want to feel it fully, freely, without judgement. We are neither for nor against fear.

As we open into a broader quality of awareness, and we are able to receive our experience of fear into that awareness, we can study it clearly. We can study it deeply, in our own way, not through reading books or merely through thinking about fear. Thinking doesn’t do us any good at all when we really feel afraid. We can listen, feel, observe the whole body-mind contraction that we experience as fear.

Fear is not a thing; it’s an activity. Fear is the activity of constricting and contracting the heart energy. When we are challenged with some dangerous physical situation, the blood vessels in our body constrict and contract, we tense, we get more energy, and we can move out of that situation fast. That’s what’s supposed to happen, that’s an appropriate reaction. But often the same thing happens inappropriately for some imagined reason or threat. We develop very complex patterns of avoiding the knowledge that we’re doing this fear. We somehow feel a victim of it. And in our state of helplessness the only thing we are able to do is judge it as wrong, decide that we’re failing. But it is possible for us to expand beyond these contracted reactions with our well-developed radiant awareness, free from judgement and even from the need to understand. Awareness is simply willing to receive accurately.

When awareness outshines these shadowy reactions of denial and avoidance, the dynamic activity of fear that we are doing reveals itself. We feel it happening, we feel ourselves doing this constriction that obstructs the feeling of life, that obstructs the possibility of beauty, of intelligence, of love. Maybe we come to see that the possibility of loving is always here. In fact, it’s the most natural condition. We see that the only thing that obstructs it is this contraction of fear that we’re performing out of unawareness. And maybe if we come to see this for ourselves, we give up trying to become more loving, we give up trying to not be afraid. It’s a waste of time trying to be more loving. It’s like trying to make money when you’ve got a fortune in the bank.

Why pretend about reality?

If we see that we’re obstructing the heart’s radiance, then we can begin to feel what’s behind that tendency to obstruct that we’re habitually involved in. If we do this, then that tendency to obstruct is what we become interested in, not some new improved image of ourselves that we’re trying to synthesize. A non-judgemental, non-condemning, all forgiving, radiantly loving, thoroughly acceptable, agreeable, rounded, nice, improved me appears as a altogether unattractive fantasy; both unconvincing and uninteresting. What is interesting, what is genuinely attractive, is the possibility of experiencing the reality of being in the centre of our own reactions. Not pretending to not be afraid, not pretending to not get off on praise, not pretending to not dislike blame. But when for instance we feel blame and we dislike it we receive it fully. Why pretend about reality? When we’re feeling good about being praised and appreciated, we know it as it is. When we’re feeling afraid we say, ‘Yes, I feel afraid.’ We feel what we feel until there’s no distance, no split within us, and we’re one with what we’re feeling.

In attempting to do this there is the real risk that we tap into more passion than we know how to contain. And if this is the case then we must acknowledge that we need to develop more strength of containment, more stability of character. We humbly recognise it, without trying to push past, without trying to overcome anything, without trying to bypass any stages or any experience, without trying to become enlightened or something. We own up to the limitations that we are experiencing, and we come back to exercising the discipline of attention, engaging with interest in the practice of mindfulness of breathing. We want to do this not because it’s good or it’s right or it’s what some expert told us we should do but because we want to have the strength and the skill to be able to surrender ourselves into the reality that at this stage we intuit is at least possible.

If we approach our samadhi practice with this kind of wholehearted interest then it won’t lead to fighting ourselves, it won’t lead us into heedless judging of ourselves when we come across our limitations. It’s inevitable that, as we intensify the heart feeling through such exercises as observing silence and focusing the mind, we’re going to move through areas of experience that we don’t feel so complete in, so whole in or so safe in. It must be that way. Fear can be a healthy reaction as we move into dangerous territory. To say that we feel afraid doesn’t mean to say that we’re inadequate. Ajahn Chah used to say, ‘Well if you’re going to cross the motorway to get to the other side, you should be afraid; it’s dangerous!’ So let’s be careful if we come across reactions in the face of fear such as, ‘You’re wrong, you’re failing because you’re feeling afraid.’

Let’s see if we can listen with greater patience and deeper willingness.



© 2005 Aruna Publications