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Our own benevolence is actually the protection that renders enemies impotent. In the picture, as the spears and arrows come to touch the shield around the Buddha, they fall to the ground as flowers all around him. I like to think of those flowers as an illustration of how each of us, by cultivating steadfast goodwill, can dissolve the forces of confusion and fear in the world.

Sylvia Boorstein is a cofounding teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center and a regular contributor to the Shambhala Sun. Her most recent book is Happiness Is an Inside Job.

Seek a Spiritual Ground


The Buddhist view is that fear is ubiquitous. We all have an underlying sense of not being settled, of not being secure. We have an existential feeling of uncertainty and instability, and that makes us very anxious. Unfortunately, we usually apply the wrong antidote to this ever-present sense of anxiousness.

To allay or mollify that fear, we try to find refuge in accumulating wealth, or trying to make a big name for ourselves, or doing aerobics, or getting a new nose, or whatever. Yet doing these things over and over again does not settle us. In fact, it does the opposite. It exacerbates the very problem we are trying to address. Buddhism does not teach us to completely give up all relationship with material things. That's not the point. The point is the attitude we take toward what we do and what we have. When we do things to try to make ourselves secure, to establish our own sense of identity, we are barking up the wrong tree. We enflame our negative emotions.

When these emotions become inflamed, our fears grow. They compound. They go haywire. As the Buddha himself said, we get completely bogged down by fears of not getting what we want to have, being separated from what we have, and getting what we do not want. Unless we have some kind of spiritual focus, we do not feel any real sense of groundedness, and so our efforts are not fruitful in the long run. We disperse our psychic and spiritual energies right, left, and center, leaving ourselves exhausted and frustrated. We think we’ve missed out on this or that, or that everybody is an obstacle to our effort to improve ourselves. We want to have a certain kind of life, but everything is frustrating that.

When we feel like that, all kinds of fears arise—fear of death, of old age, of our reality crumbling, of ending up being nothing or nobody. On the other hand, if we are secure in ourselves from having found some kind of spiritual focus, and we learn how to gather our psychic and spiritual energies into ourselves, we can discover a kind of inner richness. If we acknowledge the deep sense of emptiness we feel at the very bottom of our being, which cannot be filled by any kind of love that we might get from other people or any amount of money, we see that it can be filled only by the richness of our own spiritual cultivation. If we do that, we will experience a sense of groundedness that allows us to reduce and manage the fears we experience and, eventually, to overcome them.

The very act of dealing with fear is attaining fearlessness. We don’t do two things—first overcoming fear and then starting on the project of developing fearlessness. All the fears are not going to just magically disappear. We will need to develop stability and insight. Stability in itself is not sufficient. Feeling a bit more calm and relaxed is not sufficient to overcome the deep sense of anxiety and anxiousness at the core of our being. To overcome it we need insight, which, according to Buddhism, involves profound reflection on our lives. That includes looking deeply at our fear. Looking deeply shows us its nature and teaches us how to work with it.

As we look deeply, we can see that there is not an object of fear separate from the subject who is afraid. Think about it. How fearful one is in relation to an object varies from individual to individual, and even with the same individual it varies from one time to another. So how one experiences fear in relation to a particular object of fear this year will be different from last year, or this week from last week, or this afternoon from this morning.

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