I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
~ from Dune, by Frank Herbert
This litany against fear resonated with me when I was young. I memorized it and would recite it when needed, which was often. It came back into my awareness recently. Now, decades later, it resonates still, perhaps even more so because over the years I have lived its wisdom so many times.
What I appreciate about this passage is the recognition that if not resisted or denied, fear will dissipate on its own.
We are taught first to understand what fear is and then to face our fear. Years ago, a friend told me that the driving force in my life was fear. At the time, I saw myself as a bold person, taking risks, living adventures. I dismissed what my friend said, thinking that she must not know me very well, and was probably not such a good friend after all. Time proved that on the contrary, she knew me better than most, and certainly better than I knew myself. Only by acknowledging the undertow of quiet terror in my life was I able to do the work necessary to release its hold on me.
And how do we do that work? Not by struggle, but by being inwardly still, emptying ourselves of resistance, thus allowing space for the fear to move over or through us. Sounds easy but we all know it isn’t. Why is that?
The Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron tells the story of a young warrior sent out to battle fear. The warrior felt small and ill equipped to confront fear, who stood across from her, looking huge and invincible. Yet she summoned her courage and approached. When she got close, she bowed to fear and asked how she could defeat him. Fear was moved by her show of respect. He said that his weapons were that he would get up in her face, talking fast in a loud voice. However, if she did not do what he told her to do, then he had no power over her.
This story portrays fear the way most of us think of fear – like a big scary screaming monster. But I’ve found that fear can also look less threatening, even alluring. Not yelling but whispering, sounding very reasonable.
So how do we know if fear is speaking to us? We know because fear will always tell us to separate, to close our hearts, to be ever vigilant and on guard. Fear will tell us we are powerless. Fear will urge us to try to control what we can’t control, thus affirming that our efforts are futile. Fear will tell us to take, to defend, to attack, to judge. Fear will tell us that we are alone. Fear will tell us that if we don’t do what fear says, we will die.
We’ve all been there. Whether fear screams or whispers, we’ve all felt that urge to do what fear tells us. We play right into fear’s hands. Fear has indeed killed our minds by hijacking our thoughts and spinning out stories that we believe.
But if we can recognize when fear is speaking, we can claim our power, our power to choose. We can choose to do what fear says, or we can choose not to. We can choose to be still, to hold fast in openness and allow fear to move on through. And then, as the passage promises, we will see that fear was nothing. It never was.
We are living in a time when fear appears to have seized the minds of individuals and nations. It can feel overwhelming. We need a reminder, something to hold onto, something to ground us in truth. It might be time to memorize the Dune passage once again, to breathe deeply and recite it when fear is in our face. We can bow to fear in acknowledgment and respectfully decline to do what fear says. And then wait for the peace that will surely come.
The opposite of love is fear, but what is all-encompassing can have no opposite. ~A Course in Miracles