The impermanence of fear, and other strong emotions…

Woods, El EscorialSunlight streaming into the woods above El Escorial.

It seems to me that many people are troubled in life by one dominant, and often overwhelming, emotion, and that this is very often either fear or anger. Of course endless other emotions come and go, and bustle us about, but these two seem often to take centre stage, a difficult ‘old friend’. In my case it has been fear.

I realised recently that all the fears I’ve had over the years tend to disappear after a while. Or they come and go, but they always go. Which made me see that if something could cause me to be fearful one day, and the next week not, then it can’t really be frightening.

I’m talking about the things that haunt us for a while, making us miserable. Later we realise we aren’t frightened by them at all. Or that this particular fear has been replaced by a new one, that may last for a while too – maybe even years. But later that too gets replaced perhaps by another.

So I saw that all my fears are sort of empty of any real substance, and most importantly, impermanent. They go. Good news! How wonderful to remember this when a new one arises. I can smile to it, smiling to an old friend, smiling to its ephemeral, impermanent nature, knowing it’s just something that has arisen, and can blow away again on the wind! Leaving me in peace again, free, much sooner every time.

I think the same is true for all other strong emotions – anger, jealousy, shame, guilt – all impermanent, like mist that evaporates in the sun! The sun is our awareness that they are just emotions, and that with a smile and a nod to these ‘old friends’ they move on.


7 thoughts on “The impermanence of fear, and other strong emotions…

  1. My first time in Mexico, on my first night, my wife and walked down into town – it was dark and my mind filled with (stereotypical) fears of Mexico. We passed one particularly nasty-looking small street, cobblestoned, though I could not see that in the dark. “Let’s go back to our casita”, I said, trying to hide the fear I felt. The next morning, Mexican sun up and birds singing, I returned to that street, named
    ( charmingly and cosmically ) SUSPIROS (sighs). Today it is one of my favourite streets – entrances to small homes, one is able to see a garden at crossroads, a new resto-bar has appeared. It is one of my favourite streets and it stands as an example that fears can indeed pass in the light of day – and that is good to remember when fears knock on our night’s door.


  2. A lot of food for thought here. I’d go so far as to say that fear is the source of the other emotions you mention (but they’re all just mental labels anyway).

    My sense is that the fear of death — that is, the annihilation of the self — feeds our urge to assert ourselves by controlling our environment and others in both overt and subtle ways. When that’s thwarted, anger surfaces.

    Some emotions arise when we’re not fully present in the current moment. Being focused on the past results in guilt and shame. Being focused on the future results in worry.


    1. Very true Bill, where our focus lies – past or future – can cause all sorts of emotions. And when we are super focused on the present they seem to disappear.

      I heard somewhere once that all fears were really fear of death. Could be true!


  3. I’ve spent so much time dreading, running from, and masking my fears. Now I am trying to treat fear as an old friend. Hello again, I say when this so familiar feeling arises. You won’t last forever, I say as the waves of anxiety and mild panic wash over me–so what can I learn from you while you are here?

    Paying attention to fear in this way also helps me savor the times in my life when I am not feeling fear.

    Interestingly, doing yoga has also helped me be with fear. Holding a pose that challenges my limits of flexibility. I have begun to see it’s fear that keeps my muscles tense. I am fearful of letting go into the pose to deeply–beyond my perceptions of what I think I cannot do.

    And I am trying to learn about death, keeping it in mind each day. I don’t see this as morbid, but rather freeing. The book that I am enjoying now is “Being with Dying” by Joan Halifax. Fear of death is, I think, at the bottom of most of our fears.

    Great topic, Ben.


    1. Thanks James. I know what you mean about fear and yoga. For a while I did a very mechanical form of Iyengar yoga – I mean mechanical because we used props like metal chairs – there was one pose that involved putting the chair against the wall, and sort of lying upside down in it, feet on the wall, head just off the ground, stretched to breaking point, wondering when the chair was going to collapse. It was terrifying. And at that point it got the better of me. I gave the class up shortly afterwards. If I do yoga again it’ll be back to one of the gentler disciplines where, as you say, a headstand can be scary enough on its own.

      As for being with death, there is a buddhist recitation, The Five Rememberances, that I understand many monks are encouraged to say every day, which begins:

      I am of the nature to grow old.
      There is no way to escape growing old.

      I am of the nature to have ill-health.
      There is no way to escape having ill-health.

      I am of the nature to die.
      There is no way to escape death.

      … if we have this in mind all the time, I guess we appreciate life more every minute. I’ve had a heck of a flu all week and have had that second verse in mind – it’s all about acceptance I suppose.

      The Remeberances end very nicely like this:

      All that is dear to me and everyone I love
      are of the nature to change.
      There is no way to escape being separated from them.

      My actions are my only true belongings.
      I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
      My actions are the ground on which I stand.


      1. That is the scariest chair story I’ve ever heard. 🙂
        I quit yoga twice before I finally wrestled my ego to the floor and stuck with it: yes, everyone here can touch their toes and I can’t. So what? Keep your mind on your mat!
        Thanks for the Five Rememberances. It’s a great tool.


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