Diminishing our fear is vitally important because fear can cause enormous suffering. It might also have the potential to destroy humanity.
The nuclear arms race is, in part, propelled by the fear that we will be attacked and destroyed by our enemies if we do not invest substantial amounts of our wealth in national security. We haven’t understood clearly enough that much of our fear is inner fear, which is a symptom of unresolved inner conflicts.
Inner fear is projected outward, causing us to “see” dangers in the world that we believe validate our fear. People are typically resistant to doing the inner work that eliminates such fear. Hence, their unresolved issues require them to see or create enemies (or imagine dangerous, overwhelming situations) in order to account for their fear.
It’s true, of course, that bad people exist in the world and we need to protect ourselves from them. But we must not do so in a self-defeating manner. Through psychological dynamics, we can contribute to the undesirable outcomes that we fear the most. Fearful people unwittingly create the circumstances through which their fears become more real. For instance, the technology that we pour into our advanced weapons systems spreads throughout the world for others to use against us. At some point, the danger becomes overwhelming.
If we had less inner fear, we would have more power to influence others in a positive way. We would be more effective at neutralizing the dangers through the “soft power” of integrity, morality, and wisdom.
What is blocking us from transitioning from hard power to soft power? Our worst enemy is our resistance to inner growth and progress. We aren’t making the transition from hard power to soft power because we are refusing to evolve.
Let me explain. Inner fear, which is often unconscious, is encountered in many ways, including fears of death, of poverty, of starvation, of the unknown, of change, of nothingness, and of the idea of our insignificance or unworthiness. The biggest fear, however, may be the fear of our own self. This is the fear of having to abandon our old identity, and give up our favorite forms of suffering, as we see and are challenged to embrace the noble stranger we are destined to become.
In addition to fear of inner growth, we are fearful of making external changes. We’re in danger of ignoring global warming, or not responding quickly enough to the threat, because we’re afraid of letting go of the economic system that gives us a sense of safety and comfort. This fear of the unknown causes us to cling to the system that has been sustaining us, though it has been ruthless to the environment and has now become old and easily corruptible.
Our fears also jeopardize democracy. We lose power through our fears. Unscrupulous politicians play on our fears in order to pose as our guardians or protectors. Then we give up freedom in exchange for protection.
Often when we try to reform a system, we encounter fear. Sometimes the fear is entirely rational, as when millions risk death in the ongoing struggles of the Arab Spring. Other times we face mostly inner fear (which is very real in its own way), as with participants in the Occupy Wall Street movement. We all encounter doubt and fear, along with fierce resistance, as we struggle to evolve and make progress toward personal self-development.
It is understandable that we struggle with fear. As Stuart Walton writes in A Natural History of Human Emotions (Grove Press, New York, 2004):
If it were possible, as some evolutionary psychologists maintain, to decide which of humanity’s emotions is the oldest, then fear would surely enter the strongest claim. To our very early ancestor knit groups, the world was an intimidating, haunted place, in which violent storms, the threat of fire, unfathomable disease and suffering, all held awesome power over them. So it was, in the beginning, that lack of understanding gave rise to primal terror.
In infancy, lack of understanding gives rise to baby fears—the irrational fears of being dropped, smothered, starved, as well as being flushed down the toilet and harassed by monsters. Children’s feelings of helplessness and vulnerability make their fears seem justified and real.
Many people rush out to buy handguns because they believe their fears are justified and real. They are fooled into believing that the inner fears they’re projecting into the environment are somehow validated by allegedly dangerous circumstances. As we brandish these guns, innocent people die.
One of our inner fears is the fear of our own shadow. In other words, we are afraid of our inner critic or superego, that agency in our psyche that is the hidden master of our personality. This part of us is capable of flooding our inner life with aggression and negativity, creating self-doubt and inner fear. People who are defensive by nature are usually answering to this “higher” authority in their psyche. This authority should not be trusted to represent either truth or our best interests. Our challenge is to expose it as illegitimate.
One meditative technique is particularly helpful in dealing with both inner fear and the inner critic. We close our eyes, still our mind, set aside our ego, and approach or even embrace the emptiness or nothingness behind our inner silence. All identifications with family, friends, beliefs, possessions, and self-image fall away, leaving only pure consciousness. There’s nothing to fear when we’re not afraid of the inner void. This true essence at the core of our being is all we really have—and it’s more than enough. Not even death, it feels, can take it away.