The Fear We Live With

Fear is one of the most pervasive and destructive forces that influences people as we exist in modern society. So powerful is fear that if we permit it, fear becomes the driving force behind every decision we make. Despite the powerful impact fear can have on our lives, it often maneuvers with such subtlety that we are largely unaware of its presence. When we allow fear to direct our choices, we find that fear becomes more entrenched in our lives, leaking out in the form of negative emotions, and generally creating all kinds of problems. In fact, one could argue that every negative emotion we experience is in fact a derivation of fear:

"Fear is the cause of every problem. It's the root of all prejudices and the negative emotions of anger, jealousy, and possessiveness. If you had no fear, you could be perfectly happy living in this world." - Michael Singer [1]

This idea that all of our problems are ultimately linked to fear can be both a comforting and daunting realization. A comfort because it simplifies all our problems down to one; if we eliminate the fear in our lives, then we also eliminate in one fell-swoop our jealousy, anger, insecurities, sadness, etc. But it can also be a daunting realization. Once we start taking stock of all our anxieties, insecurities, and emotional roadblocks, we may realize that we have a more complex and entrenched relationship with fear than we were prepared to admit.

"When we live in relatively comfortable circumstances, the environment does not press on us with obvious dangers, violence, or limitations to our movement. Our main goal then is to maintain the comfort and security we have, and so we become more sensitive to the slightest risk or threat to the status quo. We find it harder to tolerate feelings of fear because they are more vague and troubling." - Robert Greene and 50 Cent [2]

Why should we care though if fear underlines our decisions, or if it perpetuates itself throughout our lives? For the same reason that being unaware of our inaccurate perceptions and predictions causes suffering, being unaware of the subtle anxieties that pile up in our life as a result of fear can guide us down a path that we never would have chosen for ourselves.

Fear can be an incredibly destructive, or it can guide us to high achievement. Unless we gain awareness of its presence and either transcend it or use it as a tool for our noble goals, it will forever be our master.

How is Fear Developed?

The world we live in is incredibly complex and at times inexplicable. A million random things fly at us every day, and so much of what goes on around us is being shaped by external forces completely outside of our control. Even our own DNA, considered by some to be a deterministic rule of life, is in reality ruled by uncertainty and randomness; genetically identical cells in controlled environments will exhibit significant differences in gene expression. One researcher showed this when he inserted two identical DNA sequences into the genome of an E. coli sample. One sequence encoded a protein that would make the bacteria glow red, and the other green. Had the genes been expressed equally as expected, the bacteria would have glowed a consistent yellow color, but that's not what happened.

"Michael Elowitz of Caltech demonstrated that biological 'noise' (a scientific synonym for chaos) is inherent in gene expression. . . The simple premise underlying every molecular biology - that life follows regular rules, that it transcribes its DNA faithfully and accurately - vanished in the colorful collage of prokaryotes." [3]

The only real law of nature, from the micro to the macro, is change and uncertainty; nothing stays the same, and even the highly specific language that encodes our very existence is open to interpretation by the arbitrary bumbling about of proteins in our cells. This reality is what creates the space for fear to enter.

The Need to Predict and Control our Environment

Because the world is a place of uncertainty and change, we feel the need to hone our ability to predict it. Amidst all this incredible uncertainty, our brains have adapted to find ways of bringing clarity to the noise by way of pattern recognition; patterns that we assemble and categorize in an effort to make sense of the world around us. Being able to look at patterns of past experience, and make predictions of the future is a tool that has served us well for accomplishing certain tasks, but when we use these patterns to try and define reality we have gone too far. When we try to categorize the world into neat little rules, and fit it in a box, we find that we have also inadvertently put ourselves in a box; the patterns we identify become the thread that weaves our entire perceived identity.

"In the track of fear we have so many conditions, expectations, and obligations that we create a lot of rules to protect ourselves against emotional pain, when the truth is that there shouldn't be any rules." - Don Miguel Ruiz [4]

The problem is that this identity that we weave for ourselves is a false construct; it is not based on reality. Thus the rules, categories, and patterns that we use to construct and define the world around us are all incredibly fragile, which in turn creates a fragile identity by which we create for ourselves. This is the ultimate source of fear: we fear anything that shakes the foundation of the identity we have built for ourselves. Once we create rules about how the world should be, we have simultaneously defined in some way who we are. The moment we allow ourselves to expect the world to be one way or another is the moment we begin to fear outcomes outside our expectations, as these would disrupt our identity.

But let's see if this is true.

For Example: Jealousy

Let's look at one of the most destructive and corrosive fears that affects relationships in our time: jealousy. Most people have experienced jealousy and recognize it as a normal (and even healthy) component of any romantic relationship. But what is jealousy? Let's say you are at a bar and you see your partner flirting with another person. In your mind you start imagining your partner becoming increasingly attracted to this other person. Maybe they decide that they really enjoy flirting with other people and that being in a committed relationship with you is holding them back from meeting other, more exciting, people. Maybe you start to picture them becoming less and less interested in you to the point where they are sneaking off to have affairs with other people. As these things start playing out in your mind you become increasingly more anxious and insecure. When your partner tries to talk to you later in the evening you mask your insecurity with anger. You tell your partner that they have had too much to drink and it's time to go home. You try to regain control of realities that are not living up to your expectations.

We become angry and afraid when someone harms us (or we perceive that they have harmed us), but if we look at this example closer, we see that your partner has not actually done anything to you. Even a scenario in which your partner cheats on you with another person does not describe a situation in which they have harmed you. Yet we have a tendency to argue the opposite. Why? It certainly feels like we have been harmed when our partner cheats on us.

"Stress does not come from the environment, it comes from the mind of the individual under stress. We make certain assumptions about the world, and we become attached to those assumptions. We suffer from thinking. We worked too hard to learn our ideas about the world to give them up. . . we suffer a great deal from trying to make the world match our thinking. We complain about how the world fails to live up to our expectations." - Brad Blanton [5]

The reason is simple: we have built our identity around the relationship, and a perceived threat to the relationship is a perceived threat to our identity. If our partner is flirting with other people, maybe it means we are not as attractive as we thought; we aren't the lover we thought we were. If we have allowed Disney movies to influence the way we have come to expect the world to be, and we see relationships as a world of fantasy in which we are "the one" for our partner, then cheating is a direct refutation of that world-view. We have to come to grips with the reality that we are not "the one" after all. But these are all false anxieties that never needed to exist in the first place. When you build your identity around your relationship, telling yourself "I am a great lover, and that's why she loves me" might make you feel confident for a short while, but now you have to spend your time trying to defend and protect that identity, which means trying to control your partner and living in fear.

Most people can relate to the experience of feeling jealous - of experiencing insecurity at a perceived threat to relationship and personal identity - but we build our identity around more than just our relationships. We build identities around our jobs, families, friends, status, wealth, health, skills, knowledge, etc. And when we do, we open ourselves up to the fear that comes with trying to protect and defend those identities. We build our identity around being a homeowner, so now we must defend our ability to pay our mortgage or suffer a reality that contradicts that. We build our identity around the world-view that college graduates are destined for great careers, and now we must defend that by seeking out a job that lives up to that idea, rather than a job or career that truly inspires us. We might build our identity around being a father, and a father of men who fit the description of how we think men should be. With that identity we may respond with fear and anger at the realization that our son is gay.

The more we try to define the world, and create an identity for ourselves that conforms to those rules, the more fear we breed. Fear that leads us to make decisions that are not truly good for us. As a result, subtle anxieties, stress, insecurity, and suffering take the place of love, freedom, and joy.

But the cycle can be broken.

Mindfulness: The First Tool for Eliminating Fear

Mindfulness is the practice of reclaiming our identity from one of the ego - the false sense of self - to its true state: pure and present awareness. It allows us to untangle the web of arbitrary conditions we attach to identity; the self is no longer defined by the things we do or acquire, any other external developments, and not even our memories, knowledge, skills, etc. Where before we wrap our environment, achievements, possessions, etc. around our identity, now we see these things as merely passing through as we experience them. Identity becomes awareness. When we achieve this perspective, fear has nothing to hold on to.

"The self-conscious brain, like the self-conscious heart, is a disorder, and manifests itself in the acute feeling of separation between ā€œIā€ and my experience. The brain can only assume its proper behavior when consciousness is doing what it is designed for: not writhing and whirling to get out of present experience, but being effortlessly aware of it. (...) To understand this is to realize that life is entirely momentary, that there is neither permanence nor security, and that there is no ā€œIā€ which can be protected." - Alan Watts [6]

Mindfulness helps us identify the source of the rules we have set up for how the world should be, and all of the arbitrary conditions we have attached to our sense of self. We might find that we never made the conscious choice to view the world a certain way, it being a result of transference, and that we actually do not hold that view. It helps us identify our fears, so that we can start acting to overcome them. Mindfulness will help us recognize present experience for what it really is, illuminating situations, relationships, and environments that are slowly destroying us.

We tend to distract ourselves when we are in situations we don't agree with but choose to ignore. For example, if we are in terrible relationship, but choose not to recognize it, we might find that the number of ways in which we distract ourselves increases. Distractions like:

  • Food
  • Alcohol
  • Staying up late watching youtube videos (guilty)
  • Picking fights with our friends and family
  • Controlling behavior

These distractions are spilling over from the subtle but growing anxiety associated with the fact that we are not being honest with ourselves, and that doing so will necessitate a change in behavior and direction, a reality we don't want to face. Through the practice of mindfulness, we can identify these distractions and illuminate the source of the anxiety causing them.

How do we practice mindfulness?

Meditation. Mindfulness meditation can be done for as little as ten minutes a day, and it involves the practice of focusing on the breath. Sitting in a relaxed position, your eyes closed, focus on your breath as it enters and leaves your body. As thoughts, worries, feelings and ideas enter your mind, the goal is to recognize them, allow them to pass through you, and continue to focus on the breath. Do not complicate the process by thinking that the goal of meditation is to clear your mind. The goal is to exercise the habit of returning to present awareness. Mindful meditation is to awareness as the rep is to weight lifting; it's a practice, an exercise. Many people get frustrated with meditation because their mind gets distracted, and that feels like failure. But being distracted is part of the opportunity presented by meditation: to recognize when you are distracted, so you can practice the return to awareness. If you make this practice part of your daily habits, you will experience greater awareness, focus, and clarity as you go about your day. Your mind being tuned more accurately to the frequency of awareness, you might find that events do not upset you as much, and you will be quicker to recognize when you are being controlled by the ego.

Changing the language by which we define the world around us from evaluative to descriptive. When you walk outside in the pouring rain and complain "this rain is awful!" you are not practicing mindfulness. What makes a thing bad or good? The rain is neither bad nor good, it simply is. You have made it up in your mind that it is a bad thing, and now you must feel bad walking through it. "But now my suit is wet!" Yes, it is, and that is neither bad nor good either. "But now I will look bad when I walk into my meeting." Why are you afraid? Have you decided that the world only makes sense when businessmen show up to meetings in dry suits, and that your peers might lose respect for you? Are they going to lose respect for you or the false identity you have projected?

"Choose not to be harmed - and you won't feel harmed. Don't feel harmed - and you haven't been." - Marcus Aurelius [7]

The practice of mindfulness, of transcending the ego to become pure awareness, helps us pull the rug of expectation out from beneath the feet of fear. If we are simply aware, we will see that so much of the rules we have set for ourselves and the world around us are just silly, and we will illuminate our underlying fears so that we can be honest with ourselves about who we really are and want to be.

![The Scream](/content/images/2016/01/The_Scream.jpg)
If only he knew how to chill out and meditate

Brutal Self-Honesty: The Next Step in Transcending Fear

"We all lie like hell. It wears us out. It is the major source of all human stress. Lying kills people." - Brad Blanton [5]

After graduating college with a degree in finance, I began working to pursue my ambition of making a lot of money and being a big success. I wanted to prove something to others and myself. As confident as I seemed to be at first, the more I worked, the more insecure and unhappy I became. The further along the path of career I went, the more it felt like I was falling behind, and I did not understand why. My insecurities plagued me, and my relationships suffered. I found it difficult to eat. At one point I found it difficult to pick myself up from lying face-down on the floor. But from the outside, it looked like I was doing really well, so what was happening?

During this time I had nagging questions in the back of my head that I simply refused to ask myself, let alone address. The question "is this what I want?" kept popping up, and I would force it out, pretend not to notice it. I knew that if I addressed questions like that, it would force me to reevaluate a view that I had held for a long time, a view about who I was. And that was a scary thought. I thought that if I simply worked harder, I would achieve something that would somehow make the questions go away. If I could just become "successful," I wouldn't have to ask myself if this was what I really wanted to do. Eventually, in much the same way the body breaks down if exerted in unnatural ways for too long, the mind breaks down when pushed against its will. I realized that I had to start asking myself hard questions and answering them honestly because I was destroying myself.

One of the things that I had built my identity around was the idea that ambitious people make a lot of money, and that I was an ambitious person. The way I made decisions was based on this premise. If faced with an opportunity, the question would be, "how does it impact my ability to confirm this view?" It's not hard to spot how this line of decision-making is entirely backwards. Rather than working to fulfill a love of creation, I was working to protect the false identity that I had created for myself. That's why working harder only increased my insecurity, because the further I traveled down a path to confirm the false identity, the further away I got from the type of life I would truly choose for myself if fear was not driving my decisions. Being honest with myself was a step in the direction towards eliminating fear:

  • Q: Why am I doing what I'm doing?
  • A: To prove something
  • Q: Is this really what I want to do?
  • A: No
  • Q: Would you be happy doing this if you made a certain amount of money, and 'proved' yourself?
  • A: No
  • Q: What do you want?
  • A: I don't know (identity crises - the event that is feared)
  • Q: How would you feel if you were driven into poverty by a passion that fueled you every day?
  • A: I would be satisfied
  • Q: You should not pursue income, you should pursue passion
  • A: Yes

Gaining this clarity, I can now reexamine and re-calibrate the formula by which I make decisions. Now when I look at opportunities, rather than trying to figure out how it will advance my false identity, I can ask is this a HELL YEAH! or no decision?

What is the outcome of honest self-reflection like this applied broadly to all areas of our lives? When you have uncovered a deep fear that has been driving you, and you can walk away from it, it feels like waking up to the love of your life and finding out that it's you. You feel relieved, energized, invincible. Nothing and no one can harm you; there is nothing to expose. Where before your identity was fragile, because it was a false projection, now it is untouchable because it is only you. And you are not insecure when you embrace the real you.

When you make the decision to be brutally honest with yourself, you start seeking out the answer to questions that may seem difficult at first. You might look at your relationship and ask "what is the real reason I am in a relationship with this person? Is it because I truly love them, or am I afraid of being alone?" Asking these types of questions is frightening. There is pain associated with answering them. Our false identity feel safe, and tearing it down means launching into the unknown of the existential variety. But crossing that threshold is worth it, because there is personal freedom on the other side. A freedom from insecurity, anxiety, stress, and fear.

Move in the Direction of your Fears: The Final Step

In the 1960's Oliver Sacks worked in a headache clinic specializing in migraines. The subject fascinated him and he worked under the direction of a prominent researcher who was also the head of the American Neurological Association. At first an encouraging mentor, the man began to resent Sack's progress. One summer Sacks spent an inspirational vacation writing a manuscript for a book on his experience and his findings in the migraine clinic. When the head of the clinic found out about the book he all but shut down Sacks, not only threatening to fire him, but as the head of the Association he threatened to prevent Sacks from getting any other job in neurology.

Sacks, feeling defeated, says "I suppressed my feelings for many months; these were among the worst months of my life." The threat worked for a while, but he could not bear the suppression of his creative energies forever, and he had to eventually make the choice to move forward despite the threats. He informed his boss that he was leaving, and left the clinic no doubt with his boss' last words at the forefront of his mind: "It'll be the last thing you do." Sacks:

"I went back to England in a state of trepidation, literally quivering, and a week later I got a telegram from him firing me. This made the quivering worse, but then, suddenly, I had a completely different feeling. I thought, 'This ape is no longer on my shoulders. I am free to do what I want.'" [8]

And this is what we discover when we push through our fears. There is a threshold, the thing we fear, that may be extremely painful to cross. This event could be telling someone you don't love them anymore, or getting on stage to perform, or jumping out of a plane. In our minds we usually imagine the event to be far worse than it is, and we suffer more in imagination than in reality. What we find is that once the event is over, the pain, as suddenly as it came, is gone. We now have the peace and clarity that comes from knowing we are on the right track, that we are pursuing the truth of our spirit. The benefits of crossing this threshold can come immediately. For sacks, it allowed his creative energy to flourish.

"I started writing. Within a day or so, the feeling of threat had disappeared, and the joy of writing took over. I was no longer using drugs, but it was a time of extraordinary elation and energy. It seemed to me almost as though the book were being dictated, everything organization itself swiftly and automatically." [8]

The story highlights both a victory over fear and a casualty of one. Sacks, being honest with himself, knew that he had to write the book, and in the face of a real threat to his career, he moved in the direction of his fear to overcome it and experience the joy, energy, and elation of creative freedom. On the other hand, the head of the clinic was a tragic victim of fear. The insecurity he experienced from a rising star caused him to lose the potential for a valuable ally and collaborator, and he was exposed when the publication of Sacks' book brought light to the fact that he had plagiarized Sacks' work years before under his own name. He created an identity for himself that placed him at the head of a field in which he felt he owned. Every talent under him that showed promise was therefore a threat to his identity, and he fought to control the world around him. The result is that fear consumed him.

It is amazing what we can accomplish when we allow ourselves to be free, when we remove the fear that is blocking our creativity. To do this, we must face the fear and move directly towards it.

"There's fear at every one of life's big transitions. Fear goes with the territory. And I see that as an opportunity. Fear makes us study ourselves, forces us to admit our soft spots, to see where we are vulnerable. In the end, we can't undo that vulnerability; we can only accept it, and crawl forward in the face of it. That, I've had to learn, is part of being human." - Peter Barton [9]

Our fears, when we acknowledge them and understand them, can become our greatest allies in transforming our lives. It is possible that without the threat of being fired, Sacks would not have been so motivated. It is almost certain that the threat raised his sense of urgency: now he was on his own, and he had to complete what he set out to do, for there was no safety net, nothing to fall back on except his own knowledge, skills, and motivations.

"Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces. . . . it turns obstacles into fuel. As a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp. What's thrown on top of the conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it - and makes it burn still higher." - Marcus Aurelius [7]

Ultimately, the goal is to live without fear, but there are points along that path where we can use fear to our advantage. Fear can be our greatest tool for eliminating fear. Self-honesty and mindfulness allow us to identify the right fears, and then re-calibrate our decision-making process so that we face them and eventually transcend them to live a truly fearless life.

Be Fearless

"Just be yourself. What's on the other side of fear? Nothing. People are nervous for no reason. Because there's nothing, no one's going to come out and slap you, or beat you up or anything. You're just nervous. So, why even have that?" - Jamie Foxx [10]

When fear is eliminated from our lives, we will live more fully than we ever thought possible. Without fear, there is only love, and when we choose to live for love - "love of life, love of what is good, love of family, love of pride, love for our infinite souls on the quest for impeccability" - we will live as warriors [11].


  1. Michael Singer in The Untethered Soul.
  2. Robert Greene and 50 Cent in The 50th Law.
  3. "Stochastic Gene Expression in a Single Cell" as described by Jonah Lehrer in Proust Was a Neuroscientist.
  4. Don Miguel Ruiz in The Mastery of Love.
  5. Brad Blanton in Radical Honesty: How to Transform Your Life by Telling the Truth.
  6. Alan Watts in An Antidote to the Age of Anxiety (via Brain Pickings)
  7. Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations - Hays Translation. Marcus Aurelius was the Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 AD. The Meditations is his personal journal while campaigning on the war front away from home. The journal, never intended to be publicized or survive his death, consists of notes he made to himself during the conflict of the war, and since then has solidified him as one of the great Stoic philosophers. It is incredible to read how similar the struggles of an ancient emperor - the most powerful man in the world at the time - are to the struggles we experience every day (in one passage he criticizes himself for not getting out of bed). In adopting his advice on how to remain steadfast in the face of conflict, your life will forever be changed.
  8. Oliver Sacks in his autobiography On the Move.
  9. Not Fade Away tells the story of Peter Barton as he is a few months before his death. A retired media executive who lived an extraordinary life, he is now faced with his own mortality at the hands of a fatal cancer diagnosis. In the remaining months he has left, we get a rare and privileged look through his perspective as he achieves peace and solace.
  10. Jamie Foxx in an incredible interview with Tim Ferriss.
  11. Via Aubrey Marcus.