Fear and wisdom fear

Fear and wisdom fear

Part of a series of Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner talks given during the Green Tara Winter Retreat from December 2009 to March 2010.

  • Emotional fear comes from attachment and habitual anxiety
  • Wisdom fear is a sense of caution or sense of danger, without the panic

Green Tara Retreat 030: Fear and wisdom fear (download)

Somebody was saying that, “I have discovered that fear is one of the most common disturbing attitudes in me, but it’s not on the list. Is it a subtype of anger, of attachment, of ignorance? And how can I deal with it? What are the antidotes to fear?”

Fear. There is a term for fear—it’s jigpa. That is why [Venerable Jigme’s] name is Jigme, “fearless.” That word jigpa has two connotations. There’s the panicked, freaked-out, emotional fear that we usually call fear. Then there’s a sense of caution or a sense of danger that could be a wisdom kind of fear. The Tibetans use the same word for both, so it has more than one connotation. Many of our words in English have more than one connotation, and sometimes very different connotations.

An example of the wisdom fear is when you merge on the highway. You’re aware of the danger. You are not emotional and freaked out, unless you are still 15 or 14 and driving when you’re not supposed to be. But you are aware that there’s danger there. So the Tibetans use that kind of awareness of danger when they talk about, for example, when they say having fear of the lower realms. What they mean is having concern and awareness of the danger of being reborn there. They don’t mean to get emotional because clearly that is not an attitude that is very conducive for Dharma practice.

In terms of the other kind of fear which isn’t on the list, that’s a very common one. I think many people suffer from a lot of fear: mental fear for what’s going to happen with our mind, fear of the future, fear for physical safety. There are so many different kinds of fear people have. I think different kinds of fear can be related to other different mental factors. I also think a lot of times fear comes from attachment. In other words, we’re attached to something and so we’re very afraid that we’re going to lose it. Or we’re very afraid that we are not going to have it. A lot of fear comes from that. You want a certain level of financial security and you’re afraid that you’re not going to have it. Or, you even have money in the bank, but you’re afraid you’re going to lose it. So this kind of fear is based on that attachment.

Now there’s also this other thing that we call namtok. Lama Yeshe used to translate namtok as “superstitious thought.” Another way of talking about it is like “proliferation.” The mind just proliferates all sorts of superstitious thoughts that you don’t know are even going to have any chance of happening. Those thoughts that you’re thinking about and [wondering] if they are really going to happen or not? Is that really a danger or not? We get quite afraid and anxious.

I think a lot of that is based on being attached to things, whereas if we release the attachment, then the fear goes away. Also, if we just realize that it’s our mind making up all sorts of worst-case scenarios about things that aren’t happening right now.

If you take this wisdom kind of fear, then you have to look at the future—and there are some things that potentially could happen. So you have to make arrangements for that. You’re not freaked out and worried and anxious. Your mind isn’t just like this with all sorts of thoughts. But you realize that something might happen, so we take care of it. You’re not living in the future worried about it.

Also I think we get in the habit of being anxious, so I think a lot of anxiety is just habit. We’ve just made up that habit, so that it’s a knee-jerk reaction. Without even thinking about something, we hear it and we go into panic mode. To realize that that’s just a habit that our mind has and that we don’t need to react to things that way and that those things are not happening now. Let’s stay grounded in what is happening, and let’s stay grounded in what is really important—instead of letting the mind spin out.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.