Fear – our first teacher

Opening to fear

‘The importance of fear has been given too little true psychological attention. ... The biblical statement that fear is the beginning of wisdom is significant. ... Fear is not merely something wrong, to be overcome with courage ... but is rather something right, a form of wise counsel. ... Love stirs fear. At the deepest level of fear eros appears. ... Fear seems an inherent necessity to the eros experience; where it is absent, one might well doubt the full validity of the loving.’

– James Hillman, from The Myth of Analysis

Opening to fear

Fear is a most common emotion. Yet, few of us really know fear, despite the fact that we believe we do. We think we know how to handle our fear. But the truth is the way most of us ‘handle’ our fear simply involves numbing it. And soon this becomes habit and so deeply ingrained that we no longer see what we are doing, like fish swimming in polluted water thinking it ‘normal’. We like to tell ourselves that we are masters of our fear; that we know how to ‘manage’ it, deal with it, or keep it under control. But this is not what it means to know fear. To know fear we have to ‘befriend it’.

Caspar David Friedrich

How we usually deal with our fear is the opposite of openness. True openness starts with feeling into our fear, hearing it, and opening to the vulnerability inside it. Then we discover that fear is really our teacher – through learning to understand the language it speaks, it draws us into the mysteries of soul. We learn to become honest about ‘what is real’ from the point of view of soul rather than always and only being on the lookout to safeguard our material well-being. Instead of being so quick to label our soul experiences as ‘something that is wrong and needs fixing’ we begin to understand that the simple realness of what we experience means it is ‘valid’ in itself and as such deserves our loving attention. By opening to our fear we learn to befriend and love ourselves, so opening to love more generally.

This said, it is important to understand what we’re up against. Otherwise we will not see it. It is rare for any of us to really notice just how blind we are in regards to how we deal with fear. Having read everything so far, we may wholeheartedly believe we agree with what is said here, but in reality it is unlikely that we act consistent to these ideas. When fear arises it nearly always affects us in one of two ways: either we speed up, or we shut down. Both these reactions are forms of closing down; that is, the opposite of opening. Speeding up usually involves being driven by fear; we start rushing around frantically to save ourselves, to resolve the situation or to disarm the threat. We may be holding our breath in mild panic, ‘trying to get through’, so even closing down physically. We become slaves to the storyline from which the fear emanates, speeding up so fast that we are no longer present with what is. Alternatively, we shut down. We become paralysed. We avoid facing the situation, turning a blind eye to its existence while indulging some activity that numbs our awareness of the fear. We go into denial and escapism. Either reaction affects us very deeply. Both speeding up and shutting down pollute our relationship with our instincts and contaminate our ability to trust our deepest natures. In short, they breed pestilence inside us.

Fear overwhelms us. It's as if we're invaded by some external force. And so it is difficult to see how we ‘react’ to fear – it seems ‘simply natural,’ like a powerful river we have no choice but to go along with. It affects us physically. Our bodies harden, are paralysed, or moved compulsively into blind rapacious action. Both speeding up and shutting down are means of avoiding our experience of fear. Both are escape routes. The key to ‘stopping the world’ regarding our conditioned reaction to fear, is to ‘catch’ the moment we start to speed up or shut down. The sooner we notice it, the easier it is to turn the tide of karma. In other words, our practice is to catch ourselves the moment we start to close down and to simply stop closing. The first step is to stop going along with compulsion. Next we learn to surrender and open to feeling 'what is there.' However, there can be no real opening if we have inside us even a hint of 'using opening' as a mechanism to overcome fear, that is, as a means to an end. The moment our intention fixates even dimly on this outcome, we automatically close down to the many dimensions of energy inherent to the moment. Opening to fear opens us to be truly present. It means truly meeting our fear – turning toward it, touching into it, being with it, coming to know it. Rather than protecting against it. We also open to the process that meeting our fear unlocks. As Pema Chodron points out, we discover that fear does not have to be hardened against. Relaxing into being with fear shapes our awareness, over time, so we open into being more deeply in touch with what is. Both inside and outside us. And we find we are better equipped to deal, simply, with whatever arises.

Yet, opening to fear goes in against the very culture of the society we live in, and we tend to go along blindly with this generally accepted ‘consensus reality’, without realising it. The culture of our society wants us to believe that the presence of the discomforts we call fear means we are ‘abnormal,’ or that it is a sign that ‘we are doing something wrong.’ Generally speaking, nervousness, restlessness, feelings of inadequacy, boredom, anxiety and panicπ are all really, at bottom, fear. We are taught to harden against fear, to armour ourselves, to become hard-hearted. But the truth is that the experience of fear is in fact ‘normal’ in the true sense of the word; that is, if by ‘normal’ we mean ‘true to the nature of existence.’ From this perspective, what is ‘abnormal’ is when we avoid or ‘jump out’ of our experience of fear, or when such avoidance becomes habitual constant striving to maintain our world in such a way that we are exposed to the experience of fear as little as possible.

Awakened heart

Over time we learn to embrace fear as a gift. Opening to fear is what gives us a handle on learning to open more generally to ourselves, the world and others. It is how we learn to ‘do’ the act of opening. When we truly open to fear, we discover it is alive with raw energy that vitalises us. ‘Underneath’ the fear there is tenderness and vulnerability, which are powerful energies rather than meek qualities of passive victimhood. Opening to fear involves opening into this raw tenderness. But we can only do this if we learn to separate out from the storyline from which the fear originally arises. If we look carefully, we notice how we are identified with some ‘story’ that moves us to react with hardness to the situation. We believe this story as irrevocably true and so become possessed by a hard demonic energy, which we call fear. As long as we remain identified with this story, we are unable to relate to the situation with gentleness and are liable to even empower that story to actualise in reality. Like all our storylines, it tends to function as a self-fulfilling prophecy.


If we can let go of the storyline we come into the soft underbelly of the fear, the vulnerable tenderness underlying it. But, be not fooled – 'vulnerable tenderness' has a volatile quality to it. If we learn to stay inside this raw energy we start to develop the tender ‘broken-heartedness’ that Chogyam Trungpa points outπ is the hallmark of truly being on a spiritual path. The Buddhists speak of 'an awakened heart’. This ‘genuine heart of sadness’ contrasts with the iron-heartedness of someone who habitually steels themselves for interactions with the world and others in pursuit of their goals. We become hard-hearted when we habitually protect ourselves against our fear. But, a tender heart is not to be confused with meekness or weakness. The raw, volatile quality of the energy is what shapes us; learning to stay inside it steels the heart to become solid and firm, as it opens the heart into acute sensitivity and vast gentleness. Also, as our hearts open in this way, our senses sharpen – we open to seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and feeling our world more precisely and more deeply; so that perhaps we even awaken to an uncanny ‘magical quality’ permeating our world.

So, opening to our fear is the very practice that deepens our awareness. Alchemically speaking, opening into this raw vulnerability and learning to be with it constantly and consistently, teaches us how 'to contain’ and so activate ‘the chemical reactions’ at the heart of all psychological transformation. However, when we do this we feel immense discomfort. So we start off by taking little steps. We learn ‘to touch into it, and to let it go’, then to come back and to touch into it, and let it go again. We open very gradually – over months, years, even decades – into being able to stay with this raw energy more constantly. The I Ching says, 'time is the instrument of change.' In fact, any sudden 'shift in awareness' is always suspicious and likely to be the product of ego-will rather than true alchemical transformation. As we deepen, we start to appreciate the true meaning of ‘being fully present in the now,’ for 'the now', if it is fully experienced reaches into realms of vast chaos, and remaining present with it while functioning in the world gives rise to immense discomfort. But this tension is the very ‘amniotic fluid’ in which true psychological transformation occurs. In fact, without this process, any psychology remains merely intellectual and never effects any true change. And later in our work, this amniotic fluid of discomfort is the very ‘soup’ from which images arise in us, which is to say, it is the foundation of imaginal work.

By the time we’re no longer controlled by the storylines of our personal fears, we start to open to the primordial depths of existence, and we learn that fear is fundamental to existing. Because we trained to touch into fear on the personal level, we are able to surrender into it on ‘the archetypal levels.’ Opening to fear, we become increasingly sensitive, which means our experience runs deeper, and paradoxically, enables us to acquire the skill to more precisely sense and handle our emotions and interactions with the world and others. The awakened, tender, genuine heart of sadness is a requirement for a live, constant dialogue with what is called ‘the imaginal’, ‘the Tao’ or 'God'. Without it, there can be no soul-making and no poetic awareness is possible. Which is why fear is our first teacher. We may acquire other teachers along the way, but fear remains primary, no matter how ‘advanced’ we become. It is what roots us back to the basics time and again; it is what ‘erodes us’, again and again, into Modesty. Which the I Ching tells us is required to keep alive our tender awakened heart, the gateway to the tremendous riches of our existence.