The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

Change in the Face of Fear

by Josh Korda
November 22, 2017
Wed, 11/22/2017 - 09:04 -- Josh Korda

Taking authentic risks and making authentic choices can be terrifying—how can we put this fear of change into perspective?

The Drudgery of Daily Life

Twenty-first-century American workplaces are by and large false refuges. Rather than providing us with actual security, they simply keep our underlying unease quiet.

Our economy is fueled by the insecurity of having no meaningful safety nets. Some countries guarantee their citizens the right to work, healthcare, parental leave, and leisure time, but America gives no such guarantees. People are chained to burdensome debts and spiraling rents, not to mention a perpetual fear of illness and injury that can lead to bankruptcy. Over the last forty years, we have eroded virtually all of the social safety nets that Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” legislations once promised. Programs that were started to address healthcare, educational inequality, and urban problems have been entirely abandoned. With the cost of living going up and no appropriate increases in income, the erosion of security keeps many people terrified of quitting jobs that are spiritually bankrupt.

Each year, when I peek at the world happiness reports, the United States no longer scores anywhere near the top ten. We don’t even score in the top twenty. We score somewhere alongside industrializing nations. The happiest places to live, according to meta-analysis by the World Happiness Report, are Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands. What do all of those countries have in common? Social safety nets that allow people to make significant life choices without fear.

The human mind, however, can get used to even the dreariest circumstances. Spending day after day at our jobs, we slowly become comfortable with not only the lash of insecurity, but also the chaos of it all: the grating complaints of dissatisfied customers, the cacophony of a busy office, the honking of traffic, or the stench of a factory farm or sewer. To what end? Just to hold the feelings of insecurity at bay for a little longer. Ultimately we suffer hours in drudgery and disorder in exchange for a false sense of security.

Today’s standard work-to-life ratio essentially ingrains fear and stress; by the end of the day or work week, we’re agitated to the extent we demand desensitization, via the numbing pseudo-connections of “liking” something on Facebook, the neural deadening of drugs and alcohol, the vacuity of intimacy-free sex. It’s no accident that the history of contemporary capitalism is essentially the history of addiction as well. Some of the first imports of capitalism and colonialist enterprise were tobacco, alcohol, sugar, and caffeine; the very stuff that numbs us or excite us while we labor away our lives in meaningless toil.

Buddhism has always critiqued consumerism as a way of life. One of the Dharma’s key insights is that craving only leads to more craving. Shopping, sex, drugs, approval, fame—all are short-term pleasure jolts we habituate to quickly; soon we need to accumulate more and more to experience less and less relief.

The Escape from Daily Life

To make up for the difficulty of daily life, some of us seek material rewards, whether it’s a new smartphone, car, or just a bigger paycheck or promotion. Others may think they’re smarter than that and instead spend their hard-earned resources on travel, theater tickets, and so on, telling themselves that it is their experiences that make life really meaningful. Some of us might even seek out deep, spiritual experiences—a spiritual tour of India, a mushroom trip in Yosemite—and we feel that we are truly changed. But do the new perspectives you gain really last for months? Did the trip lastingly change how you handle loss, rejection, frustration, and criticism? Have you found a way to experience life while maintaining detachment?

When people take off six months or a year, go on world travels, soak in strange locales and customs, can you guess how long it takes for the weariness and dismay to return once they are home? A couple of weeks. I meet and talk with hundreds of spiritual practitioners after they’ve returned from pilgrimages. At the time they tell me that collecting new experiences is the ticket to liberation. However we’re all still the same person when we come back from vacation, after we’ve found a partner, or after we’ve done a retreat. The glow only lasts a little while. Even these deliberately deep experiences don’t produce real, needed change.

Therefore, whether we trade our hours for better things, better experiences, or even spiritual journeys, one way or another, we always return to our daily lives, to the insecurity and emptiness.

Change in the Face of Fear

When we understand the perpetual futility of our work-and- escape cycle, it doesn’t take long for us to realize that we must reach for something more meaningful. Taking authentic risks and making authentic choices can be terrifying. But if we are to move forward, we have to get past that fear.

For my part I am fortunate that I worked at a lucrative profession and that I never had a family to support, so that I could take the steps to pursue a meaningful life for myself. Countless others, though, have to live paycheck-to-paycheck like they are swinging from one trapeze to another, just a slip away from apparent doom. They deal with it by either trying to stay hyper-alert to keep on top of it all, or barely alert so that they can tolerate it. Either one leads to a desire to make everything go away and, again, to the escapes of consumerism or experience-seeking at best and addiction and pathology at worst.

But while many of us quite emphatically desire to shift our livelihood into a field that cultivates self-esteem and a sense of purpose, perhaps by benefiting others, virtually all such gratifying work requires some form of training or other commitment of time, energy, or money. And here’s where the yearning for personal growth reaches a daunting obstacle: a swelling of self-doubt or stalling wherein we drag our feet and equivocate, procrastinating at every turn. The nature of this hinderance? Emotional beliefs.

Each of us holds unconscious personal beliefs, based on early life experiences wherein we felt abandoned, rejected, embarrassed; these events leave wounds that remain vividly painful in the dark recesses of the mind. For example, I worked with a very talented artist who continually put off entering her work into local gallery exhibitions, though she very much wanted to grow as an artist. We investigated her stalling by having her visualize what she would experience if she actually went ahead and submitted her work. At first, she expressed positive images of recognition from friends and a renewed vigor in her work ethic; then, however, deeper associations revealed themselves. Entering work for exhibit would leave her vulnerable to criticism and rejection; she would have to face the dreaded fear that she wasn’t as talented an artist as she believed. Indeed, she began to recall occasions in grade school where showing her drawings led to ridicule by other students—painful wounds for any child to bear. So the procrastination actually served a purpose, one dictated by an unconscious belief: it spared her from the possibility of being once again disappointed and hurt.

The Buddha noted the power of unconscious beliefs in a teaching called yoniso manasikara (best translated as “deep understanding”), in which he taught that even our most self-destructive habits have hidden, underlying assadas, or reasons to exist. If we become introverted in social situations, for instance, its because our innermost beliefs equate getting attention with humiliation.

Unconscious emotional beliefs cannot be “told” they’re mistaken, for they are forms of implicit knowledge; as someone who was afraid of water or flying can attest, the fear cannot be rationalized away. We should not criticize or shame our symptoms in any manner.

The path to change is based on an essential understanding of the underpinnings of our fears. Change is scary. In my case it required patiently addressing a wide variety of strong, negative beliefs: I would not be empathetic enough to help others, no one would be interested in my help, and so on. Given my childhood experiences with my dismissive and occasionally abusive father, such fears were actually quite coherent and unavoidable. Nothing would change until I connected with my fear and reviewed with it the various periods in which I risked failure and succeeded . . . my career in advertising was, after all, entirely built on gall, as I had no training or even skills to rely upon when I took my first employment as a graphic designer.

Thankfully, once we expose our unconscious beliefs to all the positive life experiences we’ve overlooked or failed to emotionally imbed, the fear stops appearing to be necessary for our self-preservation, and the procrastination it evokes no longer serves any purpose and will begin to cease. Any change is possible, if we only understand and acknowledge our fears, rather than resist or fight against them.


Excerpted from Unsubscribe by Josh Korda

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