Afflictive emotions – our jealousy, anger, hatred, fear – can be put to an end. When you realize that these emotions are only temporary, that they always pass on like clouds in the sky, you also realize they can ultimately be abandoned. — the Dalai Lama
Warning! I give lots of unsolicited advice in this article — unsolicited, unprofessional, inexpert, etc. I am in no way a trained psychologist. All I’m doing is relating my own experience; so proceed at your own risk.
Fear, anger, worry, jealousy… These are some of the nastiest things we deal with in life. Why? Where do they come from? What are they for? And what can we do about it?
Where Do They Come From?
I don’t know where they come from, but I think they come from the feeling that you are separate from Other Things in the world, and that these Other Things can reach out and affect you in ways you won’t like — hurting you, changing you, killing you.
What Are They For?
Negative emotions are for self-protection. Jealousy urges you to hold on to things you feel are yours; anger prompts you to act in your own self-defense, or defense of the things you hold dear; fear leads you to flee; worry sets you thinking and planning of for how to avoid trouble. All of these things are useful things to do for survival in the physical world. However…
Are They Really Necessary?
After all, you don’t need jealousy to hold on to things you think are yours; you can hold on to them simply because you like them. You could act to defend valuable things without anger. You could rationally decide to run away from danger without feeling fear. You could make plans without being worried about the outcome. Wouldn’t that be nice?…
Fear is the Mind-Killer….
It would be nice. Fear and the other negative emotions are terribly unpleasant. In a very real way, they remove us from the world, and force us into a kind of shadow-world, where the colors are dimmed, and sounds are muffled. Instead of living here in the present, fear and worry focus our attention on the unformed future, or the regrets of the past; and so we don’t pay as much attention to the marvelous colors and sounds of the Earth, and we live a sort of stunted half-life.
How Can We Be Free From Fear?
Is it possible to suppress fear — to turn away from it, and just try to think about something else? To willfully turn it off?
Most psychologists tend to think not. Reasonably reliable experiments have shown that a great way to get someone to focus on something is to ask them not to focus on it. Don’t think of an elephant…
Subjects who were asked specifically not to think of a green rabbit, but to nevertheless ring a bell whenever they thought of it, generally rang the bell five times in the next six minutes. And the effect seems to be the same regardless of whether they were thinking of something important or unimportant, or were asked to ring the bell or just report their thoughts afterwards.
Even trying to think of something else had mixed results at best. Subjects were told something like, “Don’t think of a green rabbit. Instead, think of a blue squirrel.” The result? Whenever people thought of the blue squirrel, they would automatically think of the green rabbit.
And yet… it is possible to turn away from thoughts, to willfully focus your attention on whatever you want. This is basically what meditation is, after all: willfully focused attention. It’s not easy at first; it certainly takes practice. But once you’re good at it, you can direct your thoughts toward or away from things easily. I strongly suspect that if these psychology experiments had been performed on people skilled at meditation, the results would have been vastly different.
So, with practice, can you suppress fear by simply ignoring it? Well, yes and no. The word suppression is a tricky thing. Let me give an example.
If I perform visualization meditations when I am particularly tired or feeling a bit down, I frequently encounter nasty things — unpleasant beasts, rude people, even monsters and skeletons and such. These beings say awful things, things that seem almost designed to elicit fear — “I am your Dark Side”, “I am your Future”, or “I am a Spirit that is Haunting You!” If I try to walk away or ignore them, they will change form, becoming even more horrible or nightmarish, as if they are trying to keep my attention.
But they are actually easy to dispel. All I have to do is turn firmly away, and focus on cheerful things — bright light, melodious sound, colors, feelings, etc. — and they are gone. They cannot grab my attention. They can only have my attention if I give it to them.
So, where do they go when I ignore them? Are they “suppressed”? I don’t think so. I believe they are created by my own negative or confused feelings, and when I turn my attention away from those feelings, the feelings and the negative beings disappear entirely.
Think of a musical instrument. You may play a sad melody on it. If you then stop, and start playing a happy melody, are you “suppressing” the sad melody? Of course not; you’ve ended it entirely. Naturally you can turn your attention to it again, and bring it back. But the sad song isn’t hanging around somewhere hoping to get played again.
Emotions do not have an existence independent of our attention. They can be released; and then they are well and truly gone.
Unless Spirit brings them back.
Sometimes a valuable lesson comes cloaked in fear or pain. I don’t think Spirit prefers to serve us our lessons in this way, but perhaps we don’t always give Spirit a choice. Spirit may need us to learn a lesson about compassion, or joy, or oneness; but if we see this lesson as a threat to our identity, it can be a fearful experience.
In this case, you can turn your attention away, but Spirit will keep trying to teach you the lesson until you get it. The best thing to do is face the lesson head-on.
If Spirit keeps bringing it back, then you have to face it. But it doesn’t have to be fearful.
Like anything else, fear can be ended by removing what’s causing it.
Take the obvious cases first. If someone is generating fear in you by running at you with a knife, one way you can eliminate the fear is by somehow stopping them from doing that — by calling out to a friend, pointing your gun at them, running away very fast, etc.
But sometimes that kind of option isn’t open to you. In this case, you have to find a deeper cause for the fear. Are you afraid of a knife? Actually, you’re not — it’s pain and death you’re really afraid of. If you could eliminate those fears, then a knife wouldn’t upset you at all. The knife is just a proximate cause; fear of pain and death is the ultimate cause.
But pain and death don’t necessarily cause fear. People can face pain and death without fear. What really causes fear, I think, is the feeling of being separate from Other Things, as I mentioned at the beginning. These Other Things might have power over you, might change you or kill you. Best avoid them! Especially if they’re sharp.
But these Other Things… Are they really Other? Are they really separate?
I don’t think so. In meditation, digging around in the subconscious mind, I’ve found that there isn’t really a boundary between Me and Other-People. There are some parts that are definitely Me, and some parts that are definitely Others, but they sort of merge into each other; there is no boundary, any more than there is a boundary between my hand and my face.
And these Other Things… Can they really harm you? Do they really have power over you?
Your physical body can be destroyed without your explicit permission. But the true essence of you — your own soul — need not be touched.
- Imagine the worst possible outcome. Think about what that would mean.
- When you do that, remember that you are an eternal being, an extension of the universal soul. From this broadest perspective, the worst possible outcome never looks quite so horrible.
- Now advance on your fear. Take a step toward it. Now you are in motion; you are acting, you are making choices. And if you are truly at peace with the worst possible outcome…
- Then the fear is gone. You are no longer imprisoned in the future, locked into worry. The world explodes into color.
And you feel more alive than ever.