Deconstructing Fear

I heard an interesting point made about fear, from the teacher Donald Rothberg, that released something, and set me thinking about fear, and other emotions, and how we can skillfully work with them…


He said that part of having fear is intelligence, but it’s a misuse of intelligence. He pointed out that there’s clearly something right about being on guard when there’s danger, but we need to distinguish the helpful type of intelligence and what doesn’t serve our interest.

What this teaching pointed out again for me, first of all, is the compounded nature of fear – that’s it’s not some monolithic entity we have to somehow deal with. This makes it seem a little more workable right away. If it is made up of parts, then we can look into it, take it apart, and see which elements we can change. This is very very good news.

The same applies to other difficult emotions, such as anger, sadness, craving, and so on, but to illustrate how this can work, we can just stay with what we know as quote ‘fear’ unquote.

Sometimes when the mind slows down, or has space to look into things, they appear very differently than when we were in a hurry, or agitated, or when we didn’t have much room to see what was actually going on. Such has been the case here.

I caught a thread of this sequence of events unfolding in my own mind this morning, and watched it. What I saw was the conditionality of what we come to term fear. Certain elements definitely have to come together for us to experience it.

I can see that at least three, or four factors always have to be present for fear to arise. I invite you to look into this also, and see if it’s true for you as well.

One, we can only have fear, and feel oppressed by it, when we are lacking in self confidence. At those times when we’re feeling really capable, even though the future is uncertain, we feel like we’re up to whatever will come. In fact, we can sometimes feel an eagerness to look ahead and see what’s on the horizon for us, and what challenge lies ahead. This is when we’re feeling confident in our self.

A second condition that needs to be there for that experience of fear to manifest is a lack of faith. Even if we’re not brimming with self confidence, if we have faith that things will work out, it settles us. We can feel safe and secure, and fear will not arise.

Faith is such a personal matter that it’s not an easy subject to talk about.Faith reaches down to our deepest feelings of trust, and the spiritual support that we have. Without these, sometimes, we feel very much on our own, left to fend for ourselves in a hard world. But it need not be that way. We all have sources of support and strength we can rely on, whatever our tradition or belief system.

I recall writing a letter to someone I am close to, and wanting to point out how, sometimes, fear is related to love – because we love something or someone, we want to protect him or her, or that situation, and that can bring anxiety. Having faith though, I went on to say, is a feeling of trusting that things will work out. If we have this, we stay in the present with whatever is going on, and can be more comfortable there.

So, confidence, and faith both remove feelings of fear. If they are lacking though, it’s possible to become apprehensive when there’s no need for it.

Which brings me to a third condition that, from what I can tell, is always present when fear arises, and that is what we can call a misuse of the imagination.In his talk, Donald Rothberg mentioned ‘nightmare scenarios’ being invented by the mind.

With a lack of confidence, and an absence of faith that things will work out, if we add to that our own creative imagination, we can produce some hellish experiences for ourselves. This is a misuse of the potential we have to think creatively, solve our problems, and invent new and better ways to live together.

The creative imagination is one of our great gifts as human beings. If we misuse it though, instead of helping us, we can instead create horrors, both inside ourselves, and in the world.

When it comes to fear, if any of these factors are missing, from what I can tell, fear cannot possibly arise. It’s like a three legged table – remove any one leg, and the table falls over.

If I were to add one more leg, or factor, it would really only be to expand on what was said about the last, that of a misuse of the imagination. I would say that uncontrolled, obsessive thinking is also always present in the experience of fear.

Perhaps talking in these terms makes it a little more accessible than referring simply to imagination. Some people don’t really think of themselves as being creative, or don’t really see when they’re using their imagination, which we are in fact always doing, but pointing out our uncontrolled, obsessive thinking is more of something everyone can relate to doing at one time or another.

Without runaway thinking, what we call fear has no chance to gather momentum. The problem is, most people aren’t aware of what’s going on in their own minds until it gets really heavy and difficult for them. What’s more, most people have never learned to quiet their own mind, which is one of the basic life skills every person should have. This is not really so difficult, as people tend to think, we just need to learn how to do it.

The result of not being settled, of not being able to quiet our mind, is that we then accept whatever goes on in our experience, and feel like we have no choice, and no control. It certainly need not be that way.

Added to this lack of awareness and control the fact that obsessive thought is tiring, extremely fatiguing, and so the mind become more dull, more opaque, less able to see clearly into what is going on, and deal with it skillfully. Things can get really distorted for a person, and, for a time, they can get stuck in suffering, maybe even for a long time. What to do?

I find this way of approaching not only fear, but the other difficult emotions extremely useful. We sometimes get caught in calling something ‘a fear’ or, ‘anger’, or ‘sadness’ when they are really composite. We may see these things as an immutable, inexorable whole, when that’s really not the case.Take an emotion apart, where possible, and it becomes much easier to work with.

Obviously, the skills needed to do this consistently, like self awareness, the powers of introspection, and analysis, self-regard, self control, faith and confidence, are things that we come by only over time, by developing them in ourselves. But we need not suffer unnecessarily. That’s all I really want to say here.

We all have the potential to undo a lot of what we suffer though, and have much more peace and joy in our lives as a result.

May it be this way for all of us!