fear and fearlessness

By Tasha Friedman

“All of the world is just a narrow bridge. What’s important is not to be afraid.”
–Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

Even while the wave of coronavirus washes over the world, fear is like a second pandemic. It spreads even faster and touches more people than the contagion itself.

Although just turning on the news makes it seem natural to be afraid, fear is the worst state to be in during a situation like this. Fear inevitably causes overreaction or underreaction, not the clearheaded decisiveness that is called for in these times.

It can even leave us more vulnerable to what we’re afraid of, since constant fear weakens the immune system.

On the other hand, we should not try to avoid fear by hiding from it, pretending that the virus isn’t real or convincing ourselves that somehow we won’t be affected by it.

However, when we look at fear for what it really is, we can come to a deeper understanding that allows trust and compassion to take its place.

Fear and the Ego

Fear is the root emotion of the ego. As soon as there is a sense of separate identity, a “me” and “mine” existing independent from its surroundings, there is a perceived need to protect it, to control and manipulate circumstances to give this entity what it wants.

Fear is therefore the most intense and deeply rooted of our human emotions, giving birth to anger, jealousy, greed, hatred, and a wide spectrum of experiences. Yet, it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding.

Advaita Vedanta offers the famous metaphor of the snake and the rope:
When walking at twilight, you see something long and sinuous coiled on the path in front of you. A snake! You jump backwards, heart pounding.

A moment later, when your eyes focus, you realize you are only looking at a coiled length of rope. As soon as you recognize the rope, the idea of “snake” vanishes and your fear melts away.

It is the same with all our fears. We are afraid because we misperceive reality, focusing on the appearance of separateness instead of the underlying unity.

The Spiritual Value of Fear

Although it comes from the ego, fear can be a valuable teacher on the spiritual path.

It shows us our attachments and beliefs. It clearly shows us what we are identified with, what we think we cannot afford to lose.

If we think we are the body, of course we are afraid to lose the body. If we think we are our possessions or our jobs or our relationship to loved ones, of course we are afraid to lose these things.

The clarity and intensity of fear, touching our most basic survival instinct, can in itself provide moments of insight. It can become a sort of awe, like the feeling of being outside in a thunderstorm or walking on a beach when the waves are huge and wild.

It is a reminder that there is a life and power in this universe far beyond our little ego structure.

Fear can trigger a deep gratitude and reverence for life. What the ego perceives as fear, from another perspective is nothing other than the love of life, which is common to all living beings. What turns it into a “negative” experience is just this grasping and attachment to life in a certain limited form.

dark kali truth fearFear is a beloved and well-used pointer in the Tantric traditions.

The Vijnanabhairava Tantra, one of the foundational texts of Kashmir Shaivism, gives several recommendations for practicing with fear. Different slokas mention the terror of being alone in the wilderness on a dark night, or running away from battle, or in a moment of intense shock. If there is also awareness, there can be a flash of illumination.

Conscious shocks can shake us awake.

Entire paths, such as Chöd or the Aghora, are based on an intimacy with fear that brings the practitioner to recognize an infinite love within even the deepest fear.

In Tantric practice, both Buddhist and Hindu, we find many images of wrathful deities. Kali, Chinnamasta, and others, with sharp teeth and fierce eyes, holding severed heads and weapons dripping with blood.

These energies are terrifying to the ego but liberating to the spirit, as they cut away attachments and limitations much more quickly than the gentle, benevolent forms. They inspire a non-dual understanding whereby fear and devotion, suffering and grace, exist hand in hand within the same transcendent Reality.

Ultimately, all energies are sacred; Kali is just as benevolent as Tripura Sundari. Everything in our lives is bringing us towards Self-realization in its own time, the pain and loss as much as the joy.

Overcoming Fear with Truth

We can work with our fears on a psychological level by going to (online) therapy, talking with friends, and trying to accentuate the positive.

We can even work with it on an energetic level. In yoga, practices to harmonize muladhara chakra will help alleviate anxiety and instinctual survival fears, while activating manipura chakra will bring an energy of courage and self-confidence.

These approaches can be effective but still come from a place of relativity.

The true antidote to fear is to find who we really are.

It is only an incorrect viewpoint and an identification with the ego that causes fear. When we recognize that there is nothing outside ourselves, there is nothing to fear and nothing to protect.

When there is no attachment to any outcome, when we are at peace with whatever happens to our body and mind, when we recognize all forms as equal manifestations of Awareness, what is there to fear?

I spoke earlier about how fear shows us where our attachments lie by what we are afraid to lose. As the Sufi master Al-Ghazali wrote, “Only that which cannot be lost in a shipwreck is yours.”

Nothing is ours to keep, even our bodies—except that light of Consciousness which can never be lost. And this is all we need.

fear fearlessness truth wisdom

Inspiration to Live in Courage

Enlightened beings and masters of all traditions have in common a sense of fearlessness that radiates through their actions.

The Buddha is one of the most inspiring examples. He gracefully sat in in meditation under the bodhi tree while demons and dark forces raged at him, his equanimity transforming their arrows into flowers.

It is said that when Padmashambhava, the great Tantric master who brought Buddhism to Tibet, tried to establish the first monastery there, the demons of the place came from all directions to drive him away. He plunged his knife into the ground and sat firm in his intention. By this simple act of presence, the demons were converted and became protectors of the Dharma.

As it’s the Easter season, we can also look to the courage of Jesus Christ in the face of his death. Fear arose for him, even very intensely, as he was praying in the Gethsemane garden the night before the crucifixion. And yet, his power of surrender, compassion, and commitment to the truth was strong enough to contain even his greatest fears.

While dealing with our fears, we should think first to change our paradigm: shifting the focus from our individual needs towards care for all humanity. Within this care, there can be concern and a desire to help, but there is no space for fear.

In the words of the great poet Virgil, “Love conquers all, so let us surrender to Love.”

Love also conquers fear. Where there is love, we put our lives on the line without thinking twice. For the doctors and nurses who are now risking their lives to treat patients, this is not just a nice idea but a daily reality.

For those of us who are not able to treat the disease itself, we can still take action against the secondary pandemic of fear, countering the global wave of fear with a wave of love.

Tasha is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.