Ending the Cycle: A Quest to Stop Fear-Thinking

Sometimes, my mind rolls, following waves of emotion and thought into dark places of self-loathing. Analyzing and reanalyzing choices I’ve made and paths I’ve taken has been a source of pain and anguish in my life. At times, I can sit with these feelings and allow them to settle. At other times, I am pushed around by these waves of struggle, wondering if I will ever be free from my guilt over choices I’ve made. As these moments come and go, I’m careful to note these personal dramas as I record what I’m thinking and feeling in a journal. These testimonies to myself do, in some small way, help me recognize the patterns of my mind’s cloth; the warp and weft of this strange tapestry, made from cloth I wove into the complexity of my experience.

As I mentioned in a previous post, these cycles or ebbs and flows are part of my non-linear existence. The recurrence of ideas, thoughts, and feelings shape my decisions as I desperately imagine a place and time in which I won’t struggle. At the same time, I understand that the spiraling nature of this existence, this samsara, is part and parcel of what it means to be human. It’s a fascinating and terrifying experience.

Ending the cycle of this mind stream or unweaving the tapestry I’ve made, at the core, is about challenging the fear-thinking that has become a part of me. I have noticed, over the past year especially, that my reactions are a result of fear. It usually starts with this idea: what happens if I?….what will happen to my children if I?….what if she…what if they? While many folks have described these thoughts as “worry” or “concern” from my perspective these thoughts are rooted in fear and attachment.

Attachment, as teachers I’ve studied have said, is based on the premise that I hold on to actions, thoughts, and emotions, prolonging my own suffering. Whether happy or sad, angry or joyful, I often attach to an idea and follow it down a tortured trail to some fantastical imagining. Have you ever followed a thought, a daydream, to some absurd conclusion? I remember reading an article about someone who left their job and started making wine. They built a winery and appeared to have an amazing life. The article included scenes of a vineyard with a house in the distance, a bucolic existence captured in this one image. I imagined doing the same thing, following this path, making wine, becoming known for the varieties I cast, being interviewed for the bold choices I made. I created this entire story in a matter of seconds as images and stories immediately came to mind. I WAS that person. I felt so good!

In a moment that story was replaced by some other thought that pulled me back from this imagined life and I moved on with my day.

Some stories I tell myself, day after day, moment after moment, can bring some limited joy. More often, however, they prolong pain and anguish. I remember being questioned by a supervisor at work as she demanded to know my plans for a final exam. She had heard that I was planning to cancel the final. Nothing could have been further from the truth and I invited her to the final, that Thursday morning, to witness students taking the test. As it turned out, another faculty member had reported that I was cancelling my finals. I do not know her motives and to this day wonder at why someone would create that kind of a problem for me. However, when the incident happened I was filled with rage, angry that I had been questioned by this person. My mind raced to terrible places, even going so far as to think that this confrontation was the first step to my dismissal from the school. I was lost in an ocean of fear, anger, and resentment. It lasted for a couple of days. Even now I think about that moment, a conversation of no more than five minutes.

These various mental formations or thoughts happen over and over again in my daily existence. Sometimes, I get caught up in those stories. However, things are changing in my mind. I can feel it and recognize a shift in the way I think and the way I react. My reactions are less and less volatile. I attach to the stories, thoughts, emotions for shorter and shorter periods of time. So what happened? What changed to encourage that shift in thinking, feeling, grasping?

I came to recognize fear-thinking for what it is: a construction of my mind. It seems to me I built a kind of odd house that was framed from fear. Fear of failure, death, lack of acceptance, or a powerful driver for me, a lack of care and affection. Much of what I have thought as fear was formed when I was quite young, and those experiences were the structure of the fear I made. What happens if I lose my job? What happens if I don’t feel love from another person? What happens when I fail? What happens on the last day of my life? Will I be present for the transition or lost in some drug-induced fog? All of these questions and even more kept me trapped. Trapped in thoughts that were (are) recursive and reinforced my fears.

Yet fear is not real. It is an illusion just like most everything else we experience. Dzongar Khyentse Rinpoche said,

When you begin to notice the damage that emotions can do, awareness develops. When you have awareness — for example, if you know that you are on the edge of a cliff — you understand the dangers before you. You can still go ahead and do as you were doing; walking on a cliff with awareness is not so frightening anymore, in fact it is thrilling. The real source of fear is not knowing. Awareness doesn’t prevent you from living, it makes living that much fuller.

The awareness Rinpoche refers to is the process of ending fear-thinking. That awareness is, simply put, the recognition that the fear we hold onto is empty. It has no tangible hold on us. We can feel it, think it, know it, but when it comes down to it, fear does not really exist in any material way. It’s like a mist or fog that clouds our awareness and understanding.

Albert Brooks’s movie, Defending Your Life, has an hilarious take on fear and fear-thinking. In this scene the character Daniel is told that he has to confront his many fears. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1FhrhoudSE Fear, as the movie maintains, is the thing that prevents us from living the kind of life we desperately want.

Changing the cycle of fear-thinking is one aspect of the path we are on. I wonder if we can, at some point, find a way past these thoughts and emotions to find something much more lovely and wonderful?

May you be happy, may you be well.