Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Fear Itself

In many recent posts, I've focused on the question of how to be happy, but it's time to delve into a less cheery topic: fear. Fear is a very unpleasant experience, and I know it strikes everyone at some point. For the most part, it leads to hasty, paranoid, selfish, and poorly thought-out decisions, making fear more than just unpleasant in the moment, but actually destructive in the long run. One of the appeals of Buddhism is that it allegedly helps people free themselves from fear. Honestly, this possibility has been one of the strongest motivators of my practice of Buddhism from the beginning because I dearly want to be free from fear. The question is, can we overcome fear, or if not, how can we live with it? I've found that Zen Buddhism has helped me do a little bit of both, which has been pricelessly beneficial to me and, I'm sure, a lot of people who have to put up with me. In this post I'm going to explain some of the process in brutal, personal detail.

First, lets look at the emotion itself. Fear comes in many forms. There's the intense feeling of panic, whether during physical danger, when encountering the object of a phobia, or when contemplating mortality in the middle of the night. There are also milder, lingering fears about job performance, social acceptance, etc. Finally, there are subtle, creeping fears that do not even feel like fear because they've been so deeply buried. These are the most insidious. An example is the feeling of pessimism and hopelessness that one feels in the first few minutes after waking up, when otherwise realistic aspirations seem impossible.

Fig 1: A common image of death.
Prior to Buddhism, I had many dysfunctional ways of dealing with all of these fears. For one, I had regular panic attacks when contemplating mortality in the middle of the night. I had an intense belief that death was exactly like being trapped in a dark box and remaining conscious forever in a state of absolute terror, while also falling down a black hole. My response was to sit in bed, thinking about it for hours, making myself more scared, and futilely trying to rationalize death away, rather than questioning my arbitrary image of it. I spent much of my adolescence obsessing over death, thinking in circles, convincing myself that the images in my head were accurate, and cultivating a morbid, terrified, and hopeless mindset. Lacking an understanding on par with the Buddha's teachings, I consoled myself egotistically, convincing myself that at least I was superior to my peers because I had such "deep" thoughts, but failing to recognize mortality as an essential and necessary part of existence that also gives us reason to have compassion for one another.

My responses to social anxiety were also dysfunctional. Because relationships are constantly in flux, and people's feelings change all the time, it can be stressful to not know what people think of you. Of course, you can't always know everything all the time, and you have to rely on forgiveness to make relationships work--you have to forgive your friends and your friends have to forgive you. My problem was that I wanted to escape the stress of not knowing, and I thought foolishly--no, idiotically--that I actually could get away from it. I established a pattern in which I'd make friends, feel good for a while, and then become unsure about whether they liked me, and so I'd do something drastic to force them to show their feelings for me, which would inevitably annoy them, and so I would feel hurt, and then I'd get pissed that they didn't accept me, and I would annoy them intentionally to spite them, and negative feelings would escalate from there. In this way, over the course of high school, college, and several jobs, I alienated many really nice people who haven't talked to me since.You could say, more briefly, that I pushed people away when they got too close. I'm still trying to forgive myself for being that socially inept. At the same time, my aversion to social uncertainty is still a work in progress.

These obvious, destructive fears were the first ones I faced when I began seriously looking at Eastern philosophy more than 3 years ago. The ancient puzzles of Taoism sort of primed my mind for thinking outside the conventional dualisms of my panic attacks, dualisms like life/death, light/darkness, freedom/entrapment, etc. Modern thinkers, especially Jiddu Krishnamurti and Alan Watts, helped me realize that these fears are timeless, universal problems for people that require a lot of attention and action. Krishnamurti said that running away from fear would increase fear, so the ultimate question was not how to overcome fear, but how to live with it. His idea of living with fear, and maybe even enjoying the experience, was radical for me.

Krishnamurti and Watts had many cool ideas, and I needed some cool ideas at the time, just to get started. They rejected established religion and insisted that a rational, sincere effort to understand oneself would lead to spiritual insight on par with or better than anything attainable through an organized religion. That really appealed to me. I was too anxious and paranoid to trust any institution. Equipped with some cool ideas from the Tao Te Ching, Krishnamurti, and Watts, I was determined to discover enlightenment on my own.

As I continued my personal research, though, I found the teachings of Buddhism to be very good. Eventually, I tried meditation and found that the Zen format was very effective at cultivating concentration and openness, much more so than my half-assed attempts to meditate on a mountain in a self-invented and uncomfortable posture. So I began to practice Zen Buddhism, in spite of my reluctance to participate in an organized "religion". I use the quotes because Zen is definitely organized, but I'm not sure if it's a religion because they don't require you to believe in any particular concepts to be a member. You just have to show up, sit still, and bow at the right times. It's enigmatic, a weird practice to figure out. I love that aspect of it.

Fig 2: This is not what nothingness looks like.
As it related to fear, Zen practice helped me look at fear systematically, and without running away. One night, a few months after starting to meditate regularly, I had the mother of all panic attacks, and I sat through it, observing what was going on in my mind and body, using the skills I'd started to develop through daily meditation to simply look at the experience clearly, without judgment, without backing down. Even though I began to shake violently with terror, I stayed focused and was finally able to see my irrational beliefs for what they were--irrational--and I saw that I had the choice to not engage in my old mental habits that amplified the intensity of the fear. Instead, I watched it passively from beginning to end, which I never did before, and I thereby "shined the light" of my consciousness into a place I was afraid to look and discovered there was nothing to fear. What I discovered was that my panic attacks were driven by an irrational fear of two mutually exclusive images of death--I was afraid of the total annihilation of my consciousness and, simultaneously, the prospect of being conscious through eternal darkness. Even though these two possibilities cannot both happen, I was afraid that they would, and it felt claustrophobic, like I was trapped between two awful possibilities. That feeling of being existentially trapped inside of two awful possibilities is what I was actually panicking about. When I dragged this irrational idea out of its hiding place and subjected it to the scrutiny of reason, it simply evaporated.

From that point on, the panic attacks were reduced. Radically reduced.

In terms of quantifiable results, I can give you some impressive numbers. Between the ages of 11 and 27, I had panic attacks about 2-3 nights every week, some so intense that I would scream or run down the street in my pajamas or press my face up against a TV, desperately trying to escape the fear as it stretched on for minutes or hours. In the two years since that night, I've had less than a dozen panic attacks total. In terms of frequency, that's a reduction of 96%--more effective than Prozac (considered effective with a 40-50% reduction of panic attacks). Furthermore, none of the later attacks were as bad as the ones I experienced before meditation. When the panic comes, I'll wake up and notice it: "Oh, this again," and then I'll fall back asleep within a minute or two. I've even experienced enjoyment of it, as Krishnamurti suggested, when I try to use the panic to sharpen my attention and learn something new.

Because most of the benefits of meditation are subtle and hard to convey to other people, I like to share the panic attack outcome because it is concrete, undeniable, and practical. A less obvious benefit of this process is that, being equipped to deal with anxiety, I've learned how to effectively deal with untold amounts of stress and uncertainty that previously derailed my best efforts to sustain a stable career and led me to quit jobs and majors because of stress and anxiety. This is why, if you know me, you always hear me talking favorably about Buddhist practice. It has given me an unprecedented degree of control over my life.

This idea of "freedom from fear," I've learned, doesn't mean that I never feel fear. I feel some kind of fear every day. But I'm able to watch it and mentally hold my ground so the fear does not sink its teeth in and control my life again. That is an essential component of freedom from fear. Once you can hold your ground--which means to look at fear without running away, not even trying to explain it away in your mind--then the fear does gradually diminish. At this point, I feel less fear than ever before in my life, even though I am regularly pushing myself into intimidating and stressful situations. Thus, on both fronts--overcoming fear and living with fear--I've begun to taste the freedom from fear. (Still, there is always room for progress.)

The final thing to consider is the concept of running away. What does it mean to run away from fear--not to run away from an object of fear, but to run away from the emotion itself? How do we try to run away from fear when there's nothing external to run from, when we're just anxious for no obvious reason and we want to escape? If there isn't a physical danger to escape from, and you're just feeling uncomfortable about life or people or work, then the tendency is to seek distraction. Turn on the TV, crack open a beer, fill in silences with small talk. In social situations, the tendency is to prove yourself so that you can make people like you or hate you, so you can try to escape that uncomfortable feeling of not knowing. When we're alone and the fear of loneliness creeps in, or just the fear that we're going to look at ourselves honestly, the tendency is to jump into something like a book or videogame to engage the mind and distract it. Even religion can serve as a distraction when we look to a "spiritual authority" to tell us what's definitely going to happen. One of the easiest mental escapes we've created is explanation. We love to explain the things that scare us. All that does is create a false sense of control which temporarily distracts us from the immediacy, irrationality, and power of the fear experience.

The subtle thing about these distractions is that none of them are intrinsically harmful. The harm comes if we use these activities to distract ourselves from fear; if we use these activities to run away. Running away from fear makes it stronger. By not sitting firmly in the middle of unpleasant emotions and observing them as they pass through our minds, we get in the habit of avoiding, which cultivates a mindset of weakness and cowardice, and we begin to give the fears power over our minds. Consider the bogeyman. It seems innocent enough when you're a child to stay away from the closet at night. But when you make a habit of avoiding dark spaces, your fear begins to grow. You begin to feel that there really is some terrible bogeyman lurking in the shadows. The more you avoid the bogeyman, the more real the fear becomes, the more your behavior warps around it, and the more you are under fear's control.

The thing about fear is that it spreads. Running away from a childish fear of the dark establishes a pattern of running away. That habit becomes the template for dealing with mortality. Running away from that fear makes it so strong that panic attacks begin. Habitual panic establishes a pattern of anxiety that spills into social situations. Trying to escape social anxiety leads to pushing people away, aloofness, bitterness, and regret. In this way, fear can poison an entire life.

But think about this: 

How liberating is it to throw open the closet door in the middle of the night and face the darkness?

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