Dealing with Fear

What is Fear?

According to Buddhism, there is unhealthy fear and healthy fear.

According to Buddhism, there is unhealthy fear and healthy fear. For example, when we are afraid of something that cannot actually harm us – such as spiders – or something we can do nothing to avoid – such as old age or being struck down with smallpox or being run over by a truck – then our fear is unhealthy, for it serves only to make us unhappy and paralyse our will. On the other hand, when someone gives up smoking because they are afraid of developing lung cancer, this is a healthy fear because the danger is real and there are constructive steps they can take to avoid it.

Root of Fear

We have many fears-fear of terrorism, fear of death, fear of being separated from people we love, fear of losing control, fear of commitment, fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of losing our job, the list is never-ending! Many of our present fears are rooted in what Buddha identified as “delusions” – distorted ways of looking at ourself and the world around us. If we learn to control our mind, and reduce and eventually eliminate these delusions, the source of all our fear, healthy and unhealthy, is eradicated.

If we learn to control our mind….
the source of all our fear, healthy and unhealthy, is eradicated.

Healthy Fear

However, right now we need the healthy fear that arises from taking stock of our present situation so that we can resolve to do something about it. For example, there is no point in a smoker being scared of dying of lung cancer unless there is something that he or she can or will do about it, i.e. stop smoking. If a smoker has a sufficient fear of dying of lung cancer, he or she will take steps to kick the habit. If he prefers to ignore the danger of lung cancer, he will continue to create the causes of future suffering, living in denial and effectively giving up control.

Just a smoker is vulnerable to lung cancer due to cigarettes, it is true that at the moment we are vulnerable to danger and harm, we are vulnerable to ageing, sickness, and eventually death, all due to our being trapped in samsara-the state of uncontrolled existence that is a reflection of our own uncontrolled minds. We are vulnerable to all the mental and physical pain that arises from an uncontrolled mind-such as the pains that come from the delusions of attachment, anger, and ignorance. We can choose to live in denial of this and thereby give up what control we have, or we can choose to recognize this vulnerability, recognize that we are in danger, and then find a way to avert the danger by removing the actual causes of all fear (the equivalent of the cigarettes)-the delusions and negative, unskilful actions motivated by those delusions. In this way we gain control, and if we are in control we have no cause for fear.

All Buddha’s teachings are methods to overcome the delusions, the source of all fears.

Balanced Fear

A balanced fear of our delusions and the suffering to which they inevitably give rise is therefore healthy because it serves to motivate constructive action to avoid a real danger. We only need fear as an impetus until we have removed the causes of our vulnerability through finding spiritual, inner refuge and gradually training the mind. Once we have done this, we are fearless because we no longer have anything that can harm us, like a Foe Destroyer (someone who has attained liberation, defeated the foe of the delusions) or a Buddha (a fully enlightened being).

All Buddha’s teachings are methods to overcome the delusions, the source of all fears. For an introduction to these teachings, see Transform Your Life.

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All quotations from Geshe Kelsang Gyatso's books copyright The New Kadampa Tradition - International Buddhist Union, all rights reserved worldwide. For more information on Geshe Kelsang's books visit Tharpa Publications.