Buddhism on Fear: How to Practice Meditation for Fear and Anxiety

meditation for fear

Much of the suffering in our lives is rooted in fear. Fortunately, Buddhism and meditation offer excellent supports for working with fear—and with anxiety, the worry about uncertain threats that many of us carry in contemporary life.

Fear is pervasive, especially in this world of polarization, aggression, and lack of available resources. Fear is also inevitable. It is a natural part of being a human. How we relate to the feelings that accompany fear will determine how distressed we are when it arises.

Fear is a natural part of being human. How we relate to fear determines how distressed we are when it arises.

Let’s take a closer look at fear and anxiety, specifically examining what they are, how they impact us, and how Buddhism and meditation can help guide us in working with these difficult emotions.

Buddhism on Fear: What is Fear?

Fear is part of every human being’s standard operating system. It is protective in nature, using prediction to help us stay safe and survive. We are equipped with the internal mechanisms of fear as a means of alerting us to danger.

Fear is a means of alerting us to danger.

Fear arises as information is transmitted to us through our senses, for example hearing footsteps behind us, or seeing something on the ground that resembles a snake. The presence of a threat triggers a response in the brain, a call to action, inviting us to protect ourselves. Often we respond automatically, without thinking. This is the threat response.

We might become aware of our system’s threat response through physiological cues (goosebumps, changes in breathing). When the threat response is activated, we may get a dose of adrenaline and cortisol and the system is poised to fight, flee or freeze. 

So far, though, what we are experiencing is merely information. Our system is letting us know that a threat may be present.

“The presence of fear means only that fear is present, and nothing more.” 

Suzanne Segal

But our threat response itself is not fear. Fear requires conceptual mind. When we notice the physiological harbingers of threat, such as increased heart rate, we might check our surroundings to make sure the threat is real. 

If the threat is real, we create the emotion of fear by thinking, specifically by remembering what we have learned is to be regarded as dangerous or not. If, for example, we notice that the “snake” on the ground is truly a poisonous snake, we feel fear. But if we determine that it is only a stick, we decide that fear is not warranted. 

Buddhism on Fear: Understanding Anxiety

When we conceptualize what we are experiencing, in addition to feeling fear in relation to the threat, we may begin to fear our own threat response, and that fear may manifest as a sense of inadequacy, a belief that we can’t manage our life’s challenges. Fear can then become anxiety.

Fear is the anticipation of whether and when a present threat will cause harm. Anxiety is the anticipation of an uncertain threat that is not present and may not occur.

The scientist Joseph LeDoux, in his book Anxious, states that fear is the anticipation of whether and when a present threat will cause harm. Anxiety, on the other hand, is the anticipation of an uncertain threat that is not present and may not occur.

For example, walking through the woods with the expectation of seeing a dangerous snake can cause hyper-vigilance to threat, or the feeling of anxiety. Here and elsewhere, anxiety is about anticipation of an uncertain threat. We’ve all had the experience of “worrying” about something that has not and may never occur.

“He who fears he shall suffer already suffers what he fears.”

Michel de Montaigne

Throughout our lives, we learn to avoid things that have the potential to cause harm, and we learn which situations are safe. Since this learning takes place across a life span, some of the things we learn to avoid as threatening are no longer present, or actually threatening. 

For example, if we witnessed our parents fighting when we were very young, we may learn that conflict is dangerous. As a young person, witnessing our caregivers dysregulated and screaming at each other may present an existential threat. We take that information with us throughout our lives, so that now, as adults, we may still experience a threat response to conflict, even though we are no longer reliant on caregivers to provide basic needs. We are often unaware that this connection is being made, and so it continues to occur.

Anxiety results from anticipatory, often unconscious fear of threats that may no longer be present.

It is this anticipatory, often unconscious fear of threats that are no longer present or actually threatening that causes anxiety, and therefore suffering. 

Buddhism on Fear and Anxiety

So what does Buddhism teach us about fear and anxiety? 

Buddhism on Fear: Safety and Avoidance

Underlying all is our need for safety and security. If we don’t feel safe, we become protective. This important fact of being human can also cause suffering, because as we try to protect and feel safe, we may begin to avoid parts of ourselves. We avoid feeling. We shut ourselves away in the cocoon, so we don’t risk feeling discomfort.

When we avoid uncomfortable emotions such as fear, we make ourselves small.

When we avoid uncomfortable emotions such as fear, we make ourselves small. We shrink rather than expand. We close our heart rather than risk the pain of keeping it open. We don’t like something, so we want to make it go away. We erect a wall, or worse, become critical of ourselves when we feel discomfort or respond with anxiety and fear.

Buddhism on Fear: Warriorship

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche invites us through his teachings to be a warrior. Being a “warrior” in the Shambhala tradition means being brave enough to stay with discomfort, to allow our emotional experiences, however painful. To keep your heart open, rather than trying to protect.

“‘Warrior’ here is a translation of the Tibetan word pawo. Pa means ‘brave,’ and wo makes it ‘a person who is brave.’”

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

So how can we practice warriorship relative to fear? If we turn toward fear instead of avoiding it and fully allow ourselves to experience the sensations, thoughts and behaviors that arise as a result, we can work with it, rather than fight against it.

Instead of avoiding fear, we can turn toward it: lean into it, welcome it, and allow ourselves to fully experience it.

But what does it mean to “turn toward fear”? We are designed, after all, to avoid discomfort and pain. This built-in survival mechanism has allowed the species to thrive, and it feels counterintuitive to lean into it, to welcome it. Yet, leaning into it is the only way to become familiar with it, so that we can use the information that it is offering. Becoming aware of the ways in which we automatically protect ourselves is a necessary step in making changes to our habitual responses.

Buddhism on Fear: Fearlessness

Fearlessness does not mean suppressing or banishing fear. It means not being afraid of fear.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche talks about fearlessness, about “conquering fear.” This does not mean suppressing, eliminating or banishing fear: it means not being afraid of fear, which is what causes our tendency to aggress against it. By not avoiding the reality of how we are responding to life, we become aligned with our own genuine heart of sadness.

“The only way to ease our fear and be truly happy is to acknowledge our fear and look deeply at its source. Instead of trying to escape from our fear, we can invite it up to our awareness and look at it clearly and deeply.”

Thích Nhất Hạnh, Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm

Meditation for Fear: How Meditation Helps Fear and Anxiety

Meditation is a way of slowing down, allowing space, and becoming familiar with ourselves.

Meditation is a way of slowing down, allowing space, and becoming familiar with ourselves. By allowing everything to arise, we can meet each experience as it is, the raw feelings, thoughts, how we work to make sense of our pain and protect ourselves. By making room for all of it, we can see our responses without judgment, as what we have learned, rather than identifying with them as who we are.

That separation allows us to look at the ways in which we protect ourselves in a gentle, non judgmental way, and we can see that our responses are habitual in nature, a result of our conditioning. Not our fault. And we know that what is learned is not solid, but can be unlearned (see my piece on habits).

When we slow down and allow the discomfort to be present, we can begin to notice thoughts and beliefs that are arising which may contribute to our suffering. Our thoughts play a large role in how we relate to the feelings of fear. The question then becomes, how are our thoughts and beliefs contributing to our suffering? 

“Nothing can harm you as much as your own thoughts unguarded.”

Buddha

Meditation for Fear: Making Friends with Ourselves

Working with fear requires gentleness. According to Pema Chödrön, we need to develop an unconditional friendship with ourselves.

“Developing unconditional friendship means taking the very scary step of getting to know yourself. It means being willing to look at yourself clearly and to stay with yourself when you want to shut down. It means keeping your heart open when you feel that what you see in yourself is just too embarrassing, too painful, too unpleasant, too hateful.”

Pema Chödrön

If we are able to welcome every aspect of ourselves, we disarm the so-called aggressors such as fear and anxiety. Like the Buddha on the eve of enlightenment, we can calmly acknowledge their presence, welcoming them in for tea. 

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!…

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Rumi

Meditation for Fear: Working with Learned Responses

When we can examine our thoughts and beliefs, and begin to see that what we have learned in our life has become the basis of our emotional experience, we can ask ourselves whether what we have learned is relevant now. Is a threat actually present, or are we remembering a feeling from a situation we may have experienced in the past, which is no longer threatening? In other words, are we engaging in “what if’s”?

By practicing letting go of thoughts that keep us stuck in the past or future, we can meet fearful feelings with kindness and curiosity.

This tendency is natural, as we are designed to use our past experiences to predict future harm. Through meditation, though, we can train ourselves to stay present with what is arising in this moment. By practicing letting go of thoughts that keep us stuck in the past, or propel us into a future which might not materialize, we can meet the fearful feelings with kindness and curiosity.

Meditation for Fear: Guided Meditation Script for Fear and Anxiety

Here is a guided meditation for fear that you can practice yourself:

Set a timer for as long as you would like to practice this meditation. You can start with 5 minutes if that feels comfortable, or if you have an established meditation practice, you can choose a longer time.

Take a moment to become comfortable in your meditation posture, sitting upright and relaxed. If you need instruction on posture, you can find more information here.

Tune into your breathing, allowing it to be exactly as it is right now.

See if you can locate the feeling of fear in your body. Take your time and let it be there, just noticing it. Keep your attention on the part of your physical body that feels fear. Place your hand wherever it is. This feeling will be your anchor throughout your meditation.

Notice any thoughts that arise while you are feeling, thank them for coming, and then turn your attention back to the feeling. You don’t have to get rid of the thoughts, just let them be there. Shift your attention from the thoughts back to the feeling. You might notice your thoughts are coming at you fast and loud. That is not a problem. 

Just notice them and continue to shift your attention to your feeling body.

You may notice how your thoughts may have changed the feeling. Again, you don’t need to do anything with this, just observe. You are safe in this moment. 

As you focus on the feeling, say to yourself, “I am aware that my body is feeling threatened” and continue to allow the feelings to be there. 

Continue to practice until your timer indicates that you are done.

Thank you for reading!

This article is part of the Shambhala.org Community Blog, which offers reflections by Shambhala community members on their individual journeys in meditation and spirituality.

3 thoughts on “Buddhism on Fear: How to Practice Meditation for Fear and Anxiety

  1. Anxiety is such a horrible feeling, one can start becoming anxious about having anxiety —a good example of the suffering of suffering. What a wonderful relief to know it is OK, normal and natural. We don’t have to fear or fight with it, just notice, accept and give ourselves the loving kindness we are so willing to give others. Wonderful words well crafted.

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2024-07-13 01:34:03