The Roots of Fear
What is fear? How does it arise? Can we be with it? Can we let fear go?
This essay is part of a Circles in Time series called ‘Seeing Ourselves as Systems’. Subscribe here to get access to future posts.
What is fear?
We all know fear when we experience it, but what is it we are up to when fear arises?
Firstly, it is probably worth differentiating between the very instinctual reactions that arise when danger is immediately present versus the more psychologically-driven forms of fear.
I want to start with the latter, as I think may help in understanding the former.’
FEAR, THE BRAIN & THE ROLE OF THOUGHT
The feeling of fear is always in relation to something I know as unpleasant or harmful. Something that I expect or anticipate will lead me to experience some form of felt pain in the future.
In this way, the roots of fear must be at least partially conceptual, if not entirely so.
Let’s go through it slowly.
I experience a particular stimulus (or find myself in a particular situation or generate a certain belief).
First of all, let us remember that fear isn’t an inherent property of the stimulus. That is obvious, right?
I never really experience the stimulus itself.
What I experience is an interpretation of the stimulus brought about by sensorily-driven electric signals that my brain (stuck in the black box that is my skull) is making predictions about. What I experience is the predictions or rough interpretations that my brain is making, NOT the stimulus.
So it is in my interpretation of the stimulus that thought first gets to work.
That is to say, I have a set of preconceptions (model, image, choose your term), brought about by knowledge (which is experience, cultural conditioning, genes and all the rest of it) about a particular stimulus that causes me to predict its nature, appearance, function and relationship to me in a particular way.
In a sense, this prediction is just a recalling of knowledge that best fits the context.
As a result (or as part - the causal relation isn’t clear) of that prediction, particular internal sensations arise. These sensations again prompt an interoceptive interpretation—a prediction born of more preconceptions.
This whole ordeal is what my brain summarises as the conceptual category of fear.
An emotion that typically moves me in ways to avoid the occurrence of a projected future pain, which of course is an illusionary story, a prediction built ENTIRELY of thought.
All of a sudden, reality seems terribly far away, right?
Importantly though, by saying that fear is a conceptual category, I am in no way dismissing the real felt experience of fear. The feeling of fear is as real as it gets!
Anyone who says that the experience of fear isn’t real belongs in Taleb’s cabinet of IYI’s.
As a result of seeing thought’s role, I can see that it is, without a doubt, a product of my past knowledge—or in other words, a project of my conditioning, and therefore the entire basis on which it is built must be an illusion.
That last part is harder to understand.
BEING WITH FEAR
The story above is a vaguely logical one, which is useful, but just having knowledge of the fear-making mechanisms is not enough. Obviously, it’s just a representation. Another model. A map that hints at where to look. But without actually looking, how can I see the real root of fear? Let alone discover if being free of fear is possible.
To see the illusions that give rise to my fears, I need to investigate fear when it is present. I need to see the fear. To really look at it. NOW.
That doesn’t mean sitting in an armchair and thinking about the nature of fear. It also doesn’t mean stepping back to analyse fear when it arises, as if it were something separate from me. It means being with the fear as it shows up.
This is hard. Really hard.
As soon as fear arises, I tend to move, either physically or psychologically. If I can’t move physically, I typically run to hope. Or to courage. Some thought that all of a sudden seems much more important than the felt fear itself.
Perhaps, paradoxically, the thought of facing the fear is another movement away from the fear itself. It’s another escape. God, I can only imagine how confusing that may sound.
If my mind runs from fear, all I can do is be aware of it running to its typical comfort zones. I don’t judge myself for the escape (or if I do, I just try to watch that too).
Eventually, the need to run naturally ceases, and there is a much richer contact with the fear. In that contact, the shaky roots of the fear are revealed, and they begin to wither and die. At least for that moment anyway.
All of this isn’t to say that the concepts that give rise to fear aren’t sensible indications of real danger. Sometimes they are.
The point is to realise that fear’s basis is completely and utterly conceptual and therefore ALWAYS representative. Always imagined. Always limited. Never true.
And that means NOTHING until you see it for yourself.
Do with this what you will.
Next, I’ll explore the difference between psychological fear and our more instinctual (physiological) responses to danger, as well as the systems involved in stress and anxiety.