If we have no fear, there is no thinking. No conceptual mind. And vice versa. No thinking, no fear. —Tsoknyi Rinpoche.
Thinking and fear are inseparable. I mean the analytical, deliberative and conceptual nature of our waking process coupled with a vague anxiety about either the past or the future. Labeling this largely unconscious and pervasive condition a defense mechanism—the opposite of a direct somatic interaction with the world– opens a portal into a rich, yet largely hidden dimension.
By whatever means, we all benefit from noticing and softening the dominance of conceptual mind whenever possible. We sense the value of alternative ways of knowing and, if we’re fortunate, gain some facility with them. But such explorations can quickly become muddy and complex with counter-intentions and conceptual intrusion. Ultimately, when the intention is to get out of our minds, the prime directive is deceptively simple. There’s nothing whatsoever to do.
Relaxing analytical mind and entering the axis of heart-mind and direct somatic experience is a dive into the deep pool of emotions and primary motivations, often blocked by uncertainty and fear. Everyday thinking (for most) is about competency and approval (in an imaginary future), driven by fear of not having things we want and not having enough time to get them.
Foremost among these is a desire to accomplish something, and quickly. For many, the thinking process is all about being somebody, reaffirming an identity, the face we turn toward the world. Acting swiftly and with confidence is the strategy to adorn our identities with permanence, constantly overlooking the fact that, in reality, there is no one to be.
Looking at this bubble of fear and deflating it is profound. Fear, it turns out, is not a permanent condition. As soon as the natural defense mechanisms to hide it are recognized, it’s possible to dial it down, sometimes to near zero, for extended periods of time. True fearlessness, the absence of thinking, may come as rare and transient moments of profound somatic presence. It may be cultivated or arise spontaneously.
Thoughts of the past or future are a defense against full somatic presence is ego’s panic. Ego is fragile and always needs reinforcement and protection. None of my fears or the illusory protection they provide is ‘me.’ ‘I’ would always rather be somewhere else, watching the entire crazy, helpless, endlessly entertaining creative process of building these defenses, which under scrutiny dissolve like so many sand castles before the incoming tide.
Viewing the climate issue through the lens of a perpetual fearful state, our individual and collective responses orient around fear-based rational metabolizing of data and formulating rational responses. That doesn’t mean we are deliberately denying or condoning the denial of our deeper emotions. But it certainly can mean we are giving short shrift to them, as if focusing on doing the same thing over and over again will distract us from the discomfort of realizing we have not altered our course from its suicidal path.
Conventional activism is not reducing global emissions. What fears construct the bulwark and what feelings lie beneath our failure to alter this failing strategy? What if the way we think about global problems is how we perpetuate them?
An alternate approach is Deep Adaptation: taking a fearless look into the darkness, unpacking our fears and listening deeply for the gifts within. Experiencing the grip of fear, whether momentary, profound or incomplete, propagates as a gift and manifests as enlightened intent. True fearlessness lies at the nexus of empathy, enlightened action, equanimity (in the face of subtle and/or uncontrollable forces) and the softening of ego. It is where uncertainty meets trust, where structure meets chaos and doesn’t recoil, where empowerment, joy and compassion intersect. This is the path of Deep Adaptation.
These qualities naturally and spontaneously subvert the life-long conditioning of the fear-based, selfish (and self-denying), rational, zero-sum paradigm and maximally defended hyper-ego of modern culture, politics and economics. To be fearless is to operate outside the perversion of today’s inverted totalitarianism. To place oneself so far outside the norm is a revolutionary condition. In fact, fearlessness is lawless, at least in the sense of operating in the present moment, outside a set of unwritten laws governing acceptable human interaction. I am talking about the absence of fear, not bravado, not a jacked-up boundless courage in the face of fear.
To live outside the law you must be honest……..Dylan.
The dominant paradigm exploits fear to condition behavior, more so now than ever because the messaging has become so sophisticated and the drive to monetize our emotions so strong. That messaging tells us when we are afraid, we must look to ourselves as the source, not to the daily deluge of mass indoctrination. The individual is pathologized. These are the mechanisms of social control.
The origins and mechanisms of fear in our lives all serve a purpose. At the same time, we can reflect on our beliefs and reflexive responses to everyday events, appetites and needs to consciously explore alternative strategies. Extending this deeply resilient and adaptive practice to the collective context exponentially increases complexity.
As we determine effective pathways to justice, it’s increasingly clear that turning off discursive mind enhances our capacity for fearlessness. This is now the cutting edge of transformative group practice, in which the presence of fear can be named, exposed and collectively defused. Cutting through the defenses and obscurations involves unwinding the triggers and layers of fear we’ve accumulated since birth–or even before.
The clarity we can build and the resulting behavioral changes eventually become automatic. Such a process may be called by many names. I call it the Buddhist long game: the transformation of mind. Every such path of inquiry into fear is a journey into the heart of suffering. This is one thing we all share. Ultimately, all practice is directed toward one simple truth: the majority of emotional (not instinctual) fears driving us, tenacious though they may be, are illusory. We may have our story about them, yet they have no true objective source. Which is not to say fear can merely be dismissed; not at all.
Compassion is closely related to fearlessness. Situational compassion expresses empathy and responds to the suffering of others in a direct way. Absolute compassion is an encompassing awareness of the profound commonality of human experience, the suffering and bewilderment at the heart of being human and related confusion about the difference between what is real and what is actually true. Holding such a view 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. Absolute compassion is entirely incompatible with fear.
In stepping through the gateway of compassion, we step into fearlessness. True compassion cannot fully manifest without realizing all phenomena exist in a supremely expansive state of equal-ness. There is no distinction between enlightened fearlessness and compassionate intent or any other way of being. Many of our fears are variations of denial—self-imposed disempowerment. They are responses to familiar threats to which we have become habituated. They become comforting costumes layered upon core reality. Over time they shape a fixed identity, as if abiding fear becomes a reassuring view of our selves.
Nowhere is this dynamic more apparent than in relation to the existential threat of climate change. But fear is typically subject to causes and conditions and can be reviewed by cognitive mind. Discovering and breaking through every form of denial about our future is a central principle of Deep Adaptation.
We might assume fearlessness is a matter of will. But let’s not confuse conceptual knowledge for wisdom. Knowing more will never take us to the truth of fearless intent. Wisdom comes by inquiring ever more closely and deeply–with a bottomless compassion for oneself–into the sources and nature of our fears (and denial) and liberating the energy and clarity stored within. Exercising will is more like counter-phobia, throwing a cover over that clarity and burying it further from sight.
The distracting activity of mind and the accompanying dance of denial is often symbolized 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, limiting beliefs and behaviors. 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 nature of the dominant paradigm, but to engage with it in fresh and creative ways, 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.
In this condition we glimpse our true nature. It can shake our world, arousing awareness of our fears and the sway they hold over us. The fearless one even evokes our fear of fearlessness with a gentleness that melts our defenses, exposing 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 at a time for ourselves.
What might a culture of fearlessness or fearless collective action look like? There are surely many examples, some deliberate and some spontaneous. Can all political initiatives be about dismantling the mechanisms and structures of fear? Many of them already are. To explore these pathways, interrupting our pre-occupation with individual identity and survival, is to unfold into fearlessness, to enlarge our sphere of action, to embody compassion, to forge justice, to break through the familiar into a new and fresh territory of freedom–and invite others to do the same.