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Examining the basis of fear through meditation
“I have not ceased being fearful, but I have ceased to let fear control me. I have accepted fear as a part of life - specifically, the fear of change, the fear of the unknown; and I have gone ahead despite the pounding in my heart that says: turn back, turn back, you'll die if you venture too far. -Erica Jong
Bryan Kennedy SID # 15855492 Psychology 107
GSI: Sandra Black
Fear is within us; consuming our thoughts and coloring our perceptions. A horn blares to your right – do you contemplatively choose to ignore it, concluding that the warning was not directed at you? No, you involuntarily orient your eyes and mind to the sudden stimulus. Fear drives us, binding us to actions of which we seemingly have no control. Through the meditative examination of my own fears, I shall attempt to form a deeper understanding of their root causes, allowing me to better circumvent the fear-based automatic responses that compel my actions. When I began my first walking meditation, my intent was not to study fear. Rather, it was simply to cut down on the distraction of wandering thought patterns, so that I could recognize the attentional states that lie beneath. To accomplish this, I adopted a form of walking meditation from the Vipassana tradition, through which one labels and thus becomes aware of the mind’s meandering path (Silananda, 1991). Those unfamiliar with walking meditation may find the sound of it a bit odd. After all, it seemingly contradicts the more traditional sitting meditation technique, which one performs in a quiet setting. By its very nature, a walking meditation is done in a world filled with stimuli bidding for one’s attention. Instead of closing one’s eyes and looking within, one is obligated to look upon the world with seeing eyes. According to the Zen master Ta-hui, meditating “in the midst of activity is immeasurably superior to the quietistic approach.” (Hakuin) Such a meditation challenges one to maintain his focus, while at the same time allowing for a more complete understanding of the senses. I chose a walking meditation because it allowed me to observe my interaction with the world in an aware state.
During Vipassana walking meditation, one chooses a trail that has a set goal so as not to wander aimlessly. Likewise, the path of the mind is controlled to an extent; during my meditative walk, my only ambition was to recognize when my overactive mind wandered too far from the present moment. When this happened, I would simply tether it in by silently saying “thinking” (Silananda, 1991). Doing this would bring me back to the present, letting me again focus on my surroundings. If I heard a bird chirping above me, I would label it “bird” to recognize where my attention had shifted. The goal of labeling here is to achieve mindfulness, by discouraging one’s dwelling on any particular attentional state, while at the same time allowing the vessel of attention to float naturally in the tide. The purpose of this mindfulness is to achieve a state of unity of the mind and body (Rosch, 1997). My overall purpose in undertaking this endeavor was to discover what I attend to when my mind is allowed to roam. I would have never guessed that the basis for much of that attention was fear. Starting my journey, I find myself walking along Arch Street, toward my destination. Slowing my pace, evening my breath, focusing my thoughts. I hear a car turning the corner ahead – I label it: “car”. More walking. I begin to think of how silly I must look to the person in the car, walking around zombie-like as I am. Were they looking at me, making a face perhaps… Label: “thinking”… Returning to the moment… I’m doing this right, aren’t I? Oops… “Thinking”… Returning... I hear a wood-chipper in the distance, and move on. I walk past a man and a woman sitting on a deck, having a conversation. My attention is drawn to their words, extracting information that I don’t need but inexplicably want. My mind shouts out
for more – it needs a proper view! What do they look like? Are they looking at me? I wonder what they think I’m doing? Pulling back for a moment, a clear pattern is starting to emerging as my mind returns to the self-critical “what are they thinking of me?” This fear of rejection, while deep set, is something that I recognize in myself. I often judge myself through the eyes of others, as validation for my actions. When I complete a project, I don’t feel satisfied with it until someone else accepts my work. I know I don’t need this substitute umpire, for I am perfectly capable of relying on myself to make such judgments. Becoming aware of this fear, however, is the first step in overcoming it. Keeping this in mind, I return to my walk. Approaching a busy street now, I turn to my left. My attention is drawn to the novel sound of speedy cars as they wiz past. I label them and move on. For the first time since I began my meditation, I pass a person in the street, not allowing my eyes nor my mind to meet them. This encounter I find particularly unnerving. Not only am I preventing myself from adhering to the normalcy of eye contact, but I am also instinctually surrendering control of the situation to this unknown individual. While I know that they pose no danger to me, I feel a fear building up inside. “Look at them!” my mind cries. It shouts thousands of questions, encouraging me to profile my unwitting adversary. What’s their gender? Are they larger than me? Do they dress well? It feels so natural to “size someone up” in passing that I never realized the reasons for my gaze, nor even was I aware that it took place. This initial profiling is truly a means of feeling in control of a given situation. If you know your antagonist,
you will be more prepared to act in the way required of you. Not antagonist in the sense of fanciful duals or fights to the death, but rather, someone who you don’t trust yet. Instinctually, I find my brain seeking to classify this person as fast as possible, so as to be prepared for any possible eventuality. Again, I feel a fear of rejection building up inside. On any other day, I would give in and allow my mind to orient itself to this person, acting in a way that is more mechanical than fully aware. Today, however, I will refuse my mind the pleasure of impulse and see where that leads. My mind doesn’t like this one bit. I don’t think of myself as a fearful person, but I quickly find myself spiraling deeper into a state of mild panic. It seemed that when I didn’t allow my mind to behave in the way it wanted to, I became preoccupied with feelings of vulnerability. By not paying attention to traffic flow, for instance, I started to get the sense that I was at its whim. How could I cross the street confidently without having made eye contact with the driver of the stopped car? I started to feel a dire sense of helplessness – was I sure that the person I just passed didn’t turn around and follow me? Was that a trick of the ear, or did that truck sound pretty close? In Openness Mind, Tarthong Tuiku explains to a student how emotions such as fear can be compounded by meditative states: “…when you are making every effort to control your thoughts, that is precisely when thoughts become most disturbing.” (1990) As I sought to control my attention by slamming doors on fear’s leaping flame, those heavy wooden gates proved only to fuel the very fire I was trying to quell. Even still, I can’t help but wonder where this flicker of fear hides when I’m not meditating. When I encounter a person on the sidewalk and allow my
eyes to examine them, I don’t explicitly recognize fear, but does that mean it doesn’t exist? No, the only reason I orient myself to the stranger in the first place is because of this fear of helplessness. Refusing myself the desire to observe didn’t create the fear, but gave it room to roam. The subject of fear is of particular salience to us today, in this world torn by conflict and strife. With the constant reminder of terrorist attacks following September 11th, it seems that our government is intentionally using fear to garner support for their right-wing agenda. When controlled by fear, we don’t assess the world around us, acting mechanically for survival. This lack of awareness leads us to tolerate the slow whittling away of the human rights that we hold dear. It is our prerogative as citizens to not give into this mindless fear, but rather to assess whether or not it is valid and beneficial to our lives. In the movie “Defending Your Life” (1991), the protagonist finds himself in the midway point between death and the afterlife. In this fictional land, the purpose of each newly departed soul is to prove to the powers that be that their most recent visit to earth was one not controlled by fear. Souls that demonstrate an ability to overcome fear are sent upward, while those still dwelling in it are sent back to earth for another go. While it is a cinematic farce, this message holds a lot of truth. For when we aren’t aware of our fear, we can’t overcome it. And if we can’t overcome our fear, we can never move past it, in this life or the next. Through my walking meditation, I discovered that many of my actions were guided by a silent, unknown fear. By mindfully recognizing this fear, I found myself rising above it, allowing me to be more fully aware of my actions.
Works Cited Defending Your Life. Dir. Albert Brooks. Perf. Albert Brooks, Meryl Streep, Rip Torn, et al. Warner Studios,1991. Hakuin. “Practice in the midst of activity.” Orategama I Rosch, Eleanor. “Mindfulness meditation and the private(?) self.” The Conceptual Self in Contex. ed. U. Neisser, and David A. Jopling. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Silananda, U. The four foundations of mindfulness. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications. 1991. Tulku, Tarthang. Openness Mind. Berkeley: Dharman Press, 1990.
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