Your Fear is Sacred

Ethan Nichtern
August 20, 2020
A fearful person walks down a dark street

Almost everyone I know is experiencing heightened fear right now, with Covid-19, the upcoming election, greater national attention to systemic racism and police brutality, and tremendous uncertainty about the future.

Does experiencing all that fear when we sit mean we’re failures at meditation? 

Not at all. In fact, fear has profound wisdom within it. Here are three ways that might show up in our lives.

1. Compassion

First, we can have great compassion toward our fears, and the fears of others.

Our human nervous systems evolved from those of species whose very survival was threatened constantly, and who passed on their reptilian and animal brains to us. It makes sense that being afraid that you might not make your rent payment this month can provoke almost the same nervous response as thinking that a predator is about to eat you. Inhabiting a human nervous system is kind of like living in a house where the doorbell and the burglar alarm make exactly the same sound.

So when we experience fear, no matter how irrational it may seem, we can use it as an occasion to remember what unites all human beings together, and to hold that with compassion for ourselves and others.

2. Real Fearlessness

Second, as we confront our fears over and over again, both in meditation and in everyday life, we gradually learn that true fearlessness is about moving toward fear, not away from it.

True “fearlessness” is not some idealized state where the emotion no longer occurs. In fact, idealizing some imagined state actually makes fear worse, as we can become terrified of being with the emotions and thoughts that move through our minds moment by moment. 

Rather, true fearlessness means to see fear as a profound emotion, and move toward it as a sacred experience that links us with every other human who has felt terrified at one time or another. This courageous act of moving toward fear, rather than trying to reject it, is, ironically, what we call fearlessness.

3. Growing More Alive

Third, moving toward fear in this way can help us grow more authentically alive.

As the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön has said, “Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” Connecting with fear, we get up close and personal with the vulnerability and fragility of being a human being. When we take a sacred approach to fear, we begin to resensitize and overcome our numbness. Fear becomes a motivation to open up, to be a brave and flawed person among other flawed people. Working with fear forms the basis for accommodating every other difficult emotion. 

A person facing her fear models a kind of authentic realness. The energetic quality of fear is no different from the energy of being alive— fear runs through our veins and our nervous system as our most basic power source.

Fear, when we can face it, grounds us in our body and annihilates the pretense that we are supposed to be anywhere else. Fear destroys the naïve spiritual premise that we might “transcend” our human experience, and encourages us to be right here. When we accommodate fear, we just show up, perhaps shaking a little, but good enough to be worthy of what’s in front of us. 

Fear is saying to us, “This is really happening. You are really alive right now. These jitters you feel are the basic life force of your heart and mind, your wind horse. Please stop wishing for another now!”

This approach to fear as the most fundamental emotion connecting us to our humanity still does not mean we have to seek it out. We don’t need to go looking for fear— we just need to work bravely with whatever fear we naturally experience.

Speaking personally, I experience fear so many times each day that I can’t even keep track. Fear is always with us, yet if we can take a friendly approach to viewing it as a valid and meaningful experience, it becomes a recurring energy that shows us our own beating heart, and shows us that we are alive and awake. 

The full experience of fear is a prelude to every moment of growth along our journey. Fear is the most sacred emotion of all.

Ethan Nichtern is a senior Buddhist teacher. From 2010-2018 he served as the teacher in residence for the Shambhala NYC community. He is the author of The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path (2015), The Dharma of The Princess Bride (2017) and other books.

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