If we have no fear, we have no thinking. No conceptual mind. And vice versa. No thinking, no fear. —Tsoknyi Rinpoche.
Fearlessness, like equanimity, compassion, surrender, is another quality of presence. It may be cultivated or arise spontaneously. Either way it is a gift.
How one gets there may not even be the most important issue. The context and nature of fearlessness, how it manifests in action and how it propagates as a gift may be more important. True fearlessness as a quality of presence lies at the nexus of empathy, enlightened action, equanimity and the softening of ego. It is where uncertainty meets trust, where structure meets chaos and doesn’t flinch, where empowerment, joy and compassion intersect. Taken together, these qualities naturally and spontaneously subvert the dominant fear-based, self-denying zero-sum paradigm of modern culture, politics and economics.
To be fearless, to be so fully embodied is to operate outside the upside-down subversion of presence characterizing the narratives of inverted totalitarianism. It is a revolutionary condition. In fact, fearlessness is also lawless, at least in the sense of social convention being a set of unwritten laws governing or limiting acceptable parameters of human interaction. But let me be clear. I am talking about the absence of fear, not boundless courage in the face of fear.
The context of fear is large. We have built-in neuro-patterning functioning for survival, mediating threats, needs and self-protective options. All those mechanisms are subject to conditioning. The neural gain can be set to increasingly high levels of sensitivity, winding us up to hair-trigger reactivity to the proper stimuli. This is the neuro-chemical level at which fear is primal, instinctual, including the biological mechanisms mediating perception, emotion and internal states.
Fear is also rooted in emotional, especially traumatic memory, motor patterning and mediated (obscured) by numerous defense mechanisms. There is also the socio-economic context, deep familial, tribal and cultural conditioning operating to establish and enforce social cohesion. Social conditioning is coercive. The dominant paradigm exploits fear to manipulate and to condition behavior, more so now than ever because the messaging has become so sophisticated.
The origins and mechanisms of fear in our lives all serve a purpose. At the same time, we have the capacity to reflect on our habitual ways of thinking, our beliefs and reflexive responses to everyday events, appetites, preferences and needs such that we can consciously explore alternative strategies to such responses. Extending these resilient and adaptive practices to the collective context–such as We-Space–encounters exponentially increased complexity. But this is the cutting edge of transformative group practice now, in which the presence of fear can be exposed and defused.
Each of us intrinsically holds the same potentials as Buddha. What prevents us from fulfilling that potential is much deeper than garden variety cognitive confusion. The activity of the confused (aka human) mind fixes our attention on dividing, categorizing and simplifying our experience into binaries. Arriving at pure awareness involves unwinding all the triggers and layers of fear we have accumulated since birth–or even before—including, if we are skillful, illuminating what we most fear about ourselves. We must bring fear out of the shadows.
The clarity we build through this type of practice and the resulting behavioral changes eventually becoming more automatic may be called by many names. I call it the Buddhist long game: the transformation of mind. Every such path of inquiry is a journey into the heart of suffering. As separate as we may feel, this is one thing we all share. Ultimately, all of this practice is directed toward one simple truth: the emotional (not instinctual) fears that drive us are, in essence, illusory. When we examine them closely, we find no substance there. They have no objective source. Which is not to say that fear can merely be dismissed. Not at all. The outcome of inquiry, however, depends a great deal on the method and the context.
Compassion, both situational and pervasive, is closely related to fearlessness. In the first, we express empathy and respond to the suffering of others in a direct way, either emotionally, materially or both. The pervasive form is an encompassing awareness of the profound common nature of human experience, addressing the suffering and bewilderment at the heart of being human as well as confusion about the difference between what we believe is real and what is actually true. Holding such a perspective while surrounded by an ocean of fear without being affected by it is nearly unimaginable. Yet fearlessness grows with compassion. And vice versa. They are inseparable.
In stepping through the gateway of compassion, we step into fearlessness. All emotions are without substance in their essence nature. That does not mean they are without importance. Of course they are. Judgments about our experience are also without substance. Compassion cannot fully manifest without knowing that all phenomena exist in an supremely expansive state of equal-ness beyond any characterization. Actions arising from that state regard all experience as the same positive condition of equal-ness. In this sense, any words such as “pure,” “un-obscured,” and even “fearless” are redundant expressions of a uniform state of clarity and enlightened intent.
In this state, there is no distinction between what is fearful or not—or, for that matter, what we hope for. We can learn to befriend emotion—including what has been ignored or repressed. There is no distinction between the mundane, the sublime or the threatening. Being present in this state requires enormous devotion. The ultimate reality is that there is no real distinction between enlightened fearlessness and compassionate intent or any other way of being.
In what is called the awakened mind, there is no duality of sensory appearances and what the mind imputes about them. Within enlightenment — awareness without transition or change — the universe of appearance and possibilities — whether samsara or nirvana — arises with nothing to renounce or attain.
—The Treasury of the Basic Space of Phenomena, Longchenpa (14th century)
Many of our fears are variations on denial—a self-imposed disempowerment. They are responses to threats that have become so familiar–and to which the nervous system has become so habituated–that they become comforting costumes layered upon core reality. Over time they assume an increasingly reified identity, as if abiding fear has become a way of confirming our most reassuring view of ourselves. But our fears are subject to causes and conditions and therefore can be reviewed by cognitive mind. Their reality can be disproven and, with some effort, uprooted.
In this sense, we might well assume that fearlessness is a matter of will. But in saying so, we may confuse conceptual knowledge for wisdom. Knowing more will never take us to the truth of enlightened fearless intent. Wisdom does come with the practice of inquiring ever more closely and deeply — with a bottomless compassion for oneself — into the sources and nature of our fears; whereas, exercising will is more like counter-phobia, throwing a cover over those sources and burying them further from sight.
The spontaneous and captivating activity of mind is often described as an untamed mustang. It is attractive, seductive and wild. Fearlessness is the ability to recognize the beauty and spontaneity of that wildness without being seduced by it. The fearless one sustains an unflinching gaze into her own suffering, compromise, self-limiting beliefs and behaviors–and empowers others to do the same. The fearless one acts with a compassionate intent that holds fear, hope and separation as having no substance, no traceable origin or destination, no firm ground at all.
The fearless one is willing to sustain the consequences of living beyond convention, even if it means putting one’s own safety at risk, not solely to place a spotlight on the entrenched and reactionary nature of the dominant paradigm, but to engage with it, transmitting a highly contagious view of the possible: a world in which there is no true enemy. The fearless one affirms there is enough for all, there is unbroken relationship with all, there is infinite choice and nothing to do but create.
This is a power by which we glimpse our true nature. It can shake our world, arousing awareness of our own fears and the sway they hold over us. The fearless one even evokes our fear of fearlessness with a gentleness that melts our defenses, our vulnerability and the artifice of our times. The fearless one opens possibility for something new, a vast, spacious and timeless freedom we know in our hearts is possible, yet which, without the support of others, we are barely strong enough to sustain more than a few moments for ourselves.
What might such support look like? What might a culture of fearlessness or fearless collective action look like? There are surely many examples (here, here and the classic here), some deliberate and some spontaneous. Can all political actions be about dismantling the mechanisms and structures of fear? Many of them are.
These are also the essence qualities of We-Space, in which we explore pathways to transcend our pre-occupation with individual identity and survival, with our personal histories and individual emotions. Unfolding into fearlessness is to embody compassion, breaking through the familiar into a new territory of freedom–and inviting others to do the same.