Opening Our Heart in the Face of Fear I

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

What is the Trance of Fear?

Fear is a survival mechanism but it arises in many non-survival settings.  For example, “The emotion of fear alerts us to the possibility of negative feedback if we don’t put more time into a paper for class or a report we are preparing for work. The emotion of fear lets us know that if we don’t pay more attention to our marriage, we may end up divorced and alone. This more complex response to danger comes into play as we assess whether or not to seek medical attention for pain in our chest. The emotion of fear arises with any threat to our well-being, whether physical, emotional, mental or spiritual. It can guide us to respond in a healthy way or, as we each have experienced, entrap us in the trance of fear.” P 167.  In the trance of fear, the emotion of fear is working overtime.

“Who doesn’t know the experience of fear? Fear is waking up in the night … terrified that we can’t go on. Fear is the jittery feeling in our stomach, the soreness and pressure around our heart, the strangling tightness in our throat. Fear is the loud pounding of our heart, the racing of our pulse. Fear constricts our breathing, making it rapid and shallow. Fear tells us we are in danger, and then urgently drives our mind to make sense of what is happening and figure out what to do. Fear takes over our mind with stories about what will go wrong. Fear tells us we will lose our body, lose our mind, lose our friends, our family, the earth itself.” (pp. 165-166).

Fear is the anticipation of future pain.  P. 166 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.

How did the Buddha explain fear?  Fear arises when our consciousness comes into contact with one of our internal sense objects contacting an external sense object.  An unpleasant feeling arises triggering a perception (identification) that triggers mental objects to arise such as memories of similar experiences in the past.  For example, you are going to a meeting and when you check the time (your eye has made contact with your watch), an unpleasant feeling arises and you perceive (identify) that you may be late.  Note that your first perception is just noting the time.  A mental object arises in the form of a memory of an unpleasant experience you had when you were late before.  This triggers another unpleasant feeling and your perception this time is that you are definitely going to be late and suffer the consequences.  This triggers more mental objects such as fear.  You are caught in the trance of fear.  The rest of life has faded in the background and you are totally absorbed by this situation. We have temporarily lost our perspective and freedom.

The fear can seem unbearable.  “When we are gripped by fear, nothing else exists.  Our most contracted and painful sense of self is hitched to the feeling and stories of fear, to our ways of resisting fear.”  P. 165

Often we experience the symptoms (bodily sensations) without perceiving the cause.  This is where the sacred pause and applying mindfulness are beneficial.  With mindfulness, paying attention moment to moment to what is, you can realize that you are experiencing some sense of loss.  Often, the underlying ultimate sense of loss is related to the loss of life itself.

Caught in the Trance of Fear

When caught in the Trance of Fear, “we spend our time and energy defending our life rather than living it fully.  We become “a bundle of tense muscles defending our existence” (Chogyam Trungpa)  We blame ourselves or others for the predicament that we find ourselves in.  We develop strategies to avoid feeling fearful such as withdrawing or addictive behavior.   Most importantly, we cut off our relationships with others because we do not want them to know that we are afraid and weak. We feel unsafe.  One way out of the trance is to regain our sense of safety.

The Safety of Belonging with Others

“The first step in finding a basic sense of safety is to discover our connectedness with others.  As noted in the Trance of Desire, we want to be loved and to belong.  We feel safe when we are loved and belong and our fear lessens dramatically.

“In facing intense fear, we need to be reminded that we are part of something larger than our own frightened self.  In the safe haven of belonging to others, we begin to discover the sanctuary of peace that dwells within our own being.”  P. 174.

Quotes from The Soul of an Octopus:  A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery, Atria Books, 2015

“The Buddha denied the existence of persisting selves.  At the end of life, the self may dissolve into eternity like salt in the ocean.  To some, this might seem distressing. But to lose the lonely self in the ocean of eternity could also be a release, an enlightenment, as the mystics promise.”  P. 113

“The desire to change our ordinary, everyday consciousness does not seize everyone, but it’s a persistent theme in human culture.  Expanding the mind beyond the self allows us to relieve our loneliness, to connect to what Jung called the universal consciousness, the original, inherited shapes shared with all minds; unites us with what Plato called the animus mundi, the all-extensive world soul shared by all of life.  Through meditation, drugs, or physical ordeal, certain cultures encourage seeking altered states to commune with the spirits of animals, whose wisdom may seem hidden from us in ordinary life. P. 144

To be continued in the next talk.


  • Reread this talk and reflect on it.   When you experience fear, can you feel the bodily sensations as well as the thoughts that arise?  Can you discern the perceived loss that is present?  Can you see the benefit and safety of belonging with others in a non-conditional way?


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

Next: Opening Our Heart in the Face of Fear II Previous: Radical Acceptance of Desire