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What is Fear?

Fear is another one of those things that we wrongly assume ourselves to know all about, purely on the basis of our familiarity with it. There are – needless to say – many such things! What we really mean when we say that we know what fear is, is that we know what it is like to be ruled by fear. This is not the same thing at all as knowing what fear is – in fact it is the complete opposite of ‘knowing what fear is’!



When we are actually afraid, then we definitely do not ponder upon the question of what fear actually is – we are too busy trying to obey the fear. Philosophy doesn’t come into it. When we are afraid, our curiosity about the world goes down to zero, and our curiosity about fear also goes down to zero. When we are not feeling fear, then the usual thing is that we do not think about it very much. When we are not feeling the icy hand of fear on our shoulder, and we do happen to think about fear, it is almost always in an ‘unreflective’ way, which is to say – we assume that we already know all about ‘what fear is’ and so our ‘thinking about fear’ does not at all involve ‘questioning what we know about fear’. 




So what can we say about fear that is new? What could we learn about fear, if we were to become reflective? The first thing that it is helpful to focus on is the common or garden definition of fear, which might be something like fear is the reaction we have when faced with an outcome that we seriously do not like. This definition seems straightforward enough, but there is more to fear than just this. For example, it is important to consider the fact that fear does something very odd to our ability to be curious about things, as we have already mentioned. It knocks curiosity on the head, basically. Another way of explaining this whole ‘loss of curiosity’ thing is to say that fear is basically a ‘compulsion’, or ‘unfree motivation’ – when we are in its grip, therefore, we are compelled to believe that the feared outcome is going to be very bad indeed, and because of the way in which we are unable to question this belief, we have no option apart from struggling as hard as we possible can to avert the outcome in question.



In other words, when I am afraid, I am consumed by the fear – I have to see things the way in which the fear makes me see things; I am basically ‘a puppet of the fear’ and that is all there is to it. When people talk of blind terror this hits the nail exactly on the head; fear is blind and there is no actual ‘genuine awareness’ in it at all. It is all ‘reacting’ from beginning to end. A good way to explain this blindness is to say that fear arises out of a specific, very narrow viewpoint and once we are ‘stuck’ in this viewpoint it becomes practically impossible to see things any other way. This does not mean that the ‘narrow viewpoint of fear’ is the right viewpoint, it just means that it is the one we are stuck in.  It is impossible to jump out of this viewpoint on purpose, and it is also impossible to ‘fight’ fear – if I try to fight fear I merely succeed in getting stuck even more in the exact same narrow viewpoint. What happens is that I end up getting totally overpowered by an overwhelming ‘aversive’ reaction to the fear that I was trying to fight; to put this another way, I end up being utterly consumed by ‘fear of fear’.  Basically, I react to fear in a fearful way, out of my blind need to escape the fear.



So, we can put this all together by saying that fear is an aversive reaction (or an ‘aversive compulsion’) that we get swept along in. The more we get swept along by fear, the more ‘unreflective’ we get, and the more unreflective we get, the more convinced we become that this viewpoint isn’t just ‘a viewpoint’ at all but the only way we could possibly see things.  The more we get convinced of this by the fear, the more the fear grows, and the more the fear grows, the more we are swept along with it (i.e. the more we are consumed by it). We ‘identify’ with the fearful viewpoint, which means we become it. As Krishnamurti very plainly says, you do not have the fear, you are the fear.




We can actually define fear (as John Bennett has done) by saying that it is the condition of negative will. Negative will does not mean that we have ‘no will power’, what it means is that we think that the compulsion that is driving us is in fact the same thing as our own will. For example, suppose that I have totally lost my temper and I am shouting at you and calling you bad names. Now as long as I ‘go along’ with the compulsion to shout at you and say very bad things about you, then I feel that it is me that wants to do this. You deserve for me to be having a go at you, it is right that I should ‘give you a taste of your own medicine’, etc, etc. Basically, I validate my bad-tempered outburst by saying that it is the right and correct thing to do, and by not questioning what I am doing I get to feel okay about it all. I feel justified, if not downright smug.



But if I had insight into the unpleasant and unjustified nature of my outburst, then I might try to be not angry – but the crucial point here is that I cannot deliberately stop being angry, and this means that the anger is not my true will at all, but an external compulsion that is controlling me. It is like an occupying force that is telling me what to do, and as long as I do not question what the occupying force is telling me to do, then I have the illusion that I am ‘free’, but as soon as I try to ‘do otherwise’, then I discover very quickly that I am not free at all. Negative will means, therefore, that I mistake an external compulsion for being my own will. It is the illusion of will where there is none.



Anger is one example of negative will, and fear is another. When I am obeying the fear that has me in its grip, I can’t help feeling as if the fear is an expression of my own true will. I feel as if ‘what the fear wants me to do’ is the exact same thing as ‘what I want to do’. But actually this is not true at all. I can easily tell that the fear is not my own true will because of the fact that I cannot be ‘not afraid’ on purpose. I cannot simply ‘turn the fear off’, and what this means is that the fear is not an expression of my own volition at all – it is an external compulsion that has taken me over. When we think about this it seems very obvious indeed. But how does this way of understanding fear help us at all?




Well, the first thing that we can say is that it helps us a lot to know that we can’t rid ourselves of fear on purpose. As we said a minute ago, if I am angry I cannot force myself to be ‘not angry’. If I try, I just end up getting angry with myself for being so stubbornly angry – I get angry with my anger! Similarly with greed: If I am suffering from greed (or ‘craving’) I cannot force myself to be ‘not greedy (or ‘not craving’). If I try to force myself not to be greedy, I just end up ‘being greedy to be not greedy’. I end up craving not to crave, or ‘desiring to be in the state of not desiring’. And the same is true for fear – if I try to force myself not to be afraid I end up being afraid of being afraid. I end up fearing the state of fear, and this is a kind of double-fear! It helps to understand this important psychological fact because when we thoroughly understand that it is impossible to deliberately ‘not be afraid’ (which in itself is no small thing) I no longer try to do deliberately free myself from fear. This means – for a start – that I do not make things any worse for myself.




But there is much more to this than just ‘damage limitation’! When I run from fear (or otherwise try to suppress or control it) what I am actually doing is ‘refusing pain’. Fear is really a type of mental pain, which is to say, it is a place in ourselves that we find difficult to be in. From a psychological point of view, therefore, acting on fear is the exact same thing as ‘avoiding difficulty’ or ‘repressing emotional pain’. There is fundamental ‘psychological principle’ (so to speak) which says that when we automatically avoid difficult situations, we train ourselves to believe that we are not able to be in them.  Or to put it another way, by avoiding we train ourselves to believe that we have no choice apart from avoiding – we condition ourselves to have zero trust in our own resources to be somewhere that is difficult. Therefore, I avoid automatically, I avoid unreflectively; I avoid because I have trained myself to be an avoider. This is purely a matter of habit (or precedence) and nothing more – I create the rule that says “I must avoid” and then I get enslaved by this rule; I make my own prison, in other words.



Now as we have said, I cannot force myself to be in the difficult, fearful place because if I do ‘force’ it all gets screwed up since the only reason I am forcing myself is because I am afraid of what will happen if I don’t force myself. It is fear that is motivating me – in fact all forcing is fear-driven when it comes down to it (or greed-driven, which is really the same thing as fear). It is crucially important to understand this point – if we don’t understand it, then we are doomed to repeat the same pattern of ‘unsuccessful avoidance’ over and over again, forever enacting the perfectly circular pattern of ‘futile pseudo-avoiding’.




When I have the mindfulness to see the impossibility of deliberately escaping fear, then what naturally happens is that I cease to try. Or at least, I no longer believe in what I am doing, and so it isn’t the same any more. I have trained myself to be an avoider and so I am ‘an avoider’, but now I can see that when I trained myself to be an avoider I have at the same time trained myself to believe that successful avoiding is possible when it isn’t.  What this means is that I no longer have that particular comfort zone of ‘believing that if I try hard enough I can get what I want’ (or ‘believing that if I try hard enough I can run away from fear’).



With this highly pernicious and detrimental comfort zone blown up, what happens is that a part of me is freed up so that it can just watch what is happening. I just watch my own fear. Because of my acceptance of the inescapability of me being where I am, I watch myself being there. I appreciate the reality of being where I am, I let it sink in, I watch myself being in the state of fear.  This may not sound (on the face of it) as being such an improvement on my previous situation, which is where I was compulsively trying to run away from my own fear the whole time. What is so great about ‘seeing that I am afraid’? The answer to this question is now hitting us in the face:


Seeing that I am afraid is the same thing as ‘not being afraid to see that I am afraid’, and ‘not being afraid to see that I am afraid’ is the same thing as not being afraid. ‘Seeing’ is the opposite of ‘fearful reacting’, because we react in order not to see.




Another approach on all this has to do with the ‘psychological principle’ that we were talking about earlier. Normally – as we have been saying – we react to fear rather than seeing that we are afraid; in fact ‘reacting’ is how we try to escape from seeing the fear. What this means therefore is that reacting is basically a form of psychological denial. Denial is a concept that we all understand – something is happening, and I say that it is not happening. This refusal to accept reality is denial.  When fear strikes the basic message or awareness that is coming to me in the fear is that something unthinkably terrible is about to happen. The fear is telling me that something absolutely unacceptable to me is about to happen. By reacting to this message of fear, I am trying to escape from it.  I am trying to escape from reality.



At this point it is helpful to differentiate between two types of fear, or rather (to be more accurate), between two types of situation that cause fear. The first type is what we could call an external situation, which is to say an external threat. This is how we usually understand fear – for example, a big mean-looking dog runs up to me and starts barking ferociously at me, or I nearly get run over by a car. External threats like this cause fear (normally!) and the fear causes me to react in some way so as to lessen the danger. So maybe I pick up a stick to defend myself from the dog, or I jump back instantly to avoid the path of the car that is about to run me over. Or to give another reaction, suppose that I find myself on the very edge of a high cliff and the ground is starting to crumble away – a jolt of fear hits me and I jump back to a safer place.



Reactions like this are helpful and appropriate, obviously, and this stimulus-reaction constitutes the normal ‘healthy’ type of fear. Without it, we would probably not last very long! This is how we usually understand fear; we see it as an ‘external threat’ – in other words we see fear as being a warning about some real threat in the outside world, as in fact it often is. But fear is not always about such well-defined external situations – it is just as likely to be about an internal threat, and this is a different kettle of fish entirely.  An internal threat is where the stimulus is some kind of awareness that we assume to be dangerous, some kind of thought or feeling that we don’t want to know about. Let us say that at some previous point in time, we have safely hidden away some kind of unwanted awareness, and then afterwards – in the time-honored fashion familiar to all of us – proceeded to forget the fact that we have “swept it under the carpet”. Well, this being the case, any sign of the unwanted awareness starting to ‘re-emerge’ constitutes what we will see as ‘an internal threat’. We don’t know what is happening because we have previously banished that knowledge from our conscious minds, but we ‘know’ all the same (without knowing how we know) that what is occurring is very bad news indeed. The worst type of news possible in fact.




This business about repressing certain things (certain awarenesses) that we don’t want to know is common to us all – there is nobody that doesn’t do it really. The problem about this type of lazy mental housekeeping (where we sweep problems under the carpet) is that the repressed feelings and thoughts don’t stay hidden the way we would like them to do. They emerge from time to time, and when this happens it happens in a very frightening way. The fear causes us to react, and the point about reacting (as we said a minute ago) is that this is our way of escaping from the fear.  Now reacting to an external threat is biologically appropriate and healthy, but this is not true at all for ‘reacting to an internal threat’; reacting to an internal threat is the same thing as ‘psychological denial’ and so it is the very opposite of healthy. The psychologically healthy thing to do in this case is not to do anything (since all ‘doing’ is an attempt to escape from the unwanted awareness). In other words, the ‘healthy’ thing to do is to stay there in the here and now and see what the thing is that is causing all the fear.



In practice, fear of an internal threat often attaches itself to a handy external threat, and so the true reason for the fear is doubly obscured. We end up even more cut-off from the true source of our fear. This is what generally happens in anxiety and this is the reason anxiety usually provokes us to ‘problem solve’ perceived difficulties in the outside world. Trying to fix problems (or trying to anticipate them, which is the same thing) is therefore all part of our system of denial, the way that we have of remaining unaware of what it is that we have secretly decided that we want to remain unaware of. In this case, therefore, the appropriateness of trying to fix of solve external problems or threats is seriously open to question, since all we are really trying to do by our externally-directed problem-solving is distract ourselves from the true nature of our fear.




What we are basically saying in all of this is that fear has to be understood in terms of two very different things. Firstly, there is the ‘original fear’, which we will look at more closely in a minute or two. This is a kind of ‘psychic fact’ or ‘psychic datum’ that is buried deep down in us, even when we don’t (on the face of it) feel at all fearful. This is an idea that runs contrary to the conventional idea that ‘when we are not feeling fear, then that means there is no fear there’. What we are saying, is that ‘when we do not feel fear, then that is because we have successfully repressed or denied it’.  In other words, fear is always there somewhere, and therefore most of what I do comes down to denial of this fear. Fear is thus the ‘secret motivator’.



Even though this might sound a bit preposterous, we can see that there might be some truth in it by considering the following fact. The fact in question is that any one of us (almost without exception) might feel as confident and brave as you like, but when suddenly confronted with a real and immediate ‘life-threatening situation’ this so-called ‘confidence’ will crumble away instantly. Basically, we manage to feel confident and brave by forgetting about the fact of our own mortality (which is to say, by forgetting about the fact that our own personal death is an inevitability, and it could happen to us at any time. When we don’t bear this highly pertinent datum in mind, we feel confident, and luxuriously at ease, but when some threat reminds us about it, our sense of ease and comfort evaporates instantly, revealing in its place a yawning abyss of terror.



After all, who can honestly say that they are able to look upon the prospect of their own personal death without terror? We might think we are okay with it (and a lot of people will tell you that they are not afraid of dying) but this is only ‘the situation as we would like to imagine it is’. The truth – when it actually comes knocking on our door – is generally a very different story.  Now we are not saying that this deep-down fear of death is always going to be there, only that it is always going to be there until it has been faced properly, which is something that we are very good at not doing. When it has not been faced, in the proper uncompromising way, then this means that the fear is not ‘dealt with’, but simply denied.




The idea that we are looking at here is the idea that there is an ‘original’ (or ‘primary’) level of fear that conditions almost everything we do, and which it’s the true culprit that secretly stands behind all our lesser fears. We must note here that although we have used the example of ‘fear of death’ to try to show the sense in saying that there could be such a thing as a permanent, deep-down fear which is (usually) only ever denied, we are not saying that original fear is the same thing as ‘fear of death’. Although this particular fear does seem to be the ‘Grand-daddy of them all’, we will leave our definition of ‘original fear’ open at this stage to allow it to encompass other possibilities, other ways of understanding ‘the secret motivator’. After all, I might think that if discover that I am afraid of death, then I automatically know everything there is to know about my fear, but in reality I don’t know everything about it at all because I don’t actually know what ‘death’ is, anymore than I know what ‘life’ is!



We also said that this original fear (whatever it might be about) is something that we very rarely see or encounter at all, due to our ingrained habit of ‘avoiding being aware of fear’. The idea of habitually or automatically trying to avoid awareness of whatever it is that is causing the fear brings us to the second thing that we were going to say about ‘fear’. The first ‘important thing to understand about fear’, so we said, was that fear isn’t an occasional visitor, but a permanent house guest who we have dealt with by the unwise expedient of ‘ignoring the fact that he is there’. The second ‘important thing to understand about fear’ – we might say – is that by reacting to fear, we become subject to ‘the law of fear’, which simply means that everything little thing about us is invested in the goal of becoming as unreflective as possible.



In fact, the term ‘unreflective’ doesn’t really go far enough, it doesn’t give a strong enough impression. We are not talking about ‘a casual lack of interest’, or some sort of lazy indifference, but rather, what we are on about here is a totally relentless, absolutely implacable and grimly determined refusal to look in a certain direction. Put very simply, I don’t want to know, and I don’t want to know that I don’t want to know, and that – as far as I am concerned anyway – is the end of the matter. Another way of explaining this idea of ‘not wanting to know and not wanting to know that I don’t want to know’ is to say that this is the Law of Fear. When we enact the law of fear, this necessarily involves the denial of fear. Therefore, when I obey the law of fear, I say that there isn’t any fear.



What we are looking at here then is a whole framework (or system) of thinking that is very very serious about not seeing or not becoming aware about some central fact (or ‘psychic datum’). If we could accept that this were true, then it would be ‘big news’, to say the least. If a whole ‘system of thinking’ like this exists, a system of thinking that [1] has a serious agenda, and [2] does not acknowledge this serious agenda exists, then this obviously has implications of the most radical possible nature. Basically, I am no longer able to accept at face value my usual assumptions regarding what is ‘true’ and what is ‘not true’, what is ‘helpful’ and what is ‘not helpful’, what is ‘good’ and what is ‘not good’ etc.




At this point we can start to see a connection with what we were saying right back at the beginning of this discussion on fear. We were saying that everybody thinks that they know all about fear, i.e. that everybody assumes that they have a perfectly adequate understanding of what fear is. But when we have an understanding that there is such a thing as the system of denial, which necessarily turns everything upside down, then we can see that our assumptions can no longer be trusted. When we take the system of denial into account we start to understand fear in a very different way – for example, we can see the strength of the fear that we are experiencing (the intensity) of it, isn’t a measure of how ‘bad’ situation is, but rather it is a measure of the absolutely closed nature of our denial (i.e. it is a measure of the degree to which our system of denial is unable or unwilling to see that it is denial).


To put this another way –


The more effective and thorough-going the system of denial is, the more more terrifying what we are denying becomes…





Basically, if my insistence wasn’t so flatly and unreflectively (or mechanically) resolute, then the fear wouldn’t be there. Therefore, we can say quite categorically that the fact of my fear doesn’t tell me anything at all about what I fear, but it tells me everything there is to know about the framework of mind that has produced the fear. What the fact of my fear tells me is that I have chosen not to see something, and then chosen not to see that I have chosen this. The fear is my stubborn resistance to see the truth – it is my refusal to see reality, and it is also my refusal to see the fact that I am refusing to see reality. Fear, as John Bennett says, is the reaction of the unreal when confronted with the real. It is the reaction of the system of denial when confronted with what it is denying.



As soon as we understand this we can see that there can be no question of being ‘free from fear’ just as long as we are wedded to an unreal basis that we cannot (or will not) see as being unreal. This ‘unreal basis’ is not just inseparable from fear – it is fear. The unreal basis is fear. The conditioned self is fear. ‘Who I think I am’ is fear…



The unreal or mind-created self is always going to be governed by fear, is always going to be subject to ‘the rule of fear’, and the world that it creates for itself in order that it might escape from the fear which is itself is never going to be any more than a ‘construct of fear’. This is a curious enough point to make it worth stating again:


The false world of ‘logical certainties’ that we create for ourselves in order that we might escape from fear is never going to be any more than the endless extension of the very fear which it is supposed to be allowing us to escape from…



Author: Nick Williams

Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.

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