Mindfulness of Fear

Photo by Benjamin Wedemeyer

The last several years have had many of us asking questions about ourselves and about human nature – especially in regards to political allegiances and divergent perspectives on truth. We’ve been asking ourselves how a small but significant number of our family, friends and neighbors could endorse ideologies that have no grounding in reality, or are massive distortions erupting from kernels of truth, or threaten others’ rights, health and wellbeing.

At the root of many of our misguided choices is fear. We fear pain, so we grasp at ways we might avoid it. We fear that our lives are meaningless so we create meaning. We fear isolation so we reach out for connection. We fear our impending death so we cling to figurative and literal promises of immortality. We fear the enormous responsibility that our one precious life lays before us, so we manufacture reasons for personal exemption and absolution. We may be able find a helpful, albeit temporary port in the storm when we’re mindful, but when we’re not, we risk jumping into the fire in our desperate effort to escape the frying pan.

Ignorance is the misperception of Reality. It leads to increased fear, separation, and way more suffering. One unfortunate way people express that fear and separation is by contracting into self-protecting beliefs and trying to replace true belonging with membership with a group that aligns with those beliefs.Frank Ostaseski

If we’re to be honest with ourselves, we’re all vulnerable to making fear-driven errors. We’re at the mercy of the configuration and limitations of our human sense organs and nervous systems. Our biology has evolved for survival which means a robust threat detection and response system. Historically, it has been to our survival advantage for this system to be able to operate beneath our level of awareness. But, this automatic system isn’t so well matched for many of our modern stresses. It can create all sorts of illusions and delusions to which we can fall prey, causing ripple effects of suffering and destruction. This vulnerability has been amplified in recent years due to political manipulation and disinformation, a pandemic, and social unrest.

Within a few months in 2020 we went from a world in which death was something in the indefinite future for many of us, to a world in which not only our own death but the deaths of millions became an imminent possibility. A rational response would be to come together and fight for our collective survival. So why are so many people choosing divisiveness instead? …when reminded of the fact that we die, we double down on our existing beliefs and circle the wagons, regarding anyone outside our cultural group with suspicion. Sheldon Solomon, Professor of Psychology, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York

Just being human puts us at risk for unskillful fear-based reactivity. According to Professor Solomon, who for 30+ years has studied the effects of death awareness on human behavior and attitudes, Terror Management Theory posits that “Our awareness of death would riddle us with fear were it not for the cultural worldviews that afford us self-esteem”. Solomon defines self-esteem as the “belief that you’re a person of value in a world of meaning” and he points out that we spend much of our lives working hard to reinforce self-esteem in order to assuage our existential terror. His research shows the many ways in which we shape our attitudes and behavior to keep our fears at bay. The sense of meaning and worth we create gives us the strength and courage to continue on despite our unavoidable eventual demise. Unfortunately, this grasping at self and meaning making, when unexamined, can lead to othering, intolerance of diversity, and amplification of harmful core beliefs. “Because existential threats tend to make people double down on core beliefs, they do encourage fundamentalism, and that’s a potent political tool that politicians have used with ruthless effectiveness throughout history… In our studies, when we remind Americans that they’re going to die, conservatives become more suspicious of people, and liberals become more open-minded and tolerant”, said Solomon.

We can also find ourselves at increased risk for fear-based reacting due to issues of timing, context, accidents of birth, and myriad other causes and conditions. One example is that in this time in history, we’re grappling with the grand experiment of the information age. We  haven’t yet figured out how to balance the incredible freedom and abundance available to us with wise discernment and moderation. Another example is those who happen to have fewer resources and safety nets at their disposal (sometimes by systemic design) – those who struggle with economic insecurity, lack of education, mental illness, or social isolation:

  • According to the National Center for Education Statistics in 2018, 2.1 million people dropped out of high school. In addition to having fewer financial opportunities, these folks may not have the tools they need to be good consumers of information.
  • As of January 2021 according to the US Department of Labor, around 19 million Americans were receiving some form of jobless assistance. Food insecurity, the threat of homelessness, lack of needed health care, and fear for the future of one’s children can lead to desperation.
  • According to the Center for Disease Control as of January 25, 2021, 11.2% of adults aged 18 and over reported regular feelings of worry, nervousness, or anxiety and 4.7% reported regular feelings of depression.
  • In 2016, the number of visits to physician offices for mental, behavioral and neurodevelopmental disorders as the primary diagnosis was 56.8 million and in 2018 the number of visits to emergency departments for these disorders was 4.9 million.

Fortunately there is an antidote to the reactivity of fear, and that is love. Not the soft and sweet kind of love we read about in greeting cards, but the wise and fierce love that holds everyone’s wellbeing in equal esteem without discrimination, even if we don’t receive it in return. When the day comes that most of us see others as exchangeable with ourselves, we will insist that everyone’s basic needs are met. This alone would go a long way toward remedying our collective vulnerability.

A loving approach to fear isn’t just new age mumbo jumbo – history and research are showing us that a radically compassionate approach to our most pressing problems including violence, crime, addictions, poverty and hatred, is much more effective in the long run than fear based attacks, punishment or avoidance.

“Revolutionary love” is the choice to enter into wonder and labor for others, for our opponents, and for ourselves in order to transform the world around us. It is not a formal code or prescription but an orientation to life that is personal and political and rooted in joy. Valarie Kaur

This kind of love is not easy to cultivate, but it can be trained. It takes practice and it requires courage and equanimity (a balanced state of mind) to be fully realized. Fortunately the ancient tradition that brought us mindfulness also brings us the heart practices of lovingkindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity. Practicing them regularly, both formally and integrated into daily life, can make a loving response to fear more automatic. If you would like to learn more about the heart practices, you might want to check out our on demand workshop, “The Four Attitudes of Love: Cultivating Sublime States of Mind“. We also offer a number of guided practices on our resources page.

Be empty of worrying.
Think of who created thought!
Why do you stay in prison
when the door is so wide open?
Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking.
Live in silence.
Flow down and down in always
widening rings of being.


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