We are wired for survival. To support our ability to survive, our brains reward actions or behaviors that help our survival with pleasure, and behaviors that hinder our survival with pain. In essence, we are born to want pleasure (love) and to avoid pain (fear). Survival, therefore, becomes a love of life.
However, if we love life, then we naturally fear death. But if we fear death, then we will be filled with worries of illness and aging, making it difficult to love life.
There are many such conflicts that arise in life, in which love and fear create opposing desires (dualities), between which we must navigate and make judgements. When these conflicts start to dominate our lives, we develop anxiety and depression. When we are unable to adequately resolve these conflicts, our brains may get stuck, which can result in emotion loops where our anxiety and depression become chronic. Sometimes, this condition can turn into an existential crisis.
This was what happened to me after facing the death of a loved one.
Love and Fear
Love and fear are two of the strongest human emotions and they seem to work in opposition. Fear motivates us to run away while love motivates us to stay and embrace. It is difficult to love what we fear, and yet fear arises out of love.
From love comes attachment or desire. Attachment is “a feeling that binds one to a person, thing, cause, ideal, or the like (Dictionary.com).” If we already have the object of our attachment, then we will strive to grow or keep it. If we do not, we strive to acquire it. Whenever an attachment is formed, fear arises (i.e. we fear losing the object of our love).
From fear comes aversion or rejection. Fear tells us we can’t or shouldn’t do, are not strong enough to feel, or not calm enough to think. Fear tries to protect us by reminding us of our limits, real or imagined.
We are wired to see fear as something bad, unpleasant, uncomfortable, literally scary. Fear can cause us to go into a “fight-or-flight” response, which causes physiological changes that place stress on our bodies. Continued activation of our fight/flight response can result in inflammation, muscle tension and pain, insomnia, as well as various chronic physiological conditions. Fear is our enemy, the monster in the dark. Fear increases our suffering. As a result, many of us develop a strong attachment to eradicate or remove fear from our lives.
The only thing we have to fear … is fear itself.
~~[Franklin D. Roosevelt]
However, like love, fear is part of being human. We are born to fear pain, both physical and emotional. Fear and pain are an integral part of our survival system, thus they are an integral part of life. Suffering is therefore also part of life and part of being human. When we try to eradicate fear and suffering, we will inevitably fail, and create even more fear and suffering for ourselves. The best way to lessen our suffering is to embrace both love and fear.
Attachment and Aversion
Attachments are a necessary part of life. We form attachments to people, things, places, activities, beliefs, causes, and more. If we had no attachments, why would life be worth living? If nothing matters, why try to live at all?
However, even though life demands attachments, the nature of life is also one of change and impermanence. The things and people we cling or attach to today may be gone tomorrow. This creates great pain and suffering. To protect us from this pain, we develop fear and fear causes aversion.
For example, I was very attached to success in school and at work because it was my ticket to physical and financial freedom. This attachment caused me to develop a fear of failure. Unfortunately, I did not know how to tend to my fear so I just suppressed or ignored it. As time went on, my fear of failure grew until I developed a strong attachment to never failing (i.e. a strong attachment to perfect success).
This is an unhealthy attachment because unlike my original desire (freedom), it is motivated by fear. It also subsumed my original desire so now when I strived for success, I was feeding this need for perfection, which in turn further fueled my fear of failure. So round and round it went and my fear kept growing. It grew in intensity and it expanded into other areas of my life. Now my meals had to be perfect, my art had to be perfect, my spouse had to be perfect, I had to be perfect in all things. The things at which I could not be perfect, I rejected or avoided. Life quickly became stressful and very unhappy.
This anxiety loop also caused endless striving – as soon as success was achieved I worried about the next hoop I had to jump through, or the next person I had to surpass. When there was no clear next hoop, I worried about not losing my current status or position.
Anxiety loops trap us into always striving for the next goal, and cause us to miss what is right in front of us. We miss being present for life’s journey. We miss the enjoyment of learning and working towards success because we are too worried about running away from failure.
Once you realize that the road is the goal and that you are always on the road – not to reach a goal, but to enjoy its beauty and its wisdom – life ceases to be a task and becomes natural and simple, in itself an ecstasy.
~~[Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj]
All this perfectionism and striving ended up trapping me in an ever narrowing prison, which is exactly the opposite of my original desire, which was to gain more freedom. Note that attachment and striving are not “bad” in and of themselves, they only become unhealthy when they are motivated by strong fear or aversion.
Wisdom and Awareness
To avoid forming unhealthy attachments (fear motivated goals) we need awareness and wisdom. Awareness and wisdom tell us what the problem is, where it is coming from, and how we can effectively tend to it.
Wisdom, according to the Oxford dictionary, is “the soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” To know what knowledge and experience are relevant, as well as how to apply them, we need awareness. However, awareness can also uncover inconvenient truths about ourselves, our family and friends, our life, or our world that we find difficult to digest.
When we form an attachment to awareness, we develop a fear of learning difficult truths. This is why many of us use ignorance and delusion as coping mechanisms to reject awareness. The truth may be too painful or difficult to accept. On the other hand, I have seen firsthand what delusion and keeping up appearances have done to my parents and family. Secrets and lies are a burden to self and to those around us. False images of self and others lead to poor decisions as well as unnecessary anxieties and suffering. Love cannot thrive in an environment that is filled with secrets and lies.
This is not to say that awareness is always better than ignorance. In fact, ignorance and delusion are a natural and necessary part of life. There are many things in life that we do not have the time to learn. In addition, if we spent all of our time trying to be aware of all things, we would have no time left over for the pleasures of life.
There are also many mysteries in life that we do not know and can never explain. Questions about the soul, the meaning of life, the Creator of life and the universe, the uncaused cause. This is necessary ignorance. In fact, all of life could just be a dream or a delusion, as in Total Recall. We cannot know for sure.
I have a curious mind so I am always asking questions. This is particularly true when I am passionate about a topic. I will keep asking and digging because I want to learn and understand. The more I learn though, the more anxieties I have. Knowledge can be scary and painful. But the reward for that pain is an open mind that is able to entertain any point of view, story, or experience.
Fear and Acceptance
Fear tells us to protect ourselves by setting up walls and boundaries. We identify possible threats and separate ourselves from them so that we will not get hurt physically or emotionally. We may reject activities, foods, places, relationships, uncomfortable thoughts, and painful memories. If we let fear control us, we eventually become scared, paralyzed, and alone.
As fear grows, it becomes aversion and we develop fear-motivated attachments. Such unhealthy attachments can become anxiety/depression loops and spiral downward quickly. Without careful tending, fear attachments multiply, crowding out healthy love-motivated attachments until only anxiety and depression remain. It is important to remember however, that fear comes from love, so the best way to deal with fear is to return her to love. The solution to this love-fear conflict is acceptance.
There are two kinds of suffering. There is the suffering you run away from, which follows you everywhere. And there is the suffering you face directly, and so become free.
When we face our fears and learn to accept them, we can let love into our lives again. To face our fears we need to –
- Be aware when we feel fear.
- Be calm enough to name fear and embrace her. Naming fear can engage the left or logical side of our brain, which helps to regulate our emotions. Mindful breathing, becoming the Observer, visualization, journaling, talking, and tapping are further tools for self-soothing.
- Once our minds are calm, we can analyze fear and identify the thoughts, memories, or attachments that power the emotion. What do we fear? Why do we fear it? Are our fears accurate? Cognitive behavioral therapy can be useful here.
- Based on our analysis, we determine if we want to follow fear’s advice. This is where wisdom comes into play. If we decide that there is nothing to fear, then we lean into fear and do the opposite. We keep doing it or decide on doing it until the fear dissipates. This helps to create tolerance for that particular fear, which helps to weaken it.
- We may also adjust or correct inaccurate thoughts or attachments that power our fears, which will further weaken the pattern.
By facing and weakening various fear patterns, we also weaken the attachments associated with those fears. Ultimately, those unhealthy attachments will no longer have any strength and we would have let them go. We also have attachments that come from love, which fulfill our heart’s desires. These we want to keep and protect from the misdirection of unfounded fears or aversion.
Only to the extent that a person exposes themselves over and over again to annihilation and loss can that which is indestructible be found within them. In this daring lie dignity and the spirit of true awakening.
Conflict and Suffering
Our brains reward certainty, permanence, and awareness, because they help in our survival. The more we know and the more stability we have in our daily lives, communities, and environment, the better our chances for survival. However, Nature is ever-changing, impermanent, and contains many mysteries. Nature also places limits on time, space, matter, and energy.
Whenever we run up against these limits, conflict arises, fear arises, and we feel pain and suffering. Since Nature’s laws are not in our control, these conflicts are difficult to resolve and can sometimes turn into anxiety loops that keep growing our fears. Because Nature imposes limits on us, pain, fear, and suffering are part of human life. They are not an affliction or illness but rather a shared universal human experience.
However, this does not mean that we are totally helpless. While some suffering is necessary, we create a lot of unnecessary suffering because our brains try to optimize for short-term pain avoidance. We end-up feeding many of our fear motivated attachments and growing our fears until we are buried by them. This is why awareness is critical. If we are aware of our fears and their related attachments, then we may tend to them and weaken their influence.
In most cases, it is difficult to tell whether our actions or strivings are motivated by love or fear. Often, it is motivated by both. Fear based attachments tend to be outcome based, so we derive very little pleasure from them. Once an outcome is reached, we quickly get driven forward by fear again. Fear causes us to prove ourselves over and over again. Love based attachments are process based, outcomes are less relevant, and there is more lasting happiness.
Rather than trying to separate out the different classes of attachments, I find it more effective to simply face my fears whenever they arise. By facing my fears I build up a tolerance for fear, and I can gradually weaken and release fear-based attachments. This gives me more freedom to form new love-based attachments and to just enjoy the process of achievement. By facing my deepest fears related to thoughts, emotions, and memories, I free myself to entertain any thought, experience any emotion, and recall any memory. In this way, I gain limitless freedom of consciousness.
Meaning of Life
We are born to want. We are born to want to give pleasure and to receive pleasure. This results in love. We are born to want to avoid pain. This results in fear.
Frequently, our wants may compete or even conflict with one another. When we develop too many fear attachments or prioritize fear attachments over love attachments, then we start to sacrifice pleasure for short-term pain avoidance. This can lead to fear crowding out love and we end-up with little pleasure and a lot of unnecessary pain.
To avoid this very unhappy state of affairs, we want to embrace our fears. When we do this, we will soon realize that beneath all that fear is a lot of emotional pain that we are too afraid to touch. The most core fear of all is the fear of pain. This is the ultimate pattern that we must dispel.
Running from pain will only strengthen our fears and lead to more suffering. Therefore, we must face our pain. This requires us to stay with the pain and experience it. We do this by using the same emotion regulation techniques as we did for fear. The more we dwell with our pain, the more skilled we become at regulating it and the more tolerance we build. When we develop enough mental discipline to dwell comfortably in pain, we truly free ourselves from suffering.
The dance of life is learning to hold both love, fear, and all the dualities they generate in loving-kindness (without judgement) and to move comfortably between them depending on circumstance. This is also known as the Middle Way in Taoism. If we only see things as black and white or good and bad, we will miss what is possible and invite into our hearts unnecessary anxiety, depression, and suffering. When we can maintain peace in the midst of conflict, when we can be comfortable in discomfort, when we can smile at our own suffering, then our consciousness is free to fly wherever it desires, and we have found Heaven on Earth.
To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering. If there is a purpose in life at all, there must be a purpose in suffering and in dying. But no man can tell another what this purpose is. Each must find out for himself, and must accept the responsibility that his answer prescribes.
~~[Gordon W. Allport]