What Are You Afraid of? The Shadow Self and Using Fear as a Tool For Awakening

“The only way to ease our fear and be truly happy is to acknowledge our fear and look deeply at its source. Instead of trying to escape from our fear, we can invite it up to our awareness and look at it clearly and deeply.”

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

I live with a lot of fear and anxiety. Strangely I don’t think I realized this until I was about 30, and a work colleague called me an anxious person. The label made me ashamed. Here was another way I was not good enough, of course. For most of my life, I tried to avoid, push away or repress my fears. I did not know any better way. I did what most of us do with fear: avoid. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and other forms of therapy have a name for this: experiential avoidance. Put simply, experiential avoidance is a living organism’s natural tendency to avoid painful feelings, thoughts, bodily sensations, and memories.  

The counter side to experiential avoidance is to be addicted to pleasure and security. Looking back on my life, I have no doubt this was (and is still) true of me. For most of my 20s, I used cigarettes, alcohol, and partying in general as a sort of hedonistic panacea. The truth was I was suffering. I lived with a woman who cheated on me and left me, which destroyed me. I felt alone and my self-esteem was nothing. I worked at jobs I found no joy or pleasure in. So I did what any twenty-something did in New York City: I went out a lot. I look back at that time with a pang of nostalgia. It is easy to romanticize how fun it was. And it was a lot of fun. But it also was a time of great confusion. 

Now, many years later I work as a psychotherapist, and I realize now that I am not alone in my instinct to push away fear and seek out pleasure. I see this playing out with every one of my patients. It seems this urge is universal, a sort of basic underpinning to all existence, not just human. Every sentient being seeks out pleasurable activities like food and sex and avoids painful things like pain and violence. This is all well and good. It seems to be the way of life on this planet. But there is a problem here. It seems that none of us can avoid the painful cycle of Samsara, the Buddhist term for the cycle of rebirth and death. (I am agnostic about any notions of reincarnation. But I do think rebirth and death are a useful metaphor for the rhythms of pleasure and pain).  

Buddhism has a lot to say about seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. The foundation of the Buddha’s teaching begins with the Four Noble Truths, which I would argue deal directly with our pleasure/avoidance patterns. What are the Four Noble Truths? Here is a list of them:

  1. Life is suffering (dukkha)
  2. The cause of suffering is desire and craving. 
  3. There is an end to suffering. 
  4. Follow the Eightfold Path, which includes meditation and living ethically. 

The Four Noble Truths seem pretty straightforward. Stop desiring things, right? And then I stop suffering? Seems easy enough. But as I’ve discovered throughout the years, what sounds easy in theory is much harder in practice. 

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The Shadow Self and Fear 

Let’s return to fear and anxiety. As I discussed above, experiential avoidance is a way to avoid our pain. And by avoiding our pain by seeking more pleasure, human beings create a cycle of suffering, always seeking more pleasure and always avoiding pain. 

One way to think about fear is the fear of instability. Above all else, it seems to me, humans crave security, the feeling of safety. What makes us feel safe? Love. Money. Material Goods. A home. A secure, well-paying job. Pleasure is a part of feeling safe. Knowing that you can drink alcohol or go on a Hawaiian vacation to ease suffering makes us protected. We have our outlets from the terror that can face us. 

What is the opposite of safety? Little to no money. Lack of love in one’s life. No stable home. No ability to enjoy oneself with leisure time. No work or a job that pays poorly. In one sense, a stabler government that provided a social safety net for its citizens would alleviate much of this insecurity. Imagine a government that guaranteed a living wage, housing, and enough leisure time to enjoy one’s self. But this is only part of the equation and ignores the existential dilemma all of us face: impermanence and death.  

In some ways, all fear and anxiety is the fear of death. Our bodies are living organisms designed to do two things: survive and procreate. We have evolved marvelously to do those two things remarkably well. Just take a look at the population of humans. In the year 1900, the world population was roughly 1.7 billion. Today it’s nearly 8 billion. 

But just because we have spawned at exponential rates, this has done little to ease our anxieties. Some of that is our hardwiring. We are primed to see the world negatively. Our brains are beautifully trained to see all the ways we might be in danger. We are constantly on the lookout for threats whether we know it or not. This way of seeing the world is wonderful for keeping us alive but does little for ordinary human happiness. And despite what happiness polls say, in my experience, people are more unhappy than they would like to admit. 

What do I mean by that? People day-to-day are plagued with anxiety, stress, and lack of security. They can look at the narrative of their lives and tell us, “it’s pretty good all things considered.” But that feels more and more dishonest to me. There is a darkness in humanity’s soul, Jung’s shadow self. Our shadow selves seem to be in  constant comparison and competition with others. Our shadow selves act aggressively and violently, starting wars, murdering and raping. The darkness is in all of us. That darkness is something society needs to repress and push away. But the more we push it away, the more repression comes up. For every smiling family photo, there is anger and bitterness just beneath the surface. 

What I am interested in is how to deal with this darkness. As I said above, most of us just seek out more pleasure and try to push away the pain. Hedonism is one way out. The constant search for pleasure above all else, however, is a temporary salve. Others of us turn to religion to make some sense of what is inherently terrifying and empty. Religion, however, has a way of turning into denying our shadow selves. It inevitably looks for a scapegoat to hate to assuage their guilty. There is a reason that many great massacres have been in the name of religion. Others seek to gain more and more power. Power, it seems, is a way to build ourselves and feel strong and mighty above death and anxiety. But power has a way of actually making us weak and insecure. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  

In a way, all spiritual yearning is a way of preparing for death. It is admitting our vulnerability and powerlessness in the face of it. It is admitting our deepest fears and facing them the way a warrior might face a charging army. I have personally found Buddhism immensely helpful in dealing with this existential angst.

Photo by Max Vakhtbovych on Pexels.com

The Four Noble Truths

To return to Four Noble Truths… the first truth is that life is dukkha, which is traditionally translated as suffering. But the suffering doesn’t do dukkha justice. As I discussed above, fear of death, anxiety, and stress eat at us all no matter how much wealth or power we might accumulate. All of us live in the cycle of samsara.  

The Second Noble Truth says the cause of suffering is desire. Desire is usually seen in the positive, i.e. “I want to go Hawaii on a vacation, but I cannot afford it, therefore I feel suffering.” But desire is equally applicable to the so-called negative emotions like fear. For example, “I feel scared of dating so I avoid it completely.” This truth may seem simple enough to understand. But when one starts to use mindfulness to examine ourselves more deeply, we start to see that almost every thought and feeling is connected to desire. Our desires are insatiable. Our selves are constantly seeking more security and less fear, more pleasure, and more. Our selves are either always wanting more or wanting to change what is. When one starts to become adept at insight meditations, one can see the constant cycle of pain recurring over and over again in one’s mind. 

The Third Noble Truth, however, is a cause for hope: there is a way out of suffering.  It is not an easy path, however. No half-ass McMindfuless effort will work. It requires both wisdom and concentration. 

The Fourth Noble Truth further expands on this idea. It states that way out is following the Buddha’s path. It states that the Eightfold Path can lead to contentment and ultimately Nirvana. I don’t want to get into a full discussion of the Eightfold Path here, as that could be an entire book by itself. But the essence of the Eightfold Path is fairly simple like many of the Buddha’s teachings, but takes a lifetime to master. Essentially the Eightfold Path is about living ethically, studying the Dharma, the Buddha’s wisdom, and meditation.

I have personally worked on all of these for several years now, and I feel like every time I get somewhere spiritually another obstacle comes into place. It is only now in the past few months that I’ve tackled some of my deepest fears. It has taken me a long time to realize this, but I have been trying to make my fear go away. It was another form of experiential avoidance, just subtler than the obvious ways we avoid our emotions. It wasn’t till I really admitted how scared I felt often that I begin to open up. It wasn’t until I realized that I was often angry because I was so terrified and hurt, that I really began to be a little different. 

The Dharma has been immensely helpful with this. Building upon concentration was the start. But it wasn’t till I started to work with the heart did my defenses start to melt. Two Tibetan Buddhist practices were particularly helpful: Tonglen and Chod.  But there are many ways to skin a cat. There are many different kinds of meditations that help engage our innate wisdom and face our deepest fears.

I believe Buddhism is the best way to awaken our hearts and grow in this way, but there are other ways too. Finding a kindhearted and wise psychotherapist is also immensely helpful. A psychotherapist can provide a safe space to explore what scares you the most. And if you can’t afford that, I suggest an even simpler path to all of this: reading. To read is to open up to a world from your bedroom. There are thousands of great Buddhist and spiritual books out there to begin you on your journey of awakening. I hope reading blog posts like this one help get you on the path.

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