Mirror of Zen Blog

Reply to a Reader: On Fear

Question: Hi, dear Hyon Gak Sunim! Thank you for this opportunity to ask you question… Tomorrow I go to the hospital, waiting for me to surgery. [sic] What do I do with the mind that creates fear of what will happen ? Thank you 🙏

Answer: Fear is a projection into an unreal future the remembrance of some past pain, or the anxiety of not knowing some possible future situation, or the belief that some future situation will threaten us. In a very simple sense, then, we can say that fear is just anger about the future.

In its purest sense, fear is not good, not bad. In fact, it is due to the use of fear that our ancestors survived myriad situations which could have otherwise killed them: Evolution has equipped us (and other living creatures) with “fear” in order to detect threats in our “evolutionary environment” so that we could be proactive in avoiding predators, nefarious competitors, dangerous situations, diseases, and even excessive hunger. If you are reading these words today, it is because an indescribably long line of genetic forebears employed fear in innumerable situations over billions of years to survive being eaten or killed, thereby ensuring that your DNA could reach down to this moment. Otherwise, you could not have even existed!

“Extreme sensitivity to threats, such as imagining a snake in your boot and taking the precaution to check it out, may confer a survival advantage, despite producing false alarms. Imagine if you will a hominid ancestor hearing a rustle in the nearby undergrowth. At this point, he or she considers two courses of action: ignore the sound based on the assumption that it is not a threat, or flee the area and any possible predator that the bush might be concealing. If there isn’t a predator and the hominid ignores the sound, there is no cost and both the hominid and whatever generated the noise continue their day in peace. If there is in fact a predator rustling around in the bushes, our relaxed hominid may well become breakfast. Take, in contrast, a hyper-vigilant individual constantly assessing the potential to become a snack. This hominid hears the rustling and immediately flees. If the rustling is the result of a harmless bird, the hominid may suffer some cost by leaving (i.e. expended calories or abandoned resources), but for the most part is no worse off than he or she was before abandoning the region. If there is a predator, the hominid has now escaped with their life, free to reproduce and pass on this cautionary trait to little hominid babies. Of course this hominid might experience hypertension or tissue damage due to stress hormones and adrenaline (Brüne, 2008), but this is probably a fair trade for not being eaten.” “Fear the Future: How Anxiety May Have Kept Us Alive”, James M. Sherlock, Psychology Today, Mar 29, 2015.

So, in its evolutionary context, “fear” is a “software” which was factory-installed (or downloaded through lots and lots of bad really experiences or abusive situations!) that ensured our survival. Yet what is problematic about this often-helpful software is that most animals, though they experience intense fear, return to a steady-state of calm equilibrium, after the threat has passed.

But the human mind is not like that. We hold things, we attach to things. Because of our powers of imagination, and our fascination with what that illusory imagination produces, we often suffer continuously from anxiety about things that do not exist. (The Oxford English Dictionary defines imagination as “the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.” [Emphasis mine] The key here is “not present to the senses”: not present to the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind.)

So, you will have surgery tomorrow. You have not yet experienced this surgery, yet you are experiencing fear of it. This is not good, not bad. Maybe you have experienced surgery before, and had good or bad experiences from it, but those are just memories. (And I take it that, if you have already had surgery, that anesthesia was used!)

So, you have not yet experienced THIS surgery, the one which “will” happen tomorrow. Therefore, the fear you are experiencing is just your imagination: you are “forming new ideas, or images or concepts of [experiences which are] not present to the senses.” In other words, when you experience this fear, you are experiencing an imagined state, living in a dream, and you take this imagined state of dream to somehow be “real.” And it gives your body a discomfort which may border on the visceral.

I had one experience similar to this — a fear born from physical discomfort — which was a breakthrough that later enabled me to take the step toward abandoning home and becoming a monk. I use this story often in public talks, because — while not some sort of earth-shattering enlightenment — was significant enough and early enough in practice to confirm faith in the real and valid power of Dharma. I always cite it as the first “proof” I experienced of the claims I had been reading in Buddhist books, and set me on the path to enter even greater commitments to the practice. I want to share this with you now.

I began regular practice of Zen at the Cambridge Zen Center in the Fall of 1989. During that time, one of the Guiding Teachers of the Zen Center was a man by the name of George Bowman, one of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s original Western students. He was a very impressive, solid, clear practitioner, someone whose whole life seemed to reek of Zen and the temples and discipline I imagined happening “in the East.” He seemed like a deep, still pond. George was a student of Dae Soen Sa Nim, and had received “inka” from him, but he had also done extensive training with Japanese Soto masters like Joshu Sasaki Roshi and Deshimaru Roshi. So his tastes and style leaned more in the samurai-style of Japanese Zen than my own Teacher’s funky, approachable Korean tradition.

Because George was the Guiding Teacher of CZC, and because I trained there, in those days, he was, in the Kwan Um School of Zen system, my teacher by default. (That system continues to this day.) And in the case of George, I was really happy with that: I was deeply deeply impressed with his mien, as if Abraham Lincoln had shaved his hair and sat Zen: solid, unmoving, deep, of not many words, intelligent, passionate about his work, impressive, even craggy. But I was a total newbie, so in the very few dialogues I ever recall having with this Man, I was just a pool of awe. In those days, I had not yet met Dae Soen Sa Nim in the flesh, and it would be a few more years still until I could get very close to him. So, for a beginning student, George was as good as I was going to get for some months and years to come. And he was — if you connected with the spirit of old-style Zen, not watered down — very very very good, even excellent.

The great Zen Master George Bowman. “Sit STILL!!”

George’s Japanese Soto inclinations made him especially uncomfortable with people who moved around or made any kind of noise during sitting meditation. “Sit STILL!” would suddenly ring out in the quiet, semi-darkened Dharma Room if some poor wretch had the misfortune to scratch their arm or (Buddha forbid!) switch a leg during the sitting period. No matter how quietly you thought you could move, to take the pressure off an ankle or adjust a knee during the 40-minute sittings, George heard it from his position in the highest teacher’s position. You never got away with it! And for someone who cracked their knuckles or joints, even by accident — his shout would cross the room like a lightning bolt, a taser set not to “stun,” but to “kill.” This attitude is what I first learned under, and it provided a discipline which has marked my practice until this day. Though I by no means practice or guide a group with this exact ferocity, I often feel a cool draft of George’s unmoving-mountain-in-winter whenever I feel compelled to verbally “adjust” someone who is taking too many liberties with the atmosphere in the Dharma Room during sittings. All in all, I was lucky to have his attitude, and have adapted it to my own personality and experience. Even during retreats in the Korean Zen halls, many years later, in those sometimes gatherings when the Korean monks in Kyol Che would do imitations and caricatures of each others’ Dharma Room postures during tea breaks, their imitation of the long-nosed Westerner was fairly consistent: Sitting straight, not dozing, mudra not drooping or half-assed, eyes not closed (a rarity in the Korean Zen retreats, sadly!). It’s really bullshit to talk like this, I know, but it’s part of the telling of this story to reveal the reflections I received back from Korean Dharma brothers, retreat after retreat, because I would always silently credit George Bowman — wherever he was then sitting, in some mountain cabin somewhere, way back in the Kentucky mountains — for the deep impress of his fierce vigilance.

One night in particular — and only several weeks into my study of Zen, in the Fall of 1989 or Spring of 1990 — George was present in the Dharma Room for the Evening Practice when I experienced an acute pain in my right knee during sitting. Sitting meditation was not yet a familiar posture for me, in those days. I had torn a meniscus while playing football some years before, and the knee still sometimes made a clicking sound, especially when weather was cold and wet. My groin muscles were super-tight from years of sitting in front of desks. And I had a history of lower-back pain. So, getting through a 40-minute sitting was tough business. Dae Soen Sa Nim allowed his disciples to quietly stand during sitting meditation, whenever sleep or discomfort became too much. But when George was in the room — steel-cage Zazen.

I remember this excruciating pain beginning in the right medial meniscus area — right at the hinge-point of the inner right knee. It felt like a fucking ice pick being driven right down and through the joint where the upper leg and lower leg met! Even seated in the cross-legged position, my knees were already far off the ground, and the lower back felt somewhat like a fragile stack of cracked plates, ready to give way at any time. Just a basket of misery, trying to get enough stability to look down into the Great Matter.

The ice-picked knee was screaming. Of course, by Dae Soen Sa Nim’s “rules”, one could do a polite half-bow, and stand until the pain passed. I could have even gotten up and quietly left the room. But I felt such awe for this unmovable Still Presence which was (and likely still is) the great George Bowman, and there was probably not a small amount of the kind of competitive pride which had enables one to compare well with siblings who sometimes brought home better report cards from school (four years in the hyper-competitive cut-throat world of Yale only sharpened that jungle impulse). So, I wasn’t going to stand or leave, and I would not do anything to cause George to yell across the room, on my account. No way.

But this was not only a physical dilemma: What gripped me was intense pain, but also a gnawing fear. There was this fear that, by continuing to sit like this, and not releasing the posture, that the gears in my knee would grind this recently-healed meniscus into permanent unworkability. “Is this thing going to break?” “What would happen if I cannot walk again?” “Can I still learn Zen from a wheelchair?” “Could a wheelchair even get into the Zen center?” “Will I need to install one of those stairway escalators in future homes, those things you see advertised in the backs of things like The Atlantic and The New Yorker, for senior citizens who can no longer get up flights of stairs?” Fear. Pure fear. “This is going to totally wreck my knee.” And only because I’m afraid of hearing two words (rather loudly): “Sit STILL!

So, I sat. Thankfully, it seemed like the 40-minute sitting would soon be finished. Probably only 10 more minutes of this, then walking meditation! After turning my inner wrist delicately upward (a slow slow slow maneuver which took about 3 minutes) to reveal the watchface tucked under my cuff, my stomach sank seemingly right through the floor: Just 15 minutes were passed, and another 25 minutes of bone-drilling remained. Needless to say, there was very little meditation work being done during that period — it was pure Zen triathlon, nothing else. I had never been through anything like this before.

Now the fear really cranked up a few notches. “What the fuck am I going to do as a cripple for the rest of my life?” “What have I gotten myself into?” My eyes were watering with tears, from the pain. But there was also this realization that I might be doing something to my body that might be irreversible: “Am I fit for this study?” It might be easy for a reader to think that it would be so easy just to give up this obviously vain effort at clarity, stand up, and make peace with the expected limitations of the body. But years and years of mental anguish over my question of “Who am I?”, my sense of being lost in a world I could not understand or grasp anywhere, seemed like they could only be keyed open by the intrepid exercise of maintaining this physical posture long enough to look so deeply inside that one day — surely! maybe! hopefully! — I could break through to a self-understanding which would release me from the gloom which had gripped me since childhood. There seemed to be no other way. I had found Zen, and found a great tradition, with great and clear teaching, and had found these teachers who were generously offering their experiences and wisdom: Why would I not give this the maximum effort? When would I get this chance again? I knew that there was nothing superior to this, to Zen — at least for me.

So, I sat. In this physical terror. And in this grinding fear that I might be ruining my 25 year-old body. (“A quarter-century! I’m ancient already!!” I’d think.)

Then, gripped in this vise of pain and fear, the turning happened: With no way out (I’d stubbornly determined), and convinced that the solution to the matter lay not in easy avoidance, but rather in further examination, I turned my attention directly at the point of pain. Radiating out in flashes from a specific spot on my inner knee, I simply reflected on this experience. What is this pain? What is pain, actually? What is it? What kind of color or shape? What is this thing that is causing this fear? What is the “thingness” of it? WHAT. IS. PAIN.? What?

This is not the story of some light-flashing revelation. But in that instant, “looking” into the nature of this “thing” that was gripping my whole being in the most incredible fear, there was nothing. No pain. No object there. No quality or defined shape. The sensation was just no-sensation. It was as if the pain, when you really looked at it, head-on, actually was not really there. It lost its weight or valence — either “positive” or “negative.” It was just like some towering, gripping ogre which, when looked straight on, is revealed to be a weightless ether. It is impossible to describe. It was not mystical in any way: I have subsequently had this experience many many many times. Any person is capable of it. We read stories sometimes of a mother who gets in a car accident, and the car flips over, yet she goes back into the flaming wreck to retrieve her children, struggling against metal and burning rubber, only later to discover, in the hospital, that the entire time she worked on their rescue, she had a fractured hip, broken bones, cracked vertebrae, things that would knock even a hardened soldier to the ground. When thinking is transcended, pain, too, loses its reality.

This was such a revelation — it has stayed with me to this day. It lasted the entire remainder of the sitting (I suppose around 20-25 minutes). Actually, I could have sat longer — there was just such lightness and joy to actually see the “outside” of pain — to know that this was not a fixed reality, but rather something entirely dependent on the condition of my mind. I had once read the words of the great Nisargadatta Maharaj, “Once you realize that the world is your own projection, you are freed of it.” I never understood those words: “How can this material world be a ‘projection’? Does it just jump out of the head? Trees and dogs and houses and people?” After this experience of my knee, and the emptiness of pain — and, admittedly, it was only a physical experience, such as many injured athletes or soldiers or regular folk could have — I felt some basic insight into this. (There would be far deeper realizations of this truth years later, I didn’t know yet, but for now, this was good enough.)

But it was not only that. In fact, that was the least of the insight: As I sat there, fully aware of the emptiness, even non-existence of any “reality” or “substance” of pain, I then carried the “investigation” one step further: “Then, if this ‘pain’ is so unreal, such a shadow on the mind, so completely lacking any substance whatsoever, with no place to ‘stay’ or ‘leave’ from, then what is this ‘I’ that seems so utterly controlled by it that I wanted to jump right out of the window, until just a short while ago? What sees pain? What fears it?” I merely swiveled the lamp of awareness back to the “source” of the “seeing,” the viewer, the “I.” Having seen “no pain,” the lamp just turned: it seemed automatic.

Boom! Nothing there. No “I.” No “place” for I. The lazy accustomed slouching heavy overstuffed stink-sofa of a psychology or personality, to which I’d been so wearily accustomed for 2.5 decades, didn’t just “empty out” — it felt, for the first time, that it wasn’t there. It was never “there.” There was no “there” there. No place. Only vast empty space.

Great relief: No pain, and now no “I” that could experience pain. No fear.

Wonderful. Everything felt light. The absence of fear. The dissolution of a terror which had been gripping me during this sitting, and extending backward into things I’d experienced that day, things I feared for the coming days, left and right and all over. It felt pretty good. And yet, there was still the sense of a “viewer.” Something felt tethered back to a “something” that was having all of this experience: slight, filamental, yet still there, like a floater in the eye while looking at a clear landscape, you could say. Uninterrupted space without end, and something that immediately made me feel so much lighter, less cramped. And yet, there was still something — a lingering “something” — there. I could just feel it.

It would take two more years to shatter even this, I did not know — to blow it all to smithereens and radically alter my life forever. But that is another story.

So, as to your question again: Fear is a shadow projected by your mind, an imagination created and projected almost always “forward” into the false illusion of future time.

There are many methods for “overcoming” fear, many techniques that can be given by a therapist or guide. “Face your fear” is a common encouragement. There is phobia-training and even fire-walking — why not?

I am just a Zen monk, a student of naked observation of the nature of mind. So, I cannot comment on any of these methods: maybe they work for you! Yes, in psychotherapy, perhaps, it might be necessary to examine conceptually certain thought-patterns which lead to some fear or past wound which entraps us in fear. And I know some good therapists whose attention and skill can certainly assist busy people in the world gain some mastery over the patterns of fear (or anger, or frustration, etc.) which control their lives. This is definitely better than nothing, and certainly effective for people with certain deep-seated fears which might be rooted in traumatic experiences.

For Zen students, the way is not gained by analysis or conceptual understanding (alone). From my own experience, the most direct way to deal with fear is to attain the very nature of mind, at its root: in other words, through meditation. Through maintaining light awareness of the rising and falling of breath and looking all along into the very nature of “fear”, we gain — without mediation by therapist or system or methodology, however provisionally effective, our own liberating insight into the place where fear seems to arise. Like “pain,” what is this “fear”? What is the “substance” of fear? Don’t just follow fear — following fear or even analyzing fear is like a shadow following a shadow, a dog chasing its tail in an endlessly pointless loop: neurosis.

But then there is even one more step: What fears? What is this “something” that experiences fear? Where does fear arise from? When we do this, looking “back” through awareness of breath rising and falling, all thinking is immediately “cut off.” Thinking cannot go “there.” We get a sense or glimpse (in the beginning) of our before-thinking mind, our original nature before thinking arises, before “I” arises, before “fear” or “you” or “God” or “Buddha” arise. There is no name or form that can describe this — it cannot be described in words. Yet it is infinite in time and space, a realm with no shadow. In Zen, we say, “The tree with no roots.”

So, it might be too late, one day before your surgery, to pursue this enquiry in a way that is effective for your coming experience in the hospital. But, once your body recovers, don’t let this opportunity slip past without making sustained, constant efforts to watch directly into the matter: “What fears? What is this ‘I’?” Please do not “ask” this as a conceptual question, up in your head, where you keep the questions from school or work. Don’t “look” for something.

Nobody guarantees your life, OK? Not even for one day! Dae Soen Sa Nim used to quote the following poem:

In the great work of life and death, time will not wait for you.
If you die tomorrow, what kind of body will you get?
Is not all of this of great importance?
Hurry up! Hurry!
Blue sky and green sea
Are the Buddha’s original face.
The sound of the waterfall and the bird’s song
Are the great sutras.
Where are you going?
Watch your step.
Water flows down to the sea.
Clouds float up to the heavens.

Please forgive the too-long reply. I hope these words help you. Best wishes for a successful surgery and a strong recovery.

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