3 Zen Teachings on Fear

December 9, 2018
All the fear human beings experience has its roots in two specific things: attachment and ignorance. Attachment makes you vulnerable because it implies fixing your mind, emotions, and desire on something external.

Zen teachings on fear are also lessons about the ego. Teachers of this particular philosophical discipline say that if the ego were an engine, fear would be its fuel. They believe that there are really only three kinds of fear and that they’re all related to what we call the ego.

From this perspective, all the fear human beings experience has its roots in two specific things: attachment and ignorance. Attachment makes you vulnerable because it implies fixing your mind, emotions, and desire on something external. This gives way to the first kind of fear: losing what you’re attached to.

Ignorance, on the other hand, puts you in a state of uncertainty and doubt. In that state, it’s easy to be fearful. Being unable to accurately recognize danger or risk and not knowing how to face it makes you feel insecure and afraid. Zen teachings on fear tell us that there are three fears that arise from these two sources.

“The source of all our fear comes from our own uncontrolled mind or delusions.”

-Buddha-

1. Staying alive: One of the Zen teachings on fear

A Zen teaching on fear says that the most basic fear humans have is of losing their lives. We identify loss of life as the loss of the body. Humans are physical beings and our bodies are our most elemental reality. We inhabit our bodies and the fear of losing our body is the fear of no longer being.

This fear is the same as being afraid of dying. However, death isn’t just the end of your bodily functions. There are also other stages of bodily loss in the path towards death. You can lose abilities, youth, self-image, or your body’s normal functioning.

Zen lessons on fear show us that you can use your body to make these fears disappear. This fear is physical. If you exile your fear from your body, it will also leave your mind. What you should do is pay attention to the physical sensations of fear. Then, you should breathe deeply, calm your rapid heartbeat, and relax your muscles.

An image of a woman who is afraid.

2. Loss of self

Fear of losing yourself can also be called fear of change. You start to think that you’re what you’re used to being. Thus, you feel your being is composed of the activities you do every day, the spaces you occupy, and the people you see on a regular basis, among others.

You become so used to seeing yourself in this way that you fear change. You’re scared of what might happen if your context changes and you’re exposed to something new. That’s when the fear of losing yourself arises. You also feel the fear of not knowing what to do or how to act. It’s a kind of fear of becoming diluted, of not being. 

Zen lessons on fear argue that you can rid yourself of these fears with deep breathing exercises. From this point of view, the abdomen is a source of strength. They say that the abdomen is the source of our peace and strength. They recommend deep breathing (or breathing from the abdomen) when you feel this type of fear.

A Zen master with a circle on his head.

3. Fear of suffering

In general, suffering is everything that causes wear and tear on the nervous system. It produces an unpleasant and tiring sensation. Suffering is related to limitations, frustrations, and unsatisfied desires. It can be very intense and paralyzing.

The path to overcoming the fear of suffering, according to Zen teachings, is working towards spiritual growth. When you start to see everything that happens to you as an opportunity to grow, the fear of suffering will disappear little by little. You have to start to see physical and emotional pain as something ephemeral that helps you become a better person.

Zen masters tell us that suffering is a mental phenomenon. It happens when people give a positive or negative meaning to their experiences. As such, how much each of us is willing to suffer really depends on us. We decide and control our fear of suffering.

These Zen teachings on fear remind us that we’re the ones who feed our fear or work to get rid of it. The best way to nourish fear is letting your imagination run wild without having tangible information. Resistance to change and the natural cycles of life also feed fear. However, some situations are inevitable. As hard as you try to avoid them and as much as you fear them, they will still catch up to you.

Fromm, E. (2004). Psicoanálisis y budismo zen. El Árbol y el diván: diálogo entre psicoanálisis y budismo, 83, A83-dq.