Facing Fear on the Path

Almost everyone who walks a spiritual path will experience some form of fear. Initially, we may be afraid of what family and friends will think of our spiritual interests. We may be afraid of our teacher, or the teachings, or of certain practices, or going on retreat. Later, we may develop a fear of losing all interest in worldly affairs, going insane, or finding out something about ourselves we don't want to know. We may also become afraid of such things as impermanence, death, or even God. But all these different kinds of fear are actually rooted in a single fear, which is the fear of Enlightenment itself.

The reason we are afraid of Enlightenment is because we know in our heart of hearts that before we can Awaken to our True Self, our ego-self must die. Nor are we deceived, for this is confirmed by the mystics of all traditions. Here, for example, is how Master Haikun describes a person who has arrived at the last stage of Zen practice.

Like a man hanging over a precipice he is completely at a loss what to do next. Except for occasional feelings of uneasiness and despair, it is like death itself. All of a sudden he finds his mind and body wiped out of existence.1

The Christian mystic, St. Teresa of Avila, compares what happens on a spiritual path to a silkworm turning into a butterfly. But she warns:

Note very carefully, daughters, the silkworm has of necessity to die, and it is this which will cost you most.2

Why? Because, as the great Sufi poet, Rumi, says:

No one will find his way to the Court of Magnificence until he is annihilated3

From the beginning, then, our attitude towards Enlightenment is fraught with deep-seated ambivalence. On the one hand, we yearn to Awaken, and yet, at the same time, we are terrified of the "spiritual death" which we must undergo in order to attain it. What's worse, the closer we get to our goal, the stronger our fear is apt to become.

Now, from a teacher's perspective, the appearance of fear on the path is usually a good sign, for it indicates the student is at last starting to glimpse the Truth. Sometimes, however, the fear may become so overwhelming that all further progress is blocked. So the question is, are there any steps you can take when this happens? And the answer, of course, is, yes, there are.

First, when fear arises, practice detachment. Detachment from fear means not grasping at it, or trying to push it away. "Grasping at fear" happens when we identify it as something belonging to our essential nature. This is a product of the way we have been conditioned to think about ourselves—as, for instance, when we say, "I am afraid." The way to break this conditioning is to ignore whatever thoughts you may be having about the fear, and directly observe that it is just another impermanent phenomenon arising and passing in Consciousness. Then, realize that, precisely because the fear is impermanent, it cannot be part of who you truly are, because you—the observer—do not arise or pass away with the fear.

"Pushing fear away" happens whenever we try to deny or resist it. Not only will this tactic not work, but trying to resist fear actually strengthens the sense of ego-self by creating the impression that there is some `one' doing the resisting.

In practicing nonresistance, however, we must be careful, because resistance itself is a conditioned response which cannot be gotten rid of through will power alone. So do not fall into the trap of trying to resist the resistance. Instead, focus your attention on your breath. Then, each time you exhale, let your attention expand outward, until it completely fills the space of awareness which surrounds and permeates your body and mind. Now relax and allow both the fear and the resistance to it to effortlessly arise and pass away in this space.

The second thing you can do is transform fear into compassion. Once you have learned to allow fear to be present without being overwhelmed, you can actually use it to arouse compassion. Remember that compassion literally means to "suffer with." So, whenever fear arises, consider that everyone suffers from fear at some time in their lives. Therefore, the fear you are currently feeling is not strictly personal. In fact, it is something you share with all sentient beings. So, open your heart to this fear and be grateful for the opportunity to experience deeply what others also experience. Then, just as you, yourself, want to be free of fear, recognize that all beings want this, as well. Make a strong wish or prayer that they, too, may be released from this form of suffering.

The more you can open your heart to fear and the suffering it causes, the more you will find that something remarkable happens. The very same energy which manifested as fear becomes transformed into a profound feeling of love and sympathy for all beings throughout the entire cosmos.

The third and most powerful thing you can do is embrace fear as your ally. We are so conditioned to think of fear as an enemy that this may sound rather strange. How could fear be an ally? Actually, if you have ever faced a life-threatening crisis—a medical emergency, natural disaster, or military combat—you have already had some experience of this.

At first, your reaction is one of sheer panic. Adrenaline pumps through your veins. Your heart rate goes into high gear. You feel momentarily immobilized. Then something shifts and, suddenly, you find yourself in an altered state. The body is infused with incredible energy. The mind becomes exceptionally alert and clear. All extraneous thoughts vanish, and attention is able to focus fully on the tasks at hand. Time slows down and you find you can do whatever needs to be done with great calmness and efficiency. It almost seems as if some Divine Force has taken over your life and is guiding all your actions.

Notice that what has produced this extraordinary state is that the intensity of the fear has temporarily "killed" all sense of your ego-self. Now this, in fact, is very close to what happens during spiritual death. The only real difference is that, in spiritual death, there is no external crisis to distract your attention. When attention is completely undistracted, it naturally returns to its Source in and as Consciousness, Itself. At this point, all that is required for you to Awaken is to Recognize that this Consciousness is who you truly are.

So if, instead of detaching from fear—or even trying to transform it into something else—you can completely and totally surrender to it, then the fear itself will obliterate your ego-self and, in so doing, carry you straight to Enlightenment's doorstep.

It is important, however, to add a word of caution. Surrendering to fear is not something you can or should try to force. It must occur spontaneously or, in theological terms, by way of grace. The worst thing you can do is get into a battle with yourself, trying to surrender to fear, and end up feeling weak or guilty because you failed. When the time comes, surrender will happen . . . one way or another. Meanwhile, the next time fear arises just try to remember that behind its wrathful veneer lies a potential friend.

Practicing detachment, transforming fear into compassion, and embracing it as an ally, are all ways of meeting fear head-on. In the long run, however, the most effective way to deal with fear is to make a systematic inquiry into its true cause. According to the mystics, the true cause of all suffering is the experience of being some limited ego-self, which requires constant enhancement and protection. But this is something you must become convinced of through your own direct insights. So, for example, whenever you suffer from disappointment, you might notice that this suffering only arises because there is some self which expected to get something it desired. When you suffer from sorrow, you might notice that this suffering only arises because there is some self which is attached to something it has lost. When you suffer from fear, you might notice that this suffering only arises because there is some self which is anxious about losing something in the future.

The more you conduct this kind of inquiry, the more you will directly see that your own sense of self is, indeed, the basis of all your suffering. Consequently, instead of cherishing this self as your most prized possession, you will come to regard it as a painful burden. Then, far from fearing ego death, you will actually long for it. When this happens, you will be like a tree-ripened plum, ready to fall at the merest whisper of a breeze.

Finally, keep in mind that the mystics' teachings about spiritual death reflect only a relative truth. They describe the experiences of a seeker still veiled by ignorance. From the point of view of Enlightenment, however, no `self' ever dies. This is because, in Reality, as the Hindu sage, Shankara, says:

There is neither birth nor death, neither bound nor aspiring soul, neither liberated soul nor seeker after liberation—this is the ultimate and absolute truth.4

Likewise, the Buddha tells his disciple Subhuti:

If the full truth is realized, one would know . . . that there are no sentient beings to be delivered and there is no selfhood that can begin the practice of seeking to attain Noble Wisdom.5

For this reason, too, the great Sufi shaykh, Ibn `Arabi, writes:

Most of `those who know God' make a ceasing of existence...a condition of attaining the knowledge of God, and that is an error and a clear oversight. For the knowledge of God does not presuppose the ceasing of existence . . . For things have no existence, and what does not exist cannot cease to exist . . . Then if thou know thyself without existence or ceasing to be, then thou knowest God; and if not, then not.6

In other words, your supposed `self' is nothing but a delusion, an imaginary construct, a mere mirage. It has never truly existed, and what has never truly existed cannot cease to exist. So, ultimately, all your fears are unfounded. This is the great Cosmic Joke which Enlightenment reveals. Once you see it, you will laugh at death, and your laughter will shake the very stars.

- Joel Morwood, Center Voice: Winter-Spring 2001. Joel is the spiritual director for the Center for Sacred Sciences in Eugene, Oregon.


  1. Cited in D. T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D. T. Suzuki, ed. William Barrett (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., Anchor Books edition, 1956) p. 148.
  2. St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, trans. E. Allison Peers (New York: Image Books, a Division of Doubleday, 1961) p. 113.
  3. William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1983) p. 179.
  4. Shankara's Crest-Jewel of Discrimination, trans. Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, 3rd ed. (Hollywood: Vedanta Press, 1978) p. 127.
  5. A Buddhist Bible, ed. Dwight Goddard (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970) p. 97-98.
  6. Ibn `Arabi, "Whoso Knoweth Himself...", trans. T. H. Weir (Gloucestershire: Beshara Publications, 1976) p. 5.