"The greatest barrier to happiness in the world today is… fear. Fear keeps us from living our lives fully; it locks us behind doors, too frightened to take chances, so afraid of losing what we covet that we can barely move at all. Fear creeps into our lives in so many ways. We fear death, so we are afraid of living. We fear rejection so we are afraid of relationships. We fear failure so we hide from success. Fear makes it impossible to enjoy what we have, to appreciate life, because we are afraid that our happiness, our successes, our possessions can be taken away from us. We can’t live in the present because the possible horrors of an imagined future paralyze us… with fear. But, what can we do about it?
We can begin by recognizing that fear has many forms, and that there is such a thing as healthy fear. We have a biological fear of fire, for example, which keeps us from getting burnt. A car comes careening toward you, you leap out of the way, your heart pounding in terror. Primal fears are hard-wired into us to keep us safe, so that we don’t act recklessly or take unnecessary risks. But when fear blocks our very ability to live, it is supremely unhealthy.
Of course, fear – as a natural part of our human make-up – can never be banished forever. Circumstances change, life is in constant flow, and no matter how well we train ourselves to become free of fear, we will nevertheless face that challenge again and again. The trick is to recognise this, and to not succumb to fear when it re-enters our lives.
One of our greatest fears is fear of change. And yet the world is constantly changing. The problem arises when we begin to identify with the changes – when we begin to define ourselves as a particular manifestation, rather than as a living being in a fluid state of existence. Imagine looking in the mirror when you are very angry. You know this is a temporary state, but for the moment you identify with that state. You say, ‘I am angry,’ as if you are defining yourself as an angry person. But the anger – as something temporary caused by changing circumstances – is an illusion. Thus, the person you see in the mirror is also an illusion.
You are only seeing one facet of your complex self, and ignoring the deeper, spiritual you – the part of you that has nothing to do with circumstance. You see, once you identify with temporary feelings, you experience fear. Maybe you’re afraid you won’t get what you want – your next meal, a big promotion, love … whatever – and that fear begins to suffocate you. But when you remember that you are a spiritual being, that you are separate from appearances, that you are eternal, you can begin to release the fear. By bringing your attention back to what already exists you can be in touch with your divine nature. And in that place, there is no place for fear.
At its core, fear is the ego’s fear of not existing. The ego – that part of us that thinks it is all of us – is constantly analyzing, intellectualizing, measuring and quantifying in its effort to dream its way into existence. Many of us have had enlightening glimpses of our true nature. When it happens, it’s beautiful – a freeing and uplifting experience. However, the ego is very powerful, and it usually comes marching in again and tries to retake its position at the center of our existence. But once you understand this, you can work to free yourself of the ego’s power. You have a choice, every moment of every day, to silence the chattering beast that is the ego and to focus your attention not on fear of what might be, but on the certainty of what is – your true nature.
We are all reborn every single moment. If you choose fear, it is fear you will experience, and you will find yourself surrounded by other fearful people. But yes, you can choose to detach yourself from fear and focus instead on the higher truth of your spiritual reality. Life often seems to be a roller coaster ride, dipping from heights of good, down to troughs of bad… all the dualities: good/bad, happy/sad, rich/poor, loved/lonely, sick/well, etc. But the trick is not to simply focus on the apparent high points which we call ‘good.’ Instead, the trick is to see it all as a wholeness, the flowing process of life, without judgement, without anger, without fear.
For most people, the greatest fear of all is the fear of death. It paralyzes many of us to the extent that we are obsessed, incapable of appreciating the life we are currently living. The great teacher Ramana Maranhi recommends practicing your own death. Check out this little story about facing death for the first time: "It was in 1896, about 6 weeks before I left Madurai for good that this great change in my life took place. I was sitting alone in a room on the first floor of my uncle’s house. I seldom had any sickness and on that day there was nothing wrong with my health, but a sudden violent fear of death overtook me. There was nothing in my state of health to account for it nor was there any urge in me to find out whether there was any account for the fear. I just felt I was going to die and began thinking what to do about it. It did not occur to me to consult a doctor or any elders or friends. I felt I had to solve the problem myself then and there.
The shock of the fear of death drove my mind inwards and I said to myself mentally, without actually framing the words: ‘Now death has come; what does it mean? What is it that is dying? This body dies.’ And at once I dramatised the occurrence of death. I lay with my limbs stretched out still as though rigor mortis has set in, and imitated a corpse so as to give greater reality to the enquiry. I held my breath and kept my lips tightly closed so that no sound could escape, and that neither the word ‘I’ nor any word could be uttered. ‘Well then,’ I said to myself, ‘this body is dead. It will be carried stiff to the burning ground and there burn and reduced to ashes. But with the death of the body, am I dead? Is the body I? It is silent and inert, but I feel the full force of my personality and even the voice of I within me, apart from it. So I am the Spirit transcending the body. The body dies but the spirit transcending it cannot be touched by death. That means I am the deathless Spirit.’ All this was not dull thought; it flashed through me vividly as living truths which I perceived directly almost without thought process. I was something real, the only real thing about my present state, and all the conscious activity connected with the body was centered on that I. From that moment onwards, the “I” or Self focused attention on itself by a powerful fascination. Fear of death vanished once and for all. The ego was lost in the flood of Self-awareness."
Yes! He says, we should imagine exactly what it would be like to die right now – each and every moment. Then when death comes, we will realize it is not frightening at all – it is simply a natural transition – another change in the flow of life, and if we have trained ourselves to greet change as a natural part of life, instead of fearing it, we have freed ourselves from the greatest barrier to happiness: FEAR.
A common source of fear is desire. One way to practice what Ramana Maranhi suggests – a bit less dramatically than practicing our own death – is to ask yourself about your needs and desires. Ask yourself:
Do I really need this?
Do I have to judge this?
Do I really need to be appreciated for this?
Do I really need his approval?
Do I really want this?
And by asking these questions, you begin to strip down your wants and needs and discover what really matters to you. When you don’t really want something, the fear of losing it evaporates into thin air! A huge obstacle to this kind of acceptance is our insistent yearning for something ‘out there.’ ‘Out there’ is an illusion. There is only the here and now. Our desire for something else has us playing the ego’s game of if only…
… if only I had more money.
… If only he loved me.
… If only I had a better job.
… If only I could afford those shoes.
But what we need to develop is an ability to stop and look at ourselves – not our ‘self-image,’ which is an illusion – but at our true selves. Enlightenment is all about realizing that there is only one consciousness, and that the self, itself, is an illusion. Of course, this realization can also be frightening. It is a bit ironic that conquering fear can generate a new kind of fear: fear of the truth. What the Buddha calls ‘spiritual death’ can be very frightening indeed, as we awaken from not only our own dream but humanity’s collective dream. In this new state of being you must just let it be. Don’t think of enlightenment as something you receive. You don’t get anything from enlightenment, you lose the part of you that has been seeking it so desperately. The need, the desire, are gone. And with them, fear.
Okay, you may be thinking, ‘But fear is fear. When you’re afraid of something you don’t want to face it, so how can you fight it?’ You’re right. Seeing fear as the ‘enemy,’ that must be defeated just feeds more fear. What you need to learn to do is to allow fear to crumble away into nothingness, rather than confronting it head on. This isn’t a battle; you have no stance to make. Simply draw your attention to what is arising and allow it to dissolve.
One of the most common expressions of fear is anger. When you feel anger rising inside you you can fight it, you can express it, you can repress it, but none of these things will defeat the fear that generated the anger. What you should strive to do is ‘let it be.’ Try to picture the fear for what it is – the ego’s attempt to control you – and let it slowly fade away. Instead of running from fear, just stop! You see, fear gets all its power from you. Negative emotions have tremendous power. But if you can be still and refuse to be moved, that power fades, the shadow dims and fear drifts away."