Opening Our Heart in the Face of Fear III

Radical Acceptance:  Enhancing your Life with the Heart of the Buddha (pp 161-197)

Fear tells us to stop, to stay within the boundary of our protected cocoon-world.  Yet when we feel fear, if we take even one small step toward it rather than yielding to our habitual pulling away, we move one step closer to the vast mind that lies beyond. When we feel fear, instead of saying “I’m afraid,” thus reinforcing our identification with our fear as to who we are, we can simply say, “Fear is present.”  Thus fear’s power gradually dissipates, and we begin to free ourselves from it. When we simply experience fear just as it is – without our opinions, judgments, and reactions, — fear is not nearly so frightening.  Ezra Bayda, Saying Yes to Life p. 91

In some people anxiety is obvious.  Others may appear calm and at ease with life, yet still be scared to death – of intimacy, of criticism, of loss, of something.  Just because fear in others is not obvious doesn’t mean it’s not there.  The fear may be hidden, but it is just as powerful and just as frightening.  Recalling this can foster compassion.  Ibid p. 95

Making Room for Fear

Fear is the anticipation of future perceived pain.  The pain is about the anticipation of loss.  Nothing is happening to us now; yet we are convinced that something bad will happen in the future.  Fear is a thought that arouses bodily sensations.

When we know that we are experiencing anxiety or restlessness, we can apply mindfulness to pay attention moment to moment to our bodily sensations and thoughts.  In the previous talks, we know that we can seek safety and belonging by taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.  Another step that we must take is to relate to fear rather than from fear.  This means that we must “just allow the fear to float in awareness” rather than try to resist or escape from it.

Ajahn Chah in Food for the Heart, In Dead Night, notes, “So there’s a lot of suffering in the practice, but if you don’t know your own suffering you won’t understand the Noble Truth of suffering. To understand suffering, to kill it off, you first have to encounter it. If you want to shoot a bird but don’t go out and find it, how will you ever shoot it? Suffering, suffering… the Buddha taught about suffering: the suffering of birth, the suffering of old age… if you don’t want to experience suffering you won’t see suffering. If you don’t see suffering you won’t understand suffering. If you don’t understand suffering you won’t be able to get rid of suffering.

Now people don’t want to see suffering, they don’t want to experience it. If they suffer here they run over there. You see? They’re simply dragging their suffering around with them, they never kill it. They don’t contemplate or investigate it. If they feel suffering here, they run over there; if it arises there they run back here. They try to run away from suffering physically. As long as you are still ignorant, wherever you go you’ll find suffering. Even if you boarded an airplane to get away from it, it would board the plane with you. If you dived under the water it would dive in with you, because suffering lies within us. But we don’t know that. If it lies within us where can we run to escape it?”  p. 265

Also audio:

“Being genuinely awake in the midst of fear requires the willingness to actively contact the sensations of fear.” P. 185  Tara Brach calls this Leaning into Fear.

Leaning into Fear

“The key to awakening from the bonds of fear is to move from our mental stories into immediate contact with the sensations of fear – the squeezing, pressing, burning, trembling, quaking, jittering life in our body.  In fact, the story – as long as we remain awake and don’t get stuck in it –can become a useful gateway to the raw fear itself.  While the mind will continue to generate stories about what we fear, we can recognize the thoughts for what they are and drop under them again and again to connect with the feeling in our body.” p. 188

“The other side of resisting fear is freedom. When we stop tensing against life, we open to an awareness that is immeasurably large and suffused with love.” p. 190

Ezra Bayda describes his personal experiences with fear in Being Zen, Chapter 9 Practicing with Fear.  He noted five stages in dealing with fear:

  • Stage 1 Gradually becoming aware of how much fear there is in everything we do
  • Stage 2 Trying to get rid of fear – confront, struggle, overcome (this doesn’t work)
  • Stage 3 Becoming a Zen Student ((concentration practice – calming but doesn’t work)
  • Stage 4 Realization that fear is part of the path so willingly let it in.
  • Stage 5 Seeing fear as a signal when we are stuck, where we are holding ourselves back, where we can open to life.

“When fear arises in me now, along with the mind’s desire for it to go away, there is also an almost instant recognition of what is going on.  Do I try to let it go?  Rarely.  That would be just another way of trying to get rid of it, of trying to avoid my life.  Instead, I breathe into the heartspace, inviting the fear in with a willingness to feel its texture, its whatness. But at the same time, I know that it is not me.  My heart could be pounding and my stomach feeling queasy, which are simply the conditioned responses to perceived danger.  But there is also a lightness, a spaciousness, through which the conditioning of fear can be experienced.  With awareness, the solidity of fear becomes porous.  And what remains?  Simply life itself, with an increasingly vast sense of being.” (p. 74).

Someday, emerging at last from the violent insight, let me sing out jubilation and praise to assenting angels. Let not even one of the clearly-struck hammers of my heart fail to sound because of a slack, a doubtful, or a broken string. Let my joyfully streaming face make me more radiant; let my hidden weeping arise and blossom. How dear you will be to me then, you nights of anguish. Why didn’t I kneel more deeply to accept you, inconsolable sisters, and, surrendering, lose myself in your loosened hair. How we squander our hours of pain. How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration to see if they have an end. Though they are really our winter-enduring foliage, our dark evergreen, one season in our inner year–, not only a season in time–, but are place and settlement, foundation and soil and home.  Rilke Tenth Elegy

If we only wait for the fear to end, we will not have made progress in surrendering and fully experiencing it so that when it comes again, the reaction will be less.  Facing fear is a lifelong practice as fear will emerge in many ways.

“We let go of deeper and subtler layers of resistance until there is nothing left to resist at all, there is only awake and open awareness. This is the refuge that has room for both living and dying”. p. 194


  • Reread this talk daily and reflect on it.
  • Reflect on how fear plays a role in your life.  Be nonjudgmental
  • Read or listen to In Dead Night by Ajahn Chah.
  • When fear arises, can you do more than just wait for it to end?  Can you truly experience the bodily sensations and thoughts that arise?
  • What is your strategy for dealing with fear?


  • Meditate as usual in your daily practice with concentration and mindfulness.

Next: Awakening Compassion in Ourselves Previous: Opening Our Heart in the Face of Fear II