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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Mindfulness Part IV : Facing our fears

Rohit Rath, flickr

“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, 

and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” 

Mark Twain

Halloween is around the corner! What a better moment than this time filled with fear and death symbolism to address those difficult topics?

There's nothing we can do to eliminate fear and death from our lives. They are there, and whether we want it or not, we have to deal with them. Some have advocated for bringing them to the forefront and making sure that we regularly, consciously remind ourselves of their existence. Think of Hamlet's skull.

Satyrika, flickr

Let's thus start from the premise that we must face our fears. And who else but Thich Nhat Hanh to teach us how to apply mindfulness to that endeavor? (Quotes in italics.)


Fear is a mental formation; it is made of several elements, including the element of ignorance. 

Yes, yes, and yes. When was the last time you were afraid of something you knew and understood well? Once we free ourselves from ignorance, we free ourselves from fear. We also free ourselves from other negative emotions that fear can disguise as: preconceptions, anger, hatred.

Hence the need to gain knowledge on sources of fear:

Through knowledge and insight, we gain emancipation. We cannot have insight if we don't practice looking deeply. 

And the first step to looking deeply is... yes, you guessed right: mindful breathing.

Mindful breathing brings us close to our mental formations as they manifest within ourselves. Sometimes fear manifests, and our mindful breathing brings us back to our fear so that we can embrace it. We look deeply into the nature of our fear to recognize ourselves with it. If we do well, we can calm our fear, look deeply into it, and discover its true nature. Insight into our fear helps us transform it. This is true with all mental formations - such as anger, despair, agitation, and restlessness. 

Our first reaction is usually to run away from our fears and their source, but it might be wiser to address them:

Embracing the unpleasant, painful feelings, you calm them and touch what is underneath - the base of that unpleasant feeling, that pain. 

If you try to run away, instead of confronting or embracing your ill-being, you will not look deeply into its nature and will never have the chance to see a way out. That is why you should hold your suffering tenderly and closely, looking directly into it, to discover its true nature and find a way out.

Many of us do not want to go home to ourselves. We are afraid. There is  a lot of internal suffering and conflict that we want to avoid. We complain that we don't have time to live, but we try to kill our free time by not going back to ourselves. We escape by turning on the television or picking up a novel or magazine; we go out for a drive. 

Going home mindfully, we can talk to our wounded child within using the following mantra: "Darling, I have come to you. I am here for you. I embrace you in my arms. I am sorry that I left you alone for a long time."


When you think of it, most fears can be faced. But what about the fear of death? How can we deal with the fact that we are finite, mortal... that we have an expiry date? Is there anything more ironic than being granted consciousness of self... only to lose it completely when we pass? What's more, knowledge won't save us in this case: no one has ever come back from the other side to tell us what it's like!

Ray Ordinario, flickr

Here are some insights on how to handle the difficult reality of our own death:

1) Live in the present moment, and make sure you don't have regrets

Because life and reality are impermanent, we feel insecure. I think the teaching on living deeply in the present moment is what we have to learn and practice to face this feeling of insecurity. We have to handle the present moment well. We live deeply in the present moment so that in the future we will have no regrets.

2) Recognize the role suffering plays

Happiness cannot be separated from suffering. Happiness is clear and strong only against the backdrop of suffering. If we have not known hunger, we cannot fully realize the happiness of having something to eat.

In that perspective, perhaps death plays a role: it's the backdrop to life. Knowing life will end can help us enjoy it to the fullest.

3) Don't let your perceptions override logic

Birth and death are perceptions, not reality. We know that something cannot come from nothing, and someone cannot come from no one. Something cannot be reduced to nothing; being cannot be reduced to nonbeing.

We have the notions of coming and going. Where do I come from and where am I going? This is a difficult question. According to the teaching of nirvana, we come from nowhere and we go nowhere. We manifest when conditions are sufficient. When conditions are no longer sufficient, we no longer have the perception that we exist.

Nothing in there says that we will disappear for good!

4) Don't get caught thinking the physical realm is the only one. And breathe!

Breathing in, I know this body is not me. Breathing out, I know that I am more than this physical body. I am not caught in thinking of this body as myself.

How do you handle your fears?

Have you ever faced and overcome a big one?

How do you live with the knowledge that you will die?


  1. I haven't ever really been afraid of dying - maybe of not watching my children grow up but not the act of dying.
    I think one of my biggest fears was actually becoming a mom - I spent most of my life not planning to have kids. (Now I can't imagine my life without them!!!)

    1. I understand what you mean Kim; the worst part about dying would be not being with my kids anymore.

      I was never afraid of becoming a mom. Maybe I should have! LOL

  2. Hi Julie, I have to tell you...I've never called my inner child Darling. As a small boy I really over thought the whole eternity thing. I couldn't comprehend that concept of no beginning and no ending. I had many sleepless nights between the ages of 8 to 12 lying on my back, staring wide eyed into the darkness trying to understand the mysteries of life. Then at 13 puberty kicked in and all the other stuff didn't matter - HA HA!!

    1. Funny but smart comment, Marc.

      Maybe that explains why so many of us use potent distractions to help us forget about those issues!

  3. what a timely post for me! Dating a woman I really like and FEAR is coming up big time. I've made significantly poor choices in the past, and although she and I seem to fit well together, a giant wave of fear is coming up. Going to work on that - what's that about? I don't want to run away from it with activity or alcohol or cigarettes or t.v. etc etc. I want to see it for the opportunity it is: to learn something great about myself. Fear of death? No more. I've been on the edge a couple of times, and each time, after I surrendered, it was a calm and loving experience. Nothing to fear at all!

    1. I love how you talk of approaching death with serenity.

      You're smart to not run away from your fears in love. And to use it as an opportunity to learn. Wishing you the best! :-)

  4. Hi Julie
    That's an interesting post.And has alot to do with our proccupation about the life we lead.Yet to me the vital question is..Perhaps there is an entity called the soul?
    Perhaps there is a need to connect with it.?Perhaps there is a greater vision than what we perceive with our familiar five senses.Perhaps there is a deeper presence within all of us.Perhaps we all don't have to start dying the day we are born.If you mull upon it a little deeper you realise that that is exactly what is happening.The duration between our birth, and death, is filled with a lot of familiar,noisy,conformist,dulling activity.Very far ,very far removed from the true purpose behind our presence.

    1. Very well said, Mona. I agree with a lot of it. :-)

      The soul/this deeper presence/something that the senses cannot perceive... might be what we connect with when we are mindful, through meditation for example.

  5. I think fear is the greatest challenge we face in life!

    My mantra is "Fear is the mindkiller!"

    I do things to push back against fear.

    In the moment, the best thing to do with fear is to stamp it out! Shut it down! Kill it! Later when there is time, process it if you need to.

    1. I like your proactive attitude!

      The best way to conquer fear is to face what scares you, gradually, in baby steps (therapies for phobia are based on that). In short, to expose yourself to the source of fear. It usually works. :-)

    2. Of course that may work for some types of fears, but not when you are flying a plane at 2000 feet above the ground and in an instant a rain storm hits and you are in darkness and can't see a thing :-) My mantra saved me that day!

    3. The point here being some fears save your life (i.e. when something is actually dangerous, like in your story), whereas other fears serve no purpose (e.g. why are people scared of tiny spiders?) :-)

  6. Interesting post. It's funny because fear can be instinctive and sometimes important to tune into, however, it can easily get out of hand and blown out of proportion. I think when fear impedes on your quality of life and enjoyment of life then it needs to be managed and squished.

    I recently read something about Fear of Death and the author actually ended up having a near death experience. Following that experience she realised it was more a fear of living and not achieving or meeting her goals, rather than death that really scared her. I didn't explain it well but it made a lot of sense in her words. She resolved herself to live mindfully after her incident and enjoy every breath (as much as possible). She also set out to achieve all the things she would regret missing out on.

    1. You have a good point, Jess! Fear can serve us in many cases. "They" say one should follow their guts when fearful of a person, for example. And of course some things are genuinely dangerous!

      However, many fears get in the way of living a life that is full and rewarding.

      You are the second person to say that after near-death experience, people end up LESS scared of it. Something to chew on...

  7. Wow, this is a thought-provoking post! Becoming a mother definitely brought me face-to-face with my own mortality. Not that I hadn't thought about it before, but with little ones to be left behind, I had to think about it in a whole new light. Love the advice to live in the present without regrets.

    1. Being a parents adds a whole new perspective to it, you're right!

  8. Fear is the driving force behind cultural evolution. If we believe cultural evolution arises from, and parallels biological evolution, the fear is the driving force within the evolution of humanity.

    Religion, states, relationships all arise out of fear. It is the most necessary element of being human. I love my fears as I love my dog...

    1. You have a point. This documentary should interest you: "Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality". It makes the same point, and is a must-watch.

      The problem with fear is that it also brings about procrastination, anxiety, lethargy, racism, wars...

      Some would argue that religion and states are not necessarily a good thing... depending on how they are used and what kind of behavior they dictate... based on history I would say there's been as much bad as good!

    2. States and religions CAN be bad things, but they are a part of our social DNA. Chaos without them. The core tenet of natural selection is that we weed out traits that don't serve the cause of pushing genes into the next generation, and we keep traits that do serve that cause. If we accept that tenet of natural selection, and also accept it is paralleled in cultural evolution, than we would have weeded out religion years ago.

      That's the mistake that Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens have made; religion is kept around for a reason -- it's in our DNA.

      Will be glad to expand on this privately if you're interested. No worries if not :-)

  9. Great post. I definitely fear death in a different way since having children. It is the fear of losing my time with them that scares. The actual process of dying, though, not so much.-Ashley

    1. Same thing here. Thank you for commenting Ashley!

  10. Every day I face my fears HEAD ON. I always tell myself that what doesn't kill me, will only make me stronger. While sometimes saying that doesn't work, I then just tell myself (if the thing I am taking on involves people), that I may never see these people ever again, so WHO CARES! you only live once, you might as well make the BEST of it!

  11. Wow, I love your deep thinking in this post. It's very thought provoking. I hate fear; I tend to be one of those people that when fear creeps in, it festers, gets bigger and ends up becoming irrational. ;-) With that being said, I usually try to identify what is causing my fear so I can deal with it and MOVE ON! Easier said that done....

    1. You seem to have the right approach to fear! They so easily turn into catastrophic thinking... we have to stop them before that. By really paying attention to them. :-)

  12. Very inspirational! And love your confidence about #3; wish I shared it. Am more hopeful as I age but don't necessarily think it's a matter of logic. But as the answer is essentially unknowable, sure feels better to believe than to doubt.

    1. I don't know if it's confidence, Crabby, but we should consider all possibilities instead of being stuck with one very precise idea of what happens after. :-)

  13. I definitely suffer from writer's block, but when I do, I just walk away from what I am doing and focus on other things. It kind of stresses me out sometimes though because I think, "oh no!!!! I lost my ability to be creative and write!" But nope, it comes back, lol! My best writing times are definitely in the early AM or right before dinner!