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The Fear Pattern

Really, what I’m all about is capital-L Love.

I haven’t always known this.  For the better part of my life, I hid from my own Love.  I held it back from others and from myself and I did this out of lowercase-f fear.  Fear is why everyone hides from Love.

The world has been in a fear pattern since at least the agricultural revolution, though probably earlier.  What does it mean to say we’ve been stuck in “a fear pattern”?  It means that fear—not joy or compassion or any other positive emotion—governs most people’s choices in life.  If we’re not aware of this fact, fear completely rules us individually and thereby rules the world:  Why do people stay in disempowering relationships?  Why do entire nations put up with dictators for decades before they reach a breaking point?  Why do we give up on our dreams and say “meh” to life most days of the week and decide that it’s better to lock ourselves in our homes than go out adventuring?

It’s all fear, and the root of fear is always the same: Death.

All fear is the fear of death, though the mind likes to reason that our fears are more complex or unique than that.  They are not.  Fear is always the same.  It only exists in the first place to protect us from dying:  Early humans without the fear of heights fell off of cliffs and died.  Those who weren’t afraid of being different from the tribe were otherized and left to survive on their own if resources became scarce.  “Fitting in” and “playing it safe” began as important mechanisms for survival.  However, humans are well beyond basic survival, and yet we are still running on a fear pattern.  The mechanism has gotten way out of hand.

The question, as always, is why?  Why does a person whose food and shelter are guaranteed for the foreseeable future act in any way besides with openness, generosity, and goodness?  (Bear in mind that this describes almost all middle- and upper-class individuals.)  Why do we still feel afraid even though we’re going to have full bellies and warm beds for the rest of our lives?

Part of the answer is that there remains a kind of lingering, impersonal fear.  We are all aware (consciously or not) that many people don’t have same the assuredness of survival and safety.  Thousands of people will die overnight of starvation.  Many will die slowly from treatable infections because of contaminated water.  Homes will be ravaged and burned to the ground by people who want the resources of the lands they inhabit.  This happens daily, and we pick up on the distress signals of our fellow humans whether we know it or not.  The Earth and its inhabitants are in crisis; why shouldn’t we feel fear?

We’re also aware that abundance cannot last.  Just as spring brings new growth, winter smacks us with bleak lightlessness and we go hungry and we get cold.  After fattening up, the bear hibernates.  This happens every year no matter what we do.  We will die and we have no control over that and unless you’ve gotten comfortable without control, you’ll never be as badass or effective in the world as you could be. You (and we) will stay stuck in the fear pattern and never understand true liberation and lives of deep joy.

I’ve had many people refuse to admit that their fears are, deep down, the simple fear of death.  “But I’d rather die than be tortured,” they say.  This is a position we’d almost all agree with—better a swift bullet to the head than an agonizing descent into darkness. What we’re missing here is that physical pain exists to notify us that our bodies are injured and injuries lead to death.  Even if you’d rather have death than pain, your fear of pain is your fear of death. 

There are many ways to overcomplicate this truth, and I hear them often.  Usually it goes like this: “I’m not afraid to die; I’m afraid of x because y occurred in childhood.”  Our minds like to tell us stories about how our fears require significant detangling, professional attention, and many years to sort out.  We want our fears to be special.  They aren’t.  And even though people receive tremendous benefits from professional therapy and it really can be a great starting point for personal growth, it cannot remove the root of this fear from the mind.

This is because even the greatest therapist can’t make you not die, and that’s what fear is all about.  So, you may talk yourself in circles about your past and your future and tell some very longwinded tales about the various emotional injuries you’ve suffered in life (and we all have).  A good therapist will listen with compassion and offer some new ways of thinking about your suffering.

However, 10 years of intensive psychotherapy won’t disappear your knowledge of your mortality, so you are always left a bit uneasy.  And then someone (maybe your therapist) tells you that feeling uneasy is some kind of “disorder.”  And disorders are bad and bad things should go away.  Also, your apparent “disorder” will be a lifelong disease you have no power over.  So there you are, in therapy all your life, refusing to accept your fear of death for what it is and disguising it as a billion childhood stories.  There you are with the abyss of certain annihilation looming overhead and you’re telling someone it’s the spider in the corner that causes you to live at less-than-your-highest potential.

Of course, all of this is unconscious, which is why it is human, forgivable, and really, a bit funny.

Acknowledging all this doesn’t dismiss the relentless conditioning we’re subjected to (and usually go on to put our own children through).  Such conditioning does lead to real suffering.  But at the end of the day, if you’ve processed all of your “stuff” and still find yourself held back by fear, you better believe it’s all existential.  That is where your work is.

The work of letting go of the most primal fear must be done by the individual and no one else.  You cannot be taught how to let go of it.  You even have to relearn what your way of learning is.  The way out of fear and into Love can seem maddeningly individualized to one who undertakes the journey at all.  People search and search for “enlightenment” by trying to walk other people’s paths, and it usually doesn’t work.  However, we can safely say that taking the first steps are always worth it, no matter how painful, because the drive for freedom is deep and everlasting and urgently human.

And we can get free.  We just have to unlearn unnecessary fear, and the awesome news is that the vast majority of fear is completely unnecessary.

On both an individual and collective level, it’s fear that keeps us from everything we think we want.

The reason I say “think we want” is because most of those things are also totally fear-driven.  This is because the longstanding fear pattern has become so invasive that it hijacks our brains even before birth.  People tend to have pretty vague ideas about what it is they want (more money; more friends; more this; more that).  Or, when people do describe what they want, they’re almost always trying to get at something that can never be attained: Endless security and abundance as evidenced in the outside world.

However, new external desires tend to immediately pop up as soon as the last one is obtained.  This goes on forever and leads only to more wanting because deep down, what we really want is not to want.  (It’s become clear to me that I’m going to have to write several posts about the paradoxes of the path, which also make some of this stuff pretty hard to write about and even more difficult to discuss.)

To sum up: Fear has gone from being an occasional adaptive trait to a dominating aspect of the collective psyche.  We are ruled by a fear, and as long as this is true, you (and we) will never be free.

I don’t want to end on a bad note.  I refer to this current paradigm as the fear “pattern” because I want to instill the notion that it is changeable.  Patterns, no matter how deeply ingrained, can be reversed with the light of consciousness.

Now more than ever, humanity stares down exactly two possibilities: Either consciousness expands, or extinction is all but assured.

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