Responding to Fear

Someone asked me how to respond to people that you know and care about when they seem hooked on fear-based ideas about life. He asked how to answer people in day to day situations when the conversation ends up about the state of the world right now — especially people who are not practicing Buddhism. He asked, “What is a compassionate way to respond that is not about whether you agree or disagree with them?”

Here’s how I answered.

It’s a good question. But I don’t know if I can give you a good answer.

I think the main thing is to try to avoid expecting too much. Don’t expect to be able to say something that the person you’re speaking to will immediately pick up on and go, “Thanks! Now I’m not afraid anymore!” Don’t expect to change anyone’s mind. Don’t even hope for it.

When I am in conversations with people who are wrapped up in fear or in conspiracy theories or both, I just try to hold my own space. I try not to get drawn into their fear or their theories or whatever it happens to be that’s spinning them out of control. I try to be solid and unshakable. 

This, of course, is easier said than done. If I find that I am losing my own sense of balance in such a conversation, I try to politely excuse myself from it. It doesn’t do me or the person I’m talking to any good if we’re both spinning out of control.

I’ve also experienced what you’re talking about when you say that people accuse you of being apathetic. I think it’s difficult for a person who is consumed by fear to understand a person who is not consumed by fear. But when I am consumed by fear, myself, what I need most is the company of someone who is steady and unpurturbed. Think of any emergency situation. The people who are panicking are no good to anyone. Only those who can rise above the urge to panic can offer any real help.

It’s hard to be one of those people. Sometimes it takes a tremendous amount of effort to keep your own desire to panic in check. People who are able to do so deserve to be called heroes, and often are once the emergency is over. Even so, the desire to be a hero is just as poisonous as the desire to panic. In order to be able to effectively help anyone, you have to avoid both the desire to panic and the desire to be seen as a hero. You have to maintain balance in a situation where everyone around you is doing everything they can to knock you off balance.

I cannot solve the problems of the world. They are beyond me. In some sense, the problems of the world are me. The world I live in is a reflection of me. If the world is in a state of panic, it must be because that state of panic exists within me. Therefore, I attend closely to the state of panic I feel in myself. I don’t try to force it to stop. Well… honestly speaking… maybe I do try to do that. But, knowing that it has always been futile to try such a thing, I can generally notice when I’m doing that and let go of the effort.

In order to be better able to help others, I work on maintaining my own personal sanity. For me, this means staying away from most forms of mass media. I’ve found that the “news” has always been of very little use to me. Sadly, mainstream news sources seem to be getting worse and worse all the time. Which is not to say that “alternative” news sources are always better. But the mainstream news sources are very influential. If I want to get some idea of what normal people are thinking, I can check the mainstream news. But I do not trust their “experts” to understand the actual state of the world any better than I can.

The other thing I do to maintain my own personal sanity is to withdraw from interacting too much with fearful people. Unless I can offer some sort of help, I am useless to them. Therefore I have to be very careful about how much I open myself to the potential of being too deeply affected by their fear.

I also believe in karma. I know it’s somewhat controversial. But I believe that things will turn out for me precisely as they are meant to. There is only one thing I can do to avoid whatever pain or difficulty is in store for me, and that is to do as much good as I can whenever I have an opportunity. That is the only sort of activity that might change the course of my own life. In that sense, I have nothing at all to fear. Fear is just something extra that gets in the way of my being able to offer help when help is needed. Giving in to fear will never turn out well for me.

And furthermore, I believe that what I truly am is not this body and this mind. This body and mind are a manifestation of me. But they are not me. As much as possible, I try to remember that. Sometimes the body and mind are reacting so strongly to some stimulation from the external world that it is nearly impossible to maintain a balanced center. This is why I take every oportunity to practice zazen. Practicing zazen when things are relatively stable and calm helps me to be able to maintain my center when things are not so stable and calm.

Another thing I do is to remember that “experts” who predict the future are rarely correct. How many times have you seen some set of experts predict the “storm of the century” and it turns out to be a drizzle? Every once in a while they get it right. Which then lends them huge amounts of completely undeserved credibility just after they made their one correct prediction.

These “experts” then ride that wave of undeserved credibility for all its worth as long as they possibly can, making wrong prediction after wrong prediction, until people start noticing that none of their subsequent predictions come true. Then the audience moves on, and that set of “experts” fades away. Soon enough, the next set of “experts” get their one big moment of being correct and shine for a while, spreading fear and panic and getting wealth and power from their wild speculations. And so it goes, again and again. I take everything any “expert” says with a huge degree of skepticism. Although I always exercise reasonable caution and try to do the right thing.

My dad said that if you take apart the word “expert” you get “ex,” which means “former,” and “spurt,” which means “a drip under pressure.” An expert, then, is a “former drip under pressure.”

My last bit of advice, for whatever it’s worth from an expert like me, is that I wait for people to ask for my help or advice. I don’t generally go out there and make any effort to provide help or advice unless I am specifically asked for it. To some people that might sound uncharitable. But I’ve found it’s the best way for me. It seems to me that people will only accept the help or advice that they have asked for. Sometimes they won’t even accept that! But for sure, people rarely accept help and advice that comes to them when they have not asked for it. So I find it’s best to wait.

I hope that helps!

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