Fear and belief


“Nine out of ten people I talk with about retirement,” our family accountant remarked not long ago, “are afraid they will run out of money.” Most of his clients, he went on to explain, have sufficient resources to enjoy a secure if not affluent retirement, but that doesn’t keep them from believing otherwise or fearing future hardship.

The entangled relationship of fear and belief was one of the themes of a retreat I recently conducted at the Olean Meditation Center in Olean, New York. Around thirty people attended this retreat, whose aim was to explore how mindfulness might help us recognize, accept, and release our everyday fears. In this three-hour period we did not purport to address traumas or their aftermaths. That is the job of a qualified therapist. Nor were we attempting, in one Saturday morning, to allay such profound apprehensions as the fear of death. Rather, we had convened to examine whether, in the words of the Zen teacher Zenkei Blanche Hartman, we might “turn toward our fears with warmth and compassion”.

During the first hour we focused on the recognition that fear is present. To initiate that recognition, I invited participants to settle into an upright comfortable posture, bringing their attention to the sensations of breathing.  A few minutes later, I asked everyone to observe the thoughts crossing their minds, first by counting the number of thoughts that arose in a three-minute period (the average was around fifteen), and, second,  by noting the kind of thinking they were doing (remembering, projecting, analyzing, fantasizing, etc.). Last, I asked them to examine the content of their recurrent thoughts. How many pertained to the immediate present? To a past event?  To something that might happen in the future? How many were based in fear?

In the ensuing discussion, participants reported on their findings. Many of the thoughts reported had to do with the past or future, and only a few with the present moment. And many were indeed based in fear. The most nuanced account came from a man who had found himself thinking repeatedly about his son, who in that very hour was driving on the New York State Thruway. Although this worried father’s thoughts had centered on the present moment, they were rooted in fear for his son’s safety.

During the second hour we focused on accepting recognized fears. Difficult as it can be to admit we’re afraid, it can be even more challenging to accept our fear, once it has come to light.  To facilitate that process, I once again instructed participants to assume a stable upright posture and settle into meditative awareness, but this time I asked them to recall a situation in which they had experienced moderate fear. Reliving that situation, they then explored means by which they might allow their fear into their field of awareness. Some people have found it useful to implement such words and phrases as “yes,” or “I consent,” or “this, too.” Others have found it helpful to focus on the physical sensations attendant to fear. By so doing, we can gain awareness of both our constrictive resistance and the openness of heart that comes with accepting what is present.

This active acceptance leads naturally into the third stage of the process, which is to investigate the ways in which our fears comingle with our beliefs. During the third hour, we undertook that inquiry by once again bringing mindfulness to a remembered experience. In this case, however, I asked participants to recall a fearful experience while asking themselves two questions: “What am I believing?” and “Is this belief real, but not true?”

This simple exercise produced some remarkable results. The most dramatic was reported by a participant who had chosen to contemplate an experience from her childhood. One day in school, she recalled, she had sung a song with her classmates. Afterwards, her teacher had told her it would be better if she not sing with the group anymore, because her voice didn’t really fit in. She had accepted that judgment, and over the years she had generalized it beyond its local, original context. It had become a personal belief, which she had carried with her until that morning.

“How do you feel at this moment?” I asked.

“Free,” she quietly replied.

To be sure, the contemplation of fear is not for everyone. It is easier in the short run to ignore, deny, or suppress our fears, or to distract ourselves with busyness and entertainment. But as Jack Kornfield has observed, “A fearful situation turns to anger when we can’t admit that we’re afraid.” By learning to stop and look into our fears, we can increase the likelihood that our future choices will be based on clear seeing, emotional stability, and alignment with things as they are—three of the fruits of meditative practice–rather than on fear, anger, or fear-infused belief.

In designing this retreat, I drew upon the practice of “R.AI.N.,” as developed by the Vipassana teacher Michele McDonald, and especially on the pioneering work of Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield. I am indebted to these teachers, both for specific methods and for general inspiration.

Photo: “A frightened and an angry face,” engraving c. 1760, after C. Le Brun.

Comparações_planetárias“Have you been comparing?” ask Rodgers and Hart in their 1932 ballad “You Are Too Beautiful.” I suspect that most of us, if we are being honest and sufficiently self-aware, would have to answer in the affirmative. “Comparison,” observed Mark Twain, whose vein of dark wisdom ran as deep as his humor, “is the death of joy.” Yet on we go, comparing whatever is at hand, be it brands of dental floss or newly listed homes or presidential candidates. A product of our education and social conditioning, the mental habit of comparison is as ingrained as it is necessary for survival. Regrettably, however, if left unexamined that habit can also rob us of happiness and hinder us from appreciating our present lives. Continue Reading »

Ummon Bun'en Drawing by Hakuin Ekaku

Ummon Bun’en
Drawing by Hakuin Ekaku

Among the cryptic sayings associated with the Zen tradition, none is better known than that of Ummon Bun’en (862-949), who famously declared that “every day is a good day.” Yeah, right, the weary, seasoned mind replies. Tell that to the commuter caught in gridlock or the stressed-out parent nursing a sick child. Superficially construed, Ummon’s remark sounds both naive and culpably aloof.

Yet, if examined in the light of Zen teachings, this adage is neither foolish nor untrue. The key component of Case 6 of the Blue Cliff Record, a classic collection of Zen koans, Ummon’s pronouncement is a fiction that points to an underlying reality, a construct that discloses a deeper truth. If we wish to probe that truth, we can consult the host of commentaries Case 6 has accrued, beginning with that of Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768), compiler of Zen koans, who called this particular koan “cold,” meaning austere and challenging to contemplate. But if we wish to explore Ummon’s saying in a warmer light, we can begin by reflecting on how we know, or think we know, the things of this world, and how we determine whether a given day is good or bad. Continue Reading »

Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg, 1988

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. So goes the Zen proverb, and for many it may be true. In my case, however, I was neither ready nor expectant. And my first guide on the path of meditation was an unlikely candidate for the position.

Allen Ginsberg visited Alfred University in October 1978.  It was a relatively tranquil time, especially when contrasted with our present era. A few weeks earlier, the Camp David Accords had been signed under the watchful eye of President Jimmy Carter. In Western New York the fall colors were at their peak. Continue Reading »


Zoketsu Norman Fischer

“Why do we like being Irish?” asks the Irish poet Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) in his poem Autumn Journal (1939). In subsequent lines, he answers his own question:

Partly because

      It gives us a hold on the sentimental English

As members of a world that never was,

      Baptized with fairy water;

And partly because Ireland is small enough

     To be still thought of with a family feeling,

And because the waves are rough

     That split her from a more commercial culture;

And because one feels that here at least one can

     Do local work which is not at the world’s mercy

And that on this tiny stage with luck a man

     Might see the end of one particular action.

Because Ireland is a relatively small country, and because in MacNeice’s time families tended to stay put for as long as economic conditions allowed, Irish people could reasonably hope to see the “end”–the consequences as well as the completion–of any particular action. Continue Reading »


Julian Bream, 1964

On this snowy winter evening I’ve been listening to Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal After John Dowland (1963), a twenty-minute piece for solo guitar composed for the English lutenist and guitarist Julian Bream (b. 1933). By turns dreamy and martial, restless and serene, this masterpiece of the modern guitar repertoire can be heard on Bream’s 1967 album 20th Century Guitar, one of forty CD’s in my newly-acquired Julian Bream: The Complete RCA Album Collection (2013). Released in conjunction with Bream’s eightieth birthday, this handsome boxed set is both a treasure trove of music for classical guitar and a tribute to a great musician’s lifetime achievement. And for this listener, the collection also evokes an enduring memory. Continue Reading »

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney

In an interview many years ago, a journalist asked the Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) for his thoughts on aging. At the time, Heaney must have been in his late fifties or early sixties. With his usual precision of language, leavened by a wryly ironic smile, Heaney remarked that growing older had brought “the inevitable attenuations.” He did not elaborate, but anyone of a certain age could readily fill in the blanks. And more important than the words or the missing details was the attitude behind them, an attitude at once rare and profoundly liberating.

Like forty million other men and women over the age of fifty, I belong to the AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons. As a privilege of membership I receive two bimonthly publications: the AARP Magazine, which is printed on glossy paper and vaguely resembles People magazine; and the AARP Bulletin, which is printed on newsprint and resembles a tabloid. The Magazine endeavors to entertain, educate, and inspire me, while perhaps selling an Acorn Chairlift or a life-insurance policy along the way. By contrast, the Bulletin aspires to keep me informed and alert me to financial and health-related hazards threatening older people. Together these complementary organs of our consumer culture purport to enhance my so-called golden years and help me feel more secure. All too often, however, their effect is quite the opposite. Continue Reading »


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