Fear by Thich Nhat Hanh
I sit in silence and find whenever I meditate
My fears alleviated, my tears evaporate
My faith don't deviate, ideas don't have a date
But see I'm growing and getting strong with every breath– “Change” by J. Cole
Most of us hold onto the things they are afraid of when you could let them go.
InFear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm, Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh (TNH) shows us how to release fear and live a joyful life. According to TNH, fearlessness is the ultimate freedom and this freedom is within your reach-it’s within everyone’s reach.
Figuring out fear
What is fear? TNH doesn't explicitly define fear in this book. But let’s explore the basics so we can start on an even footing.
From an evolutionary perspective, nature has hard-wired fear into our system over thousands of years. Fundamentally, fear is an innate survival mechanism used to improve our chances of transferring our genes to the next generation.
In somatic terms, fear is an emotion: when you are in danger—real or perceived—your body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated, and we go into “fight or flight” mode. It’s the body’s innate reaction to the presence of fear.
In other words, fear is a form of body intelligence designed to keep you alive.
TNH makes this key point: the root of all our fears is fear of death, and our aversion to becoming nothing. You can link all other anxieties back to this one core fear. As he puts it:
“Often, our biggest fear is the knowledge that one day our bodies will cease functioning.”
There's no denying that fear has its upsides. After all, if our ancestors hadn't been adept at navigating the dangers around them, you and I would not be here today.
But here's the issue: our fear system has not had enough time to adapt to the modern world.
We are safer than ever before, from violence, disease and natural disasters. Our basic needs of security have been met; over the course of a typical day, it's unlikely that you'll face grave danger.
Yet, your fear system functions in the way that it always has.
If you need to respond to an immediate threat, fight, flee or freeze would be a natural response. But clear danger is not the situation TNH is addressing. His interest lies in the fear that occupies a large portion of our mind space. It's a sort of pervasive, low-grade anxiousness that follows us around like an unwanted shadow.
How fear affects us
Fundamentally, fear limits our ability to:
remain in the present moment;
think clearly; and
connect with others.
We know that much of our fearful thoughts have to do with avoiding unpleasant and difficult situations. What's often overlooked, though, is that you experience fear with the past. This is most acute if you've had a traumatic experience, but it can happen in subtle and less severe ways as well. If you find yourself stuck in a mental loop, replaying a situation that's already occurred, it's likely there's a fear lurking there that you need to confront.
Either way, whether you're stuck in the future or the past, you're missing out on the reality that's unfolding in front of you—the present.
What's more, fear is most insidious in our happiest moments. In these moments, fear whispers in our ear: This can't last forever. When will it end? I'm scared. Rather than savour the moment, we mourn its loss.
As TNH puts it:
“But for many of us, even when we are most joyful, there is fear behind our joy. We fear that this moment will end, that we won’t get what we need, that we will lose what we love, or that we will not be safe.”
When you are afraid, you cannot think clearly. Your perspective narrows, and your options close in. As personal transformation teacher Joe Hudson says:
"When you have to make a difficult decision and you find yourself in binary thinking, you are in fear."
On the other hand, in a non-fear state, our creative mind is open, and our sense of possibility expands.
Fear inhibits your ability to connect with others. Can you think of a healthy relationship that's built on fear? I can't. In a scared state, you separate from others and from yourself. When fear is at the core of your thoughts and actions, love is nearly impossible.
The combined effect of all this is that fear inhibits your ability to experience joy.
Feel your fear
So, if we are so ill-suited to cope with the modern-day realities, what can we do to become more resilient?
You will find no shortage of tactics and quick fixes on the self-help bestsellers list. Sidenote: for a quick fix that's credible and effective, I recommend Katie Hendricks'Fear Melters.
Some self-help experts urge you to confront your fears head-on, and just do it. Others encourage you think positively, which often just means that you are applying a flimsy mask over your true feelings.
TNH does not propose that you confront or avoid the things that scare you. Instead, he advocates for resetting your relationship with fear. He suggests moving toward fear with curiosity and acceptance. When you notice fear in this way—by peering into its fundamental essence—you begin to weaken its grip on you.
Sitting with your fear and showing curiosity towards it is not a quick fix. But each time you do so, it gets a little easier the next time.
In short, to respond to fear, you have to accept it and look deeply into its source with wonder and compassion.
You may be thinking: this all sounds great, but how do you do it? The answer is simple to grasp, but difficult to do.
The energy of mindfulness
If fear takes you out of the present moment, you return to it through the path of mindfulness.
Through mindfulness, you create distance between yourself and your fearful thoughts and emotions. And it is in this space—the gap—that you begin to see your fears with objectivity.
TNH places fear and mindfulness on opposite ends of a spectrum. He describes them as two opposing energies types; you can harness the energy of mindfulness to counter the energy of fear.
Returning to your body and breath
The other thing about fear is that it isn't a rational function—it's primal and biological. You first feel fear as physical sensations in your body. You may feel your stomach clench, your heartbeat increase, your palms sweat. Your subconsciousness then catches up and your brain registers the emotion.
This is why techniques that bring you back to your physical being, such as breathing or body-scanning, work so well.
Awareness of your breath or your bodily sensations are your objective reality, whereas the fear-based stories in your head are generally not.
So the next time you're scared, notice your breath. Feel your heart beating faster. Sense the pit in your stomach. As you pay attention, you'll notice that these feelings are in a constant state of flux and impermanence. What feels like the most intense and unbearable emotions in one moment dissolves into nothingness in the next.
“You have the impression that the tree will not be able to withstand the storm. You are like that when you’re gripped by a strong emotion. Like the tree, you feel vulnerable. You can break at any time. But if you direct your attention down to the trunk of the tree, you see things differently.”
Once you've tuned into the feelings in your body, the next step is to welcome and even love these sensations. At first this may seem weird, counterintuitive, or simply just uncomfortable. After all, we've been wired to see fear as undesirable. But here's the funny thing: welcoming these feelings changes how you relate to them and softens their grip on you.
Through awareness, you gain perspective to view your place in the world with wonder. And when you're in a state of wonder, it's hard to remain fearful. Try it the next time you experience fright.
To help us gain perspective, TNH recommends five remembrances. Think of them as affirmations—things you can say to yourself each day—to remind us that we cannot escape old age, sickness or death.
I am of the nature to grow old. I cannot escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health.
I cannot escape having ill health. I am of the nature to die.
I cannot escape death.
All that is dear to me, and everyone I love, are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them. I inherit the results of my acts of body, speech, and mind. My actions are my continuation.
If you can accept these inevitabilities of human life, you start to see the world differently. If death is our root fear, then contemplating our mortality moves us closer to seeing reality as it is. As Pema Chodron, another renowned Buddhist thinker, puts it:
“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.”
Through mindful practice and acceptance, you learn to relate to pain in a different way when it does arrive. Knowing that you can do this weakens fear. And it empowers you.
Here's the bad news: unless you've found enlightenment, fear never goes away. But you can learn to make friends with fear; you can get to know it better and you might even begin welcoming its company.
TNH says it best:“Invite your fear into consciousness, and smile through it; every time you smile through your fear, it will lose some of its strength. If you try to run away from your pain, you'll discover there is no way out. Only when you look deeply into the nature of your fear can you find the way out.”
This quote summarises the recurring theme of his book: if you can meet fear with love and compassion, you will find joy.
Before I go, here are a few questions for you to sit with: What fear is holding you back in your life right now? What are you afraid for? What would your life look like if you learned to love your fears? Who would you be without your fears?
Fear is a beautiful book but a difficult one to summarise. Reading it feels like you are taking a long and intimate walk with Thich Nhat Hanh. The destination you’re heading towards remains constant but you take many delightful detours along the way.
Throughout the book, TNH uses fear as a jumping off point to introduce several important Buddhist ideas, such as mindfulness, impermanence, and non-self. In this summary, I've not devoted much time to the religious aspects of Buddhism discussed in the book. Rather I've concentrated on naturalistic ideas related to fear, partly because of my own interests and partly to make this post practical and actionable. If you're curious about Buddhism more generally, I encourage you to check out the book and TNH's other works, such asThe Miracle of Mindfulness.