Fear Itself

fearLet’s talk about Donald Trump. I know, I know. We shouldn’t. That will only give him more attention, which is what he really wants. I know that most serious people aren’t going to support him. And I also know that talking about him just distracts us from real problems. But it really isn’t Trump that has me concerned, it’s fear. Because that is what he is. Born of fear, sustained by fear. Walking, breathing, spray-tanned fear. He is an avatar of something we need to come to grips with about ourselves. It seems that most of our neighbors, or maybe ourselves, are flat-out scared. Scared of the world, scared of each other, and scared of the future. Trump’s narcissistic bravado and anger is simply a mask for our fear. He is showing us a part of ourselves, and it is ugly.

There are plenty of people who are discussing this already from a geopolitical perspective. But for people like me, psychology-loving meditators, this larger societal problem has layer of meaning to it beyond the polls and election-year trends.Donald Trump has as more to do with how poorly people are managing their own emotions than he does with real political issues. His rise is a sign of our poor collective mental health.

Fear is part and parcel of the contemplative path. Everyone has to face fear at some point, but meditators confront it in an unusually direct manner. There is even a stage of insight named for this very moment, the “knowledge of appearance as terror,” sometimes called the “knowledge of fear.” Because we deliberately confront fear and work with it, meditators know a bit about how it actually works and how to overcome it. In this gestalt of fear, people who meditate may have something important to contribute to public discourse. Meditators have learned a few things in the past couple thousand years about fear that might be helpful right about now.

Don’t ignore it – The hardest but most effective thing you can do is to be with fear completely. If you can do this you will see that it doesn’t last. Feeling fear completely doesn’t mean entertaining it or believing the crazy thoughts it generates. It does mean restraining the automatic reaction to push it away.

Analyze it – This is the most important part. What is fear, really? What is it made of? Where is it in the body? What thoughts and images come up with it? Investigating fear tunes you in to the fact that it is simply a constellation of sensations and thoughts working together to keep itself going your body and mind. Fear is a meme. It is trying to survive for more than a few moments, and to do that it hacks your belief systems along with your nervous system to trigger alarms. One dimension of meditation is to deliberately suspend belief in beliefs, at least for a while, and just this act can be tremendously helpful when it comes to fear. Watching how fear tries to use beliefs to keep itself going, you can undo fear’s magic trick, which keeps your attention on the world outside rather than on the world inside, where real change is possible. Discovering how fear ticks is like taking a massive dose of emotional penicillin.

Focus on how it disappears – Fear always goes away. It will pass. Every single time. When it does the person learns something about fear at a deep level. The mind becomes conditioned to see it as just another thing that comes and goes. A spell of bad emotional weather, not worthy of a full reaction.

So how can these three ideas from meditation translate into civil discourse? It helps if you start with the assumption that the way we deal with fear in our own minds is analogous to how to deal with fear between minds. If you find yourself in the same room with a firebrand Trump supporter this Christmas, and if the statistics are any guide most of us will, don’t try to debate, try to understand. (If you know you cannot do it, then don’t try to engage.) If you have thick skin and a deep well of patience, treat the person the same way you would treat your own fear in the midst of meditation. See the other person as a scared part of yourself. Beneath their anger is fear. What are they scared of? Don’t ignore it, Don’t push it away, and don’t feed it. Simply try to see clearly, together.

I believe that it is only through conversations like these, happening in homes everywhere, that we can collectively begin to move beyond our fear in a healthy way. Meditators can be especially helpful here, because we know this psychological territory better than most.


Posted on December 12, 2015, in Meditation, psychology, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. Donald Trump is “the Court Jester” of antiquity who can get by saying whatever is on the tongue……the timeless Magician of the tarot who controls the crowd, and Gemini of astrology: shallow intellect and scattered chatter. He is the Pied Piper and will lead us into a dead end and over the cliff. Hopefully, our congress and Supreme Court will be able to compensate for the major mistake this country is about to make.

  2. My first reaction is a cringe when I see you wading into a controversial social or political topic. Is it done for the attention it will bring to a site that should be above such things? But, diving into what you have to say, I agree it is right to apply your “beliefs” to everything in the world. If meditation does not have a relevance to social and political issues, along with everything else in experinnce, then its not the thing it I hope it to be. You are inviting some “interesting” interactions when you go into these worldly topics and the most important part of the discussions that will follow is not in the political substance, or lack of it, but in the human understanding, acceptance and kindness that is demonstrated in engaging people where they are. I expect to enjoy seeing it unfold again with this post.

    • I’m glad you found value in it. After many discussions with people who follow this site I’ve decided to focus more time on that large and unwieldy topic of “integration,” or how to bring insights and contemplation to life in one’s life. This is the first clumsy attempt to do that, and I hope it doesn’t become too political or divisive. My focus is not to try and push a particular agenda, but to explore some of the messiness of life off the cushion.

    • Well, Cory, just want to say you were very perceptive. I might have expected Obama- bashing to take precedence over the relevant issue here….. had it crossed my mind.

  3. Ideally, we would like to contain our reality within the proverbial “eighth of an inch” and reside in the sanctum between heaven and hell; but outside a cloistered existence, survival requires that you be informed and make choices based not only on preferences, but on an acknowledgement of danger and/or lies that threaten, all of which, is political. Of what use is a forum that disdains anything political and deals simply with a utopia that exists only for yourself and turns a deaf ear to the people who suffer……because, that suffering is also political.

  4. Next to compassion and helpfulness, I see a lot of fear being caused by the arrival of large numbers of refugees in Europe, a basic fear of the unknown and of a loss of security and posession. With unease, I´ve noticed some insecurity in myself. The political and social discourse hardly offer any skillful means and approaches for dealing with this fear. The political right uses fear as basis for a rhetoric which strengthens enemy images. In other parts of society (at least in Germany), public or private acknowledgement of that fear is considered politically incorrect and not accepted; thus the fear is pushed away. With both approaches more conflict and problems seem inevitable. I really wish that much more effort on a personal and political level would go to acknowledging fear and working towards transforming it.

  5. One should never forget Churchill’s timeless words to his people when England itself was in fear for it’s very existence: the Nazis already had France. “There’s nothing to fear, except ‘fear’ itself.”

    Fear: self perpetuating once you let it in the door. The reason I love Buddhism is it offers us the remedy: do not follow the thought. If we follow the thought it leads into the abyss, and if we choose to let it go we are back in the beautiful “moment” and the only thing in all the world that is real. We have a choice.

  6. ……..and if the “beautiful moment” is not so beautiful, at least it is real. We can deal with reality whether it be mundane or heroic. Heroism is born in the clutches of fear. This world belongs to all of us, including the refugees. How can we draw an imaginary line and say “this is mine, so you keep out.” The line itself is fear manifested as control.

    • Trump is shining light on the reality that our society and government have been rendered incompetent by fear of offending the self serving over sensitive parasites of the left wing. He represents the common opinions of the majority of US citizens who are fed up with weak foreign policy. Currency manipulation. Short sided trade agreements. And the 52 million people that lost their health insurance in order to provide 33 million people some very limited version of it. The polls prove that opinion, and it has absolutely nothing to do with fear.

      • As evidenced by one of his latest ludicrous solutions to ISIS: “kill the family”, Trump has affirmed to the world that he is, himself, a terrorist. Regarding insurance your statistics do not tell the real story: the story of the millions who failed to survive the era when they had no insurance and no hope for recovery from Cancer or any other fatal disease. My sister was one of those sacrificed. She died very young, unaided, simply because she was a waitress all her life. Your statistics don’t both taking the poor into account. I have another friend whose life was saved because of Obamacare. In short, statistics lie. Polls are manipulated.Try defining compassion with statistical data and decide which you choose because that is the issue here. Medical care is not a privilege.

        It might behoove us to remember Buddha’s Four Noble Truths.

        1. Life is suffering. Pain and suffering are an inherent part of existence. Our suffering is caused by/because we react.

        2. There is a cause for suffering which comes with our reactions. The cause is attachment. Reaction happens because of attachment. Anger and blame are a delusion.

        3. There is a way to be free from pain and suffering. Freedom may be achieved.

        4. The Eightfold Path leads to cessation of attachment and therefore freedom from suffering.

  7. Well Said! I agree so very much, and your insights on how to look at this situation, and to deal with it are very helpful! Thanks

  8. Good article Ron. I like how you tried to tie the theories of our practice to the practical realities we all face, which we can sometimes forget is the point of practicing in the first place.

    I’d like to offer this thought though, if I may.

    I find that the main issue with talking to people who hold extreme political views based on fear isn’t so much the fear itself. Rather, the problem is that they don’t see the fear as being fear. They think of it as practical thinking, or that the sensation of “fear” that they feel is just a practical reaction to the situation (as they see it).

    I appreciate what you said about people in general not being able to control their emotions, and about trying to come from a place of understanding when you talk to people who think like this. The problem is that, again, within their belief system anyone who tries to challenge their fear-based ideas as being part of the problem, and their immediate reaction is to get defensive. Once that happens and they’re in that state of mind, almost any opportunity to engage them in a meaningful discussion is immediately lost. In order for them to come to insight, a degree of calm must first be reached in the mind, and attempting to engage with them has almost the exact opposite effect.

    I can see where the attempt to understand them might be able to overcome this reaction, but I can see where a lot of people would be able to see through this approach. A lot of times I find that merely asking questions to someone who thinks like this can be enough to trigger this reaction. Even if I don’t react to the angry things they say, they will often be happy to rant on about them anyway.

    I’m not sure, perhaps there is a way to ask these questions in a way that leads people to see the fearful nature of their beliefs, but even then you’d still have a way to go to convince them that this fear isn’t reasonable or necessary. It’s actually something I’ve occasionally struggled with personally, how to shed light on people’s wrong views, while at the same time not triggering that emotional reaction in them that will ultimately only solidify it more. Any thoughts on the subject?

    • Yes this is not easy at all. I hope I didn’t give the impression that it would be. Psychologists train for years just to be able to listen and hold back reactions to anger and fear, it is not easy at all. If someone is thinking of talking with someone filled with anger and fear I would recommend thinking about three things: whether the person is too deeply lost in that world of fear, whether they would trust talking to you, and finally what the rules are for having such conversations.
      For the first thing, think about the kinds of people who like Trump. There are the hardcore people, those who go to the rallys, cheer while Black Lives Matter protesters are called names and beat up, and turn away when they hear the white power folks yelling out “sieg heil.” These folks live on a steady media diet of fear. Brietbart, Fox News, Drudge, and a bubble world of blogs filled with paranoid delusions. They are in something very much like a cult. One that does not yet have a name, and encourages members to see themselves as victims under siege, in a war against people unlike themselves. These folks are very unlikely to change their minds, and trying to debate them will likely polarize them more. They need help that a conversation over the holidays is unlikely to deliver. But most Trump supporters are not like this. They are afraid and angry, but they haven’t really thought through what they feel and what makes angry strongmen like Trump so appealing to them. For people in this position it can be very healing to talk it out, not in a debate, but with someone who will listen and try to understand. If the person is in this category, having a conversation might be a good thing.
      The second thing is to think through whether you are the right person to listen to the person. Is there a relationship there that is strong enough to handle such a conversation? Does the person trust you? Or do they see you as the “enemy.” If so, you may need to hold off and encourage others to talk it out with them.
      Overall, the most important idea here is that the person should come away from the conversation feeling like you understood them and did not judge them, while not agreeing with them.
      Lastly, know the basics for having a sensitive conversation. I like Daniel Dennet’s rules:
      1. You should attempt to re-express the person’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that they say, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
      2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
      3. You should mention anything you have learned from them.
      4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

  9. We talk about the term “fear” without really defining what is meant by it or identifying the context in which we apply it. It’s an abstract term.The word gets tossed around quite liberally…..but, what, precisely, do we mean by it. I think it is necessary to define the term so that everybody is on the same page. Daniel Dennet’s rules for dealing with an angry or fearful person border on “appeasement.” An intelligent person might find that offensive to their intelligence; a corrupt person would feel they are winning, and an ignorant person would be pacified, but none of these situations will lead to a successful conclusion. In order to have a successful (as opposed to a sensitive) conversation, the participants need to be on the same page or it results in chaos. If you just toss the ball out into left field without defining the terms and parameters of the debate (which is what this tends to become) we become the “tower of Babel)…all speaking different languages. An intelligent conversation needs structure and focus in order to be meaningful. So, my point is this: what do we mean by fear? Fear of what? What are we afraid of? Ourselves? Donald Trump? If Donald Trump is the focus then we need to set the parameter. The same if it is ISIS. What or who is the focus of our fear? And what does that fear consist of.

  10. Actually, Ron, looking back at your original post I see that you actually did cover most of this so I apologize for not doing my homework here. Your very first sentence set the focus. “Let’s talk about Donald Trump.” And how we are scared of each other and scared of the world and Donald Trump is “feeding” off this, and quite successfully. Maybe the important thing to ask is “why” is he so successful? Is he successful because we are afraid or because we are angry. I see a lot of anger….it is rampant now in the world, in our congress and it seems there is no way to assuage it. If Donald Trump is the “guiding light” then the practical logic of Winston Churchill becomes a joke. I fear Donald Trump because the trickster can make anything happen. He is the one in control. In the beginning he was laughable, but that is part of the trickster’s game plan…he makes it work for him.

Leave a Reply to Patsy Braden Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: