Buddhism, Fear & Flow
by John Stanley
The Buddhists have a good piece of advice: “Act always as if the future of the universe depended on what you did, while laughing at yourself for thinking that whatever you do makes any difference.” It is this serious playfulness, a combination of concern and humility, that makes it possible to be both engaged and carefree at the same time. One does not need to win to feel content -- helping to maintain order in the universe becomes its own reward, regardless of the consequences.
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The evolutionary question is how to live with fear intelligently, effectively & consciously in these fearful times. It’s essential to get to know fear in a way that does not depress or paralyze you emotionally or freeze responsible action.
- Joel Kramer & Diana Alstad
When confronted with danger, our involuntary response is like that of other mammals: we flee, fight or freeze. Fear is a warning. It overrides our regular way of being and creates a “rapid response” of high stress, alertness and energy to deal with a life-threatening situation. In the natural world, this usually means the encounter between prey and predator. Whatever its final outcome—escape or death—fear and stress are short-lived. One or both animals return swiftly to normal functioning.
Humans, on the other hand, have the potential to become persistently fearful or stressed. Our mind easily imagines all kinds of fears when left alone without any structured activity or work. Indeed the basic state of consciousness has been described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as “psychic entropy”. We also seem to be vulnerable to a vague paranoia.
Nowadays media corporations manufacture an electronic cabaret of scary stories to capture our attention. This imaginary fear is a major product of the entertainment industry. Studies show that although many of us choose passive entertainment in order to relax, the truth is it merely increases entropy in consciousness. In Buddhist terms, psychic entropy relates to the first two Noble Truths: dukkha, the reality of suffering, and samudaya, the cause of suffering.
A climate of fear can become the central motif of a historical period, such the cold war. The shock of social and ecological stress has already begun to define this new 21st century. People are interested in meditation as one way to discover inner peace. Is it possible to have inner peace in the middle of a global crisis? What is the value of inner peace unless it engages with living authentically and effectively at a fearful time in history? It is essential, as Kramer and Alstad point out, to get to know fear in a way that does not block responsible action.
Denial is a psychological coping mechanism, the conscious or unconscious refusal to accept information about a fearful situation. We get stuck ignoring traumatic change as long as we can. We become a soft target for manipulative public relations, advertising and the control of information flow in the media. We are unable to act, cooperate or be part of the solution.
Denial was the first of five stages that the physician Elisabeth Kübler-Ross observed in her patients with a diagnosis of terminal illness. The next four were anger, bargaining, depression and (finally) the acceptance of one’s personal death.
It is increasingly clear that our advanced technological society is in denial about the probable outcome of its chosen economic course. Under the corrupting influence of the powerful fossil fuels industry, economists, politicians and the media propagate denial about mega-threats like ecological overshoot, climate disruption and mass extinction. An authentic response would accept fear as a warning. Then we could eliminate deceptive propaganda and enlist genuine democratic involvement in the solutions. Those would be the first steps towards an emergency response of maximum cooperation, creativity, scale and focus.
Self enquiry, truth and courage
Some meditators deal with fear by cultivating a kind of “premature equanimity.” There is a danger here: if dissociation becomes an end in itself, it cuts off experiential learning. If meditation is driven primarily by the need to get away from the problem, how can it move us towards an evolutionary solution?
The alternative approach is to make environmental fear a genuine subject of meditation. If we examine it from within, it is possible to discover the unconscious roots, even of this great fear. The process of self-enquiry brings our own conditioning, beliefs, attachments and subjective filters into awareness. Who, exactly, is afraid? How, specifically? Intimacy with the fear of death or extinction makes possible a powerful transformation of awareness. The great Tibetan meditation master Mindroling Rinpoche stated:
Authentic spiritual practice begins when truth—and the courage to walk on the path of truth—are joined with mindfulness. Until the qualities of truth and courage arise from within, we are vulnerable to our own pretenses and fabrications.
Flow and Awareness
The remarkable studies of Csikszentmihalyi reveal that a dynamic state called flow can be achieved, not only by the rare saint or mystic, but by a wide variety of people engaged in concentrated activities. The activities can be as diverse as playing a musical instrument, mountaineering, martial arts, yoga, sports, or various kinds of work.
Such people are said to have an autotelic personality. They are willing to go through a phase of activation energy—perhaps half an hour—that leads into the experience of flow. Some can use this ability to lead a fulfilling life, despite low social status or financial rewards. The common element is that whatever activity produces a flow state becomes its own reward. It elicits a sense of timelessness and security. It catalyses growth beyond the boundaries of ego-self.
Certain people have developed personal flow to the extent that they can translate most or all potential threats into useful challenges. Flow can evidently become much more rewarding than passive entertainment, and resolve the conundrum of psychic entropy. What about environmental fear? A useful way to look at fear and flow is as an ‘embedded pair’ of opposites within awareness. This awareness is the experiential practice of non-duality. As the Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh explains:
Touching the ultimate dimension, we feel happy and comfortable, like the birds enjoying the blue sky or the deer enjoying the green fields. We know that we do not have to look for the ultimate outside of ourselves– it is available within us, in this very moment.
Artwork: Untitled, by Sam Francis