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6 Lessons Fear Teaches Us

Buddhists have long held that the greatest fear of all is the fear of death. When I was in my teens, I was terrified of cockroaches. Growing up in India, it was difficult to avoid them, especially during the monsoon season. A time or two I put on clothes I had hung on a hook behind the bathroom door only to be shocked to find a couple of roaches hurrying down my legs!

What is Hatred

As a teenage boy, I couldn’t reconcile with the idea of being afraid of something so insignificantly small as a roach. I had to figure a way to justify my feelings towards this bug. I reflected on the dilemma and broke it down to the fact that it wasn’t so much I was afraid, I actually despised cockroaches. So because I hated them so much, I didn’t want any physical contact with them.

That was a satisfactory explanation to maintain a certain social strata for the time being. In the future though, I learned during my lifelong quest to understand human behavior, that hatred is a kind of projected fear. It’s sort of survival mechanism. Animals, for example, naturally avoid anything that could threaten their survival. In humans, that degree of concern projects as a seemingly more complex emotion of hatred.

Having an aversion toward anything that could compromise one’s preservation makes it easier to avoid it. We have even developed senses that react fiercely on perceiving a distaste for sights, sounds, and especially touch, smells, and tastes. We handle hot objects carefully, for example. We don’t necessarily hate heat, but we certainly fear and, therefore, hate being burnt. So the association of heat with fear of burning motivates us to handle hot articles with utmost care.

Likewise, sights, smells, and tastes can warn us of a spoiled food. We don’t fear rotten food, but we certainly hate getting upset stomach or throwing up. So the fear isn’t necessarily directed towards objects, but the threat they could pose to our survival. Our aversion towards these objects is just a way our senses have developed to keep us away from them. Thus, in the chain of feelings that end in fear, there’s likely going to be hatred somewhere. This is the first lesson–hatred is fear in disguise.

What is Anger

Then, what of anger? You can’t be angry at food that gave you poisoning. You hate it, but it makes no sense to be mad at it. We only get angry at those who can register that type of reaction such as animals and fellow humans. But might anger be preceded by a certain degree of hatred?

Threat from animated objects is generally greater than from inanimate ones. So while it suffices to hate something that could harm us, when it comes down to avoiding a self-animated danger like an animal or another human, we best express it more fiercely. That’s where anger comes in.

Of course, in our everyday lives, we heed little attention to the internal dynamics of our mindscape. Anger, hatred, ill-will, animosity are generally acceptable social toxins that originate from a constant need to self-preserve. However, what if the perceived threat is not real?

What if our fears are rooted in conditioning of the past that alerts us of the slightest deviation from our perceived sense of comfort and safety? Does anger not then become an automatic reaction devoid of any rational thought? Indeed so!

And one generally hates the person or animal they are angry towards. You don’t love your spouse when you’re angry at him or her. And you certainly won’t love a grizzly bear-mama should you find her growling at you in the woods! Then, in the chain of feelings that end in fear, could we perhaps insert hatred followed by anger? The second lesson then becomes – hatred and anger are both projections of an underlying fear.

What is Depression

Then what of anger that doesn’t get expressed? An intense aversion towards an object, circumstance, or a person, followed by a fervent emotion to reject something or someone that offers a perceivable threat to your survival. How long and how deep can one bury an intense fury, supposing that one could, and what would it do to one’s chain of negativity? The answer is indifference.

The anger pushed down deep enough causes one to stop caring about anything or anyone, including themselves. Perhaps they feel that their life is done with, so nothing really matters. That is the state of depression and self-isolation. It’s one of the lowest state in the entire spectrum of human emotions leading to self-loathe and often self-sabotage.

Depression is the state in which a human capable of rational thinking somehow becomes a victim of its own greatest fear. We fear a perceived threat so much that we would much rather hurt ourselves before it can hurt us. But not in a calculated way or with intention, but by being passive and indifferent. It’s sort of an auto-immune mental dysfunction in which our mind starts to attack itself! That’s the third lesson–unexpressed anger that’s rooted in the ultimate fear of death can lead one to automatically destroy oneself.

Does that mean all the dis-serving emotions stem from the morbid fear of death lying in the deepest recesses of our psyche? Indeed, it must be unnerving to experience the ultimate separation from everything we know, in fact, from the ‘knowing’ itself! So then the fear becomes not so much of destruction but more of dis-integration.

How to deal with Negativity

What is the way out then, if there is any? How do we reconcile the inevitable separation of our body and mind from what we call life? And will walking that path free us from the downstream emotions of fear, hatred, anger, ill-will, animosity, and depression?

Perhaps the answer lies in the capacity to think beyond ourselves, to wear the shoes of those we interact with, especially those we fear and loathe. To look past our own survival and reflect on theirs. For just like we have a constant fear of dis-integration, so do they, and so does every living being in our perceivable existence. This realization alone should level the playing field for both the offender and the offended.

Perhaps the answer, above all, is in developing compassion for fellow beings because we are all struggling. Struggling to put off an untimely demise, a relentless separation from all we know and love. The answer lies in acceptance of unpleasant events, situations, and people knowing that, just like us, they’re struggling too. The fourth lesson then is–we’re all in the same storm and likely in different boats. We all experience challenges, but view them differently according to our mental conditioning and circumstances.

What’s the point in hating someone who was dwelling in fear when they expressed anger? At least they didn’t push it down, falling into the pit of depression, self-loathe, and sabotage. Understanding that can help us stay out of the vicious circle while potentially helping others also come out of it. This level of higher thinking might serve to dispel the feelings of hatred and anger towards others.

How to overcome Fear

As for the core fear of death, every major tradition entertains the idea of an afterlife. It’s as though we fall into a slumber in this life, only to wake up some place else. We are reborn into a life of joyous pleasure or endless agony depending on our deeds in the earthly existence. The fifth lesson, therefore, is–there is no destruction, only regeneration. A mind moving from one life into another in a different time and space.

Buddhists believe that only the body dies, the mind continues to maintain an incessant flow of life after life. We can either choose to live frivolously or work on developing our wisdom to capture the essence of all that means to be alive. The Buddhist path aims to reach a state of deathless in which the mind is free from the process of becoming. No becoming means no destruction.

Despite the monotonous immersion of their way, Buddhists endeavor to develop wisdom by exploring all mental phenomena. It’s the path of dividing, dissecting, disintegrating all mental activity that is so readily experienced in our bodily sensations. That way you can understand your perceptions for what they truly is. Then all thoughts and emotions merely reduce to sparks of mental processing so volatile, so ephemeral, it feels ridiculous to entertain them beyond the material necessities of life.

Like the wings of a bird, mental phenomena and bodily sensations go together to give us the experience of life. No thought, memory, idea, inspiration or emotion arises without a corresponding sensation arising in the field of body. That’s how the body and mind remain inter-connected and continuously influence one another for as long as we live.

Observing our bodily sensations with equanimity then becomes a tool to develop wisdom–a method of inquiry into the true nature of what we call life and of existence itself. Regardless of the lofty goals of the Buddhist path, the essential takeaway then becomes development of wisdom. The higher level of understanding about the collective phenomenon we call existence, which includes all that we perceive and interact with along our journey through life. The path that, if nothing else, will lead us to understanding a deeper meaning of life and of death so that we can be free of its fear as well as the agony of dis-serving emotions it lies under.

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