Ways to work with fear rather than avoiding it

One of the great dharma resources in the Boston area is the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center:

Click to go to the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center

The CIMC Guiding Teachers and Teachers are (left to right) Larry Rosenberg, Narayan Liebenson Grady, and Michael Liebenson Grady:

Larry Rosenberg, Narayan Liebenson Grady, and Michael Liebenson Grady

Below are some excerpts from a summary of a 1997 talk by Michael Liebenson Grady on how to deal skillfully and compassionately with the fears we all have as human beings. May this teaching be a support to your path!

Working With Fear

Michael Liebenson Grady

We can have a very committed spiritual practice, doing all the “right” things—sitting every day, getting in our annual retreats, reading and listening to Dharma, and even having moments of deep concentration and clarity of mind. And yet, at the same time, we can be living our lives actively avoiding our fears and keeping them at a distance.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke said:

“What is required of us is that we love the difficult and learn to deal with it. In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us.”

Understandably, fear is a difficult energy to love. The source of our difficulty with fear is tied up in two deeply conditioned responses to fear —aversion and identification.

On a physical level, fear doesn’t feel good. It’s unpleasant. The energy of fear expresses itself in so many ways through the body: from very subtle sensations that often go unnoticed to very distinct sensations of contraction and tightening — constriction in the chest, stomach, face, throat. Our breathing and our heartbeat are affected. Even our skin and body temperature are effected (cold, clammy hands); couple these unpleasant physical sensations with the unpleasant mental sensations (thoughts of vulnerability, powerlessness, and separation) and we can begin to understand why we respond with so much aversion to the experience of fear.

How metta breaks identification with fear

Our aversion to fear —the judging and condemning, the avoiding and denial, the embarrassment and shame — are intensified by our identification with fear. There is a strong tendency to personalize fear, to take separateness and self-judgment. The notion of self is not far from our experience of fear. It conditions the way we hold fear. It strengthens aversion and makes the experience of fear more threatening. Not only do we judge fear as a bad experience (aversion), but we judge ourselves for having the experience. Identification with fear gets in the way of looking at fear directly and prevents us from recognizing the true nature of fear.

The Buddha taught metta (loving-kindness) practice to the monks and nuns as a compassionate response to their fears of practicing in the forest. Cultivating thoughts of loving-kindness strengthens one’s ability to meet experience with greater openness and less aversion. Metta also encourages less identification with fear because it dissolves separation and nurtures connection.

In using metta in relationship to fear, choose a phrase or phrases that resonate with you. I use “May I be at ease” or “May I be at peace with what is”. Every time you become aware of fear, remember the phrase, saying it softly and silently to yourself. By remembering to use these shamatha practices in working with fear, we nurture the serenity aspect of practice and begin to respond in a very different way. [Shamatha, also spelled “samatha,” is the name for various “calm abiding” or tranquility meditation practices.]  We can discover a refuge within that has nothing to do with avoiding or escaping the unpleasantness of fear but instead find a refuge that rests on our capacity to be in the present moment with balance and spaciousness.

How developing serenity and wisdom helps with fear

Without a certain degree of calm and steadiness, investigation of fear can lead to “spinning wheels” and a proliferation of thinking that arises out of aversion. When the mind becomes a bit more serene in the face of fear, we can look at fear more directly and with less reactivity. We can begin to investigate fear with the intention to learn rather than to get rid of. So much of our thinking about fear — the analyzing, the figuring out, the desire to be fearless comes out of reactivity and aversion. I remember quite clearly that one of my main motivations in beginning to practice was so that I could overcome fear.

Cultivating wisdom in working with fear requires gentle perseverance in being awake to what is. This is quite different from trying to conquer fear. The practice of vipassana [insight meditation] reveals directly the arising and passing away of all experience, including fear. Through this practice of moment to moment attention we begin to understand fear on deeper levels than the personal.

A helpful investigative tool is “mental noting.”  Making a soft mental note when experiencing fear can increase our ability to recognize and acknowledge the experience of fear. This is a big investigative step to take because so much of our experience of fear goes unacknowledged. It operates just below the conscious level, yet affects us in profound ways. Anxiety and worry are common forms of fear that often do not get recognized, yet they condition so much of our approach to life.

Mental noting is not meant to create distance from the experience of fear, but rather to bring us more into the present, while helping us to recognize fear as a conditioned process that is not me or mine. Seeing quite directly the impermanence of fear, as it arise and passes away, frees us gradually from the constrictive hold of identifying with it.

The importance of putting our formal practice to work

Formal meditation practice is extremely helpful in bringing balance to the mind when fear arises. But, it is essential to pay attention when fear arises in all our activities, and to use the tools that we have been strengthening in our formal practice. It is important to remember that, in meditation, we have been cultivating the capacity to love the difficult. The time to use that capacity is always now.


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

2 Responses to “Ways to work with fear rather than avoiding it”

  1. Michelle Corbin Reply 2010/09/27 at 4:19 AM

    Thank you for this post, Steve. It resonated with me. I spent a year dealing with anxiety, and turned to meditation as a way to peace. I thank you for the phrase for approaching fear and anxiety with metta: “May I be at peace with what is.” I have started to use that phrase during my morning meditations. It might just form the basis to my personal blog, if I ever manage to get it started.

    • Michelle, thank you for your comment, and my apologies for taking so long to reply. I was on a two-week retreat, and fast, and was not posting or working on my blogs during this period.

      I’m so glad what I shared was helpful. Metta practice is a very powerful way to deal with fear and anxiety and to learn how to be with what arises (and disappears) with greater fearlessness and confidence. Working with the phrase “May I be at peace with is” has been a discipline for me, because I needed to sort out being at peace with “what is” with the understanding of right action and right response to things that need our best qualities and healing response. More and more I could see that fighting what “is” was getting in the way of skillful response to life. And so, gradually, the healing came.

      Hope you get to that blog idea of yours. A blog can be a terrific way to grow and to share.

      All the best to you,


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