Dealing with Fear

What is 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 paralyze 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.

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.

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 aging, 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).

There are two types of fear, deluded or unhealthy and non-deluded or healthy. These can also be divided into fear of the inevitable and fear of the evitable. The key to dealing with fear is to check which type of fear we have, and to transform our unhealthy fears of what we can do nothing about into healthy, appropriate fears of what we can do something about. We can then use these as the motivation to develop refuge and to overcome what is really dangerous, and even eventually to overcome what at present seems inevitable, such as sickness, old age, and death.

Fear of Death

Or maybe we’re afraid of death. Again, though, as we are definitely going to die, that fear is not constructive and will lead to inappropriate responses such as denial or a sense of futility or meaninglessness in our life. However, although we have to die, we don’t have to die with an uncontrolled mind. It is therefore wise to transform our fear of dying into a fear of dying with an uncontrolled mind, the motivation that will ensure we prepare for a peaceful and controlled death.

Fear of Rejection

Or maybe we are afraid of rejection. Again, from where does this fear actually stem? Perhaps it is the fear of people disliking us. So what can we do about that? Change our mind and like them instead. That is in our control.

Fear of Being Trapped

Our fear of commitment, of being trapped, not able to back out, can also be transformed into a constructive fear when we recognize that what is really trapping us is our own mind. Real and healthy fear comes from recognizing that we are not committed to our escape from samsara, and serves as the motivation for seeking that commitment to escape.

Liberation from Fear

In other words, we cannot control whether things will go our way or not, but we can learn to control our own minds, our responses, and our own conduct, and in this way gradually find a genuine liberation from all fear. As Shantideva says in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:

“Buddha, the Able One, says,
‘Thus, all fears
And all infinite sufferings
Arise from the mind’.”


“.. it is not possible
To control all external events;
But, if I simply control my mind,
What need is there to control other things?”

A beautiful translation of Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life is available from Tharpa Publications.

The source of all our fear comes from our own uncontrolled minds or “delusions.”

There are fears that arise from attachment, such as the fear and anxiety of not finding or being separated from something or someone we feel we need for our security or happiness.

There are the fears that arise from anger and hatred. Some fears are directly proportional to our feeling of being threatened by others, which is the reason we get angry and mentally or physically try to push the person away.

And in particular, there are fears that arise from the mind of self-grasping ignorance, which is the root of all other delusions, and thus the source of all fears. To overcome this root of all fear, Buddha taught the truth of emptiness, or no self.

Root of All Fear

Self-grasping is an ignorance of the way things are, a mind that grasps at ourselves and the world around us as real, inherently existent, existing out there independent of the mind, having nothing to do with our perceiving consciousness. To overcome this root of all fear, Buddha taught the truth of emptiness, or no self. This is a very profound subject, but we can gain some understanding by considering our dreams.

The World is Like a Dream

Just as all the fear, danger, and suffering we experience in a nightmare comes from not realizing that we are only dreaming, so all the fear and suffering we experience during our life comes from not seeing the real nature of our world and our experience. The world does not exist separately from the mind. Our conviction that things exist “out there”, independent of our mind, is the source of all our fear. When we see directly that everything is projected by our perceiving awareness, like the objects in a dream, all our fears and problems will disappear. We suffer because we are asleep and lost in our dreams, and we will stop suffering only when we wake up and see things as they really are. The purpose of all Buddha’s teachings is to help us wake up.

Suppose that last night we dreamt a tiger was chasing us. Whilst we were dreaming, the tiger appeared very vividly to exist from its own side, which is why we developed fear and ran away from it. We felt strongly we were being chased by a real tiger and had no sense that the tiger was just and appearance to our mind. Yet when we woke up, we realized that the tiger was nothing more than a projection of our own mind-it did not exist from its own side, in our small bedroom! We immediately realized our mistake and saw that the tiger was nothing more than a projection of our own mind, and so our fear subsided.

Everything is Mere Appearance to Mind

The tiger ceased when the dream mind ceased. The same is true for the world we experience while we are awake. Though it appears as solid, real, and independent of the mind, in reality it is as insubstantial as a dream. A dream is a mistaken appearance to mind that arises from sleep. It is mistaken because for as long as we are dreaming, the dream world appears to exist from their own side, independent of our mind, whereas in fact it is a mere appearance to mind. Exactly the same, however, is true for the world we experience while we are awake. Though things appear as solid, real, and independent of the mind, in reality they are as insubstantial as a dream.

Awaking from the Sleep of Ignorance

Everything in samsara – our bodies, enjoyments, and the worlds we inhabit – are just like the things seen in a dream. They are mistaken appearances arising from the sleep of ignorance. Things falsely appear to exist from their own side, outside the mind, and we are completely taken in by their appearance. When an unpleasant object such as an enemy appears to our mind, we take this appearance at face value as a real, externally existent enemy, and so we react with fear or hostility; and when an attractive object such as a beautiful man or woman appears to our mind we are equally taken in and respond with desirous attachment. We are fooled completely by appearances – not for a moment do we question their validity. If we did question appearances, we would discover that that is all they are: mere appearances to mind, with no real object behind them. The enemy we fight or flee from is no more real than the tiger in the dream, and has no more power to harm what we really are. And the beautiful man or woman we are so attached to is like a lover we meet in a dream, a mere appearance arising like a wave in the ocean of our mind and later dissolving back again.

This is a very profound subject and not easy to understand. For more information, consult the books Transform Your Life , The New Heart of Wisdom, or Joyful Path of Good Fortune. It is also very important to find a qualified teacher who can give you oral teachings, explaining this subject to you from his or her own experience.

The cause of all fear is self-grasping ignorance and all the delusions, such as selfishness, attachment, and anger, which arise from that ignorance, as well as all the unskilful actions motivated by those delusions. Therefore, to find freedom from fear, we need to identify and uproot all our delusions, and especially our self-cherishing and self-grasping ignorance. To find out all about these two ego minds and how to overcome them, see Transform Your Life or Eight Steps to Happiness.

Buddhas, or Awakened Ones, are completely fearless because they have removed these sources of fear from their mind-self-cherishing and self-grasping ignorance.

The Story of Prince Siddhartha

Buddha Shakyamuni many times showed complete invincibility-you can read about such tales in any account of his life story, for example that given in Introduction to Buddhism. If we understand how Buddha is fearless, invincible, we can understand how he or she is perfect source of refuge for us as well.

There is a famous account of what happened when the Prince Siddhartha was on the verge of attaining enlightenment. As dusk fell, Devaputra Mara, the chief of all the maras, or demons, of this world, tried to disturb Siddhartha’s concentration by conjuring up many fearful apparitions. He manifested as hosts of terrifying demons, some throwing spears, some firing arrows, some trying to burn him with fire, and some hurling boulders and even mountains at him. Siddhartha remained completely undisturbed. Through the force of his concentration on love, the weapons, rocks, and mountains appeared to him as a rain of fragrant flowers, and the raging fires became like offerings of rainbow light. Love is said to be the greatest protection from fear, the best armor.

Conqueror Buddha

Seeing that Siddhartha could not be frightened into abandoning his meditation, Devaputra Mara tried instead to distract him by manifesting countless beautiful women, but Siddhartha responded by developing even deeper concentration. In this way, he triumphed over all the demons in the world, which is why he subsequently became known as a “Conqueror Buddha”.

Siddhartha continued with his meditation until dawn, when he attained the vajra-like concentration. With this concentration, which is the very last mind of a limited being, he removed the final veils of unknowing from his mind and in the next moment became a Buddha, a fully enlightened being.

Buddha’s Blessings

There is nothing that Buddha does not know. Because he or she has awakened from the sleep of ignorance and removed all obstructions from his mind, he or she knows everything of the past, present, and future simultaneously and directly. Moreover, Buddha has great compassion that is completely impartial, embracing all living beings without discrimination. He benefits all living beings without exception by emanating various forms throughout the universe and by bestowing his blessings on their minds. Through receiving Buddha’s blessings, all beings, even the lowliest animals, sometimes develop peaceful and virtuous states of mind. Eventually, through meeting an emanation of Buddha in the form of a Spiritual Guide, everyone will have the opportunity to enter the spiritual path to liberation and enlightenment. As the great Indian Buddhist Master Nagarjuna said, there is no one who has not received help from Buddha.

It is because of his or her omniscient, completely non-mistaken mind that a Buddha has the wisdom and power to protect all living beings. If there were something a Buddha did not know, or if he sometimes made mistakes, he would not be a perfect refuge from danger.

How do Buddhas protect us?

They cannot remove our suffering as if taking out a thorn from someone else’s skin, or lift us out of samsara like a mother cat picking up her kittens by the scruff of their necks. They cannot give us their wisdom, compassion or spiritual realizations as if giving a birthday present. There is therefore no sense in passively waiting for Buddhas to save us from our delusions and problems and dangers-if they could do so, they already would have. Though Buddhas have the perfect ability to help all living beings, and want nothing more than to give all living beings the limitless bliss they themselves experience, we can only receive their full help and protection if we also do something from our side, and train our mind in removing our own delusions.

For more information on the qualities of a Buddha, see Joyful Path of Good Fortune and Ocean of Nectar

In Buddhism, it is said that there are two causes of refuge or inner protection: fear and faith. Fear here means a realistic and healthy awareness of our vulnerability and the danger we are in. The fact is that as long as we are in samsara we are never safe. Our present circumstances may seem secure and comfortable, but they will change. We will definitely be separated from all the outer conditions that make us feel safe – our home, our family, our circle of friends, the money in our bank account, our physical health. If we are not separated from these conditions before death, we will be separated from them by death. What happens after death depends on the karma we have created and the virtuous or non-virtuous states of mind we have become familiar with. If in this life or in previous lives we have performed many negative actions and have not yet purified them, there is a real danger that these ripen at the time of our death and drag us into future suffering rebirths. This is not something we like to hear and our mind will probably come up with all kinds of excuses why this cannot be the case, but it is nevertheless the truth. And the only thing that can protect us is our own inner refuge of spiritual practice.

The following paragraph is extracted from Transform Your Life:

According to Buddhism, enlightened beings are called “Buddhas”, their teachings are called “Dharma”, and the practitioners who have gained realizations of these teachings are called “Sangha”. These are known as the “Three Jewels” – Buddha Jewel, Dharma Jewel, and Sangha Jewel – and are the objects of faith and refuge. They are called “Jewels” because they are very precious. In dependence upon seeing the fears and sufferings of samsara, and developing strong faith and conviction in the power of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha to protect us, we make the determination to rely upon the Three Jewels. This is the simple way of going for refuge to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

To find our more about the practice of refuge, see Transform Your Life or Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

Real Protection: Love Overcomes Fear

Here is a meditation we can do on love, taken from Transform Your Life:

We should begin our meditation by focusing on our family and friends, reflecting that for as long as they remain in samsara they will never know true happiness, and that even the limited happiness they presently experience will soon be taken away from them. Then we extend this feeling of wishing love to include all living beings, thinking, “How wonderful it would be if all living beings experienced the pure happiness of liberation!” We mix our mind with this feeling of wishing love for as long as possible.

Out of meditation, whenever we see or remember any living being, human or animal, we mentally pray: “May they be happy all the time. May they attain the happiness of enlightenment.” By constantly thinking in this way, we can maintain wishing love day and night, even during sleep.

Meditation on love is very powerful. Even if our concentration is not very strong we accumulate a vast amount of merit. By meditating on love we create the cause to be reborn as a human or a god, to have a beautiful body in the future, and to be loved and respected by many people. Love is the great protector, protecting us from anger and jealousy, and from harm inflicted by spirits. When Buddha Shakyamuni was meditating under the Bodhi Tree, he was attacked by all the terrifying demons of this world, but his love transformed their weapons into a rain of flowers. Ultimately our love will become the universal love of a Buddha, which actually has the power to bestow happiness on all living beings.

For more explanation of how to develop and increase our mind of love, see Transform Your Life or Eight Steps to Happiness.

Generally, our fear of death is an unhealthy and unrealistic fear-we don’t want to die, so we ignore the subject, deny it, or get morbidly obsessed by it and think that life is meaningless. However, right now we cannot do anything about dying, so there is no point fearing death itself. What kind of fear is useful?

A healthy fear of death would be the fear of dying unprepared, as this is a fear we can do something about, a danger we can avert. If we have this realistic fear, this sense of danger, we are encouraged to prepare for a peaceful and successful death and are also inspired to make the most of our very precious human life instead of wasting it.

Preparing for Death

This “sense of danger” inspires us to make preparations so that we are no longer in the danger we are in now, for example by practicing moral discipline, purifying our negative karma, and accumulating as much merit, or good karma, as possible. We put on a seat belt out of a sense of danger of the unseen dangers of traffic on the road, and that seat belt protects us from going through the windscreen. We can do nothing about other traffic, but we can do something about whether or not we go through the windscreen if someone crashes into us. Similarly, we can do nothing about the fact of death, but we can seize control over how we prepare for death and how we die. Eventually, through Tantric spiritual practice, we can even attain a deathless body.

In Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully, Geshe Kelsang says:

Dying with regrets is not at all unusual. To avoid a sad and meaningless end to our life we need to remember continually that we too must die. Contemplating our own death will inspire us to use our life wisely by developing the inner refuge of spiritual realizations; otherwise we shall have no ability to protect ourself from the sufferings of death and what lies beyond. Moreover, when someone close to us is dying, such as a parent or friend, we shall be powerless to help them because we shall not know how; and we shall experience sadness and frustration at our inability to be of genuine help. Preparing for death is one of the kindest and wisest things we can do both for ourself and others.

We are Travelers

The fact of the matter is that this world is not our home. We are travelers, passing through. We came from our previous life, and in a few years, or a few days, we shall move on to our next life. We entered this world empty-handed and alone, and we shall leave empty-handed and alone. Everything we have accumulated in this life, including our very body, will be left behind. All that we can take with us from one life to the next are the imprints of the positive and negative actions we have created. If we ignore death we shall waste our life working for things that we shall only have to leave behind, creating many negative actions in the process, and having to travel on to our next life with nothing but a heavy burden of negative karma.

Cultivating Positive Minds

On the other hand, if we base our life on a realistic awareness of our mortality, we shall regard our spiritual development as far more important than the attainments of this world, and we shall view our time in this world principally as an opportunity to cultivate positive minds such as patience, love, compassion, and wisdom. Motivated by these virtuous minds we shall perform many positive actions, thereby creating the cause for future happiness. When the time of our death comes we shall be able to pass away without fear or regret, our mind empowered by the virtuous karma we have created.

Using Our Life Meaningfully

The Kadampa Teachers say that there is no use in being afraid when we are on our deathbed and about to die; the time to fear death is while we are young. Most people do the reverse. While they are young they think, “I shall not die,” and they live recklessly without concern for death; but when death comes they are terrified. If we develop fear of death right now we shall use our life meaningfully by engaging in virtuous actions and avoiding non-virtuous actions, thus creating the cause to take a fortunate rebirth. When death actually comes we shall feel like a child returning to the home of its parents, and pass away joyfully, without fear. We shall become like Longdöl Lama, a Tibetan Buddhist Master who lived to a great old age. When the time of his death came he was overjoyed. People asked him why he was so happy and he replied, `If I die this morning I shall be born again this evening in a Pure Land. My future life will be far superior to this one.’ Longdöl Lama had prepared carefully for his death and chosen the specific place of his rebirth. If we use our life to engage purely in spiritual practice we can do the same.

For more information on the subject of death and dying, see Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully .

Attachment is an extremely common delusion – to a greater or lesser extent our minds are influenced by it almost all the time. All delusions function to destroy our peace of mind. It is easy to see how anger or jealousy disturb the mind, but how does attachment disturb us? To become aware of the disturbing characteristics of attachment, we need to watch our mind more closely and honestly than we are accustomed to doing. We might be sitting peacefully reading the newspaper, when someone we are very attached to walks into the room. Immediately our mind becomes agitated. We begin to fidget and want to start a conversation, even though we have nothing to say. Our stomach feels knotted. Our previous peace of mind is lost. We are anxious or fearful that they might be not be happy to see us. All this is a sign that attachment has entered into our mind.

How to Recognize Attachment

Attachment is an extremely common delusion – to a greater or lesser extent our minds are influenced by it almost all the time. If we pause from reading for a moment and watch our mind, it will not be long before a thought of attachment pops up. It may be about a person, or about food, cigarettes, something we have seen during the day, or our plans for the weekend. If we observe our mind closely we will notice that as soon as attachment arises, our mind tenses and our previous tranquility and spaciousness of mind are replaced by a subtle anxiety-a fear of not fulfilling our desires or of being separated from whatever it is we are attached to.

When we recognize this, we can replace the fear and anxiety associated with attachment with a healthy fear of what will happen if we make no steps to overcome our attachment. This will motivate us to apply the opponent to attachment rather than constantly give into it.

Delusions such as attachment are our real enemy. It is our own delusions that have created all the pain and problems we have ever experienced in the past or will experience in the future. Were it not for our delusions, we would already be enjoying the unending peace and bliss of nirvana. If we are patient with outer enemies in time we may win them round to our side, but we cannot afford to tolerate the inner enemy of delusion. Unless we take steps to oppose the delusions in our own mind, they will continue to create problems for us, life after life. Delusions are self-perpetuating and will never end of their own accord.

Whenever we allow ourself to indulge in a delusion we merely strengthen this destructive thought pattern, and when we allow it to influence our behavior all we will probably succeed in doing is to provoke a deluded response in other people. Getting angry will never solve our problems, nor cure us of our anger, and indulging our desirous attachment will not get it out of our system but simply add more fuel to the fire.

Opposing Our Delusions

The only way to free our mind of delusions is to make a conscious, concerted effort to apply their opponents. Each delusion has a specific opponent. The opponent to anger, for example, is patience, to hatred the opponent is love, and to jealousy it is rejoicing in others´ good fortune. The more we familiarize our mind with these opponents, the weaker our delusions will become. To eliminate delusions completely, however, we need to attack them from their very root, self-grasping ignorance, by developing a direct realization of emptiness, or ultimate truth.

To learn more about the delusions and how to overcome them, see Transform Your Life or Understanding the Mind.

Meditation to Overcome Fear

We can try this following simple visualization to let go of fear and anxiety. Sitting in a comfortable position for meditation, with a straight back, we close our eyes and breathe naturally through our nose. Then we spend a little time identifying what it is we are currently afraid of. We identify our deluded, unhealthy fears, such as the fear of dying, the fear of loss, the fear of failure, and so forth. Using our wisdom, we understand that all these fears, and all dangers, arise because of our deluded minds and negative actions. We then visualize these fears together with their actual causes (negative minds and actions) in the form of dense thick smoke, and we breathe it out. This smoke leaves our nostrils and disappears to the furthest reaches of space, where it completely disappears, never to return. As we inhale, we imagine we are breathing in all the pure, inspiring energy and fearlessness of all holy beings in the form of blissful white light, which fills our body and mind. After meditating like this for a while, we feel that our body and mind are now completely pure and that we have received the blessings and protection of all holy beings. Our body feels light and supple, and our mind is clear, peaceful, and fearless.

A Contemplation for Transforming Fear

When we are frightened, we should ask ourselves what we are actually frightened of. Are we frightened of getting sick? But at present we have no choice in that, and so that fear is not constructive. It is wiser to be afraid of contaminated rebirth and the four rivers of birth, aging, sickness, and death, all caused by our delusions. This fear is constructive, it is called “renunciation”, the wish definitely to escape from samsara’s sufferings, the motivation that will enable us to escape from samsara and all sickness.

The following passage is from Introduction to Buddhism:

To give fearlessness is to protect other living beings from fear or danger. For example, if we rescue someone from a fire or from some other natural disaster, if we protect others from physical violence, or if we save animals and insects who have fallen into water or who are trapped, we are practicing giving fearlessness. If we are not able to rescue those in danger, we can still give fearlessness by making prayers and offerings so that they may be released from danger. We can also practice giving fearlessness by praying for others to become free from their delusions, especially the delusion of self-grasping, which is the ultimate source of all fear.

Introduction to Buddhism is available from Tharpa Publications.