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Key insights from

Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm

By Thích Nhất Hạnh

What you’ll learn

Thich Nhat Hahn (1926-2022) was a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist who, for decades, promoted personal peace and world peace, so much so that he was banished from Vietnam for denouncing the Vietnam War and Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. As Hahn saw things, we reflexively flee our fears, but we would do better inviting these feelings up from our inner depths, looking at them plainly and compassionately and befriending them. In Fear, he invites us into the present, where life is perennially ready to welcome us back from the fear-packed poles of past and future.

Read on for key insights from Fear.

1. Original fear was born when you were.

None of us were ever safer than when we were in our mother’s womb. In Vietnam, they call the womb the child’s palace. The baby is at rest, its needs taken care of. Mother breathes and eats for the both of them while the baby curls up, nestled inside its palace, warmed and soothed by the sound of mother’s voice. And then, nine months later, this Garden of Eden experience is ruptured when the baby is ushered into a world that is big and full of noise, bright lights, cold, and hunger. The baby has seconds to learn how to breathe on its own or it will not survive. Though only at the level of unconscious instinct, the baby learns fear and immediately forms a desire to survive. This is the first fear that follows us during childhood and into adulthood. Just like in our first moments in the light, we continue to wonder: Will our needs be met? Will we stop breathing, be exposed to cold and hunger?

Each of us loses touch with that moment of birth, but so many of our actions as adults are attempts to find security in light of this powerful original fear. Our current fears and longings are tied to that first fear we experienced as infants. The yearning to connect with someone and be in relationship springs from a desire to assuage this original fear.

To overcome fear, it is essential to reconnect with that original fear and the child “you” who experienced it. To reestablish communication with your child, try this exercise:

Set out two cushions or chairs. Sit in one of them, and imagine yourself in the other seat as your young wounded self. Speak from that child’s position: If fears and pain come up, welcome them. Hear younger you out. What pain does he or she express? What needs and fears? Once you have heard your child out, switch seats and speak as an adult to that little child. Reassure your child: “You’re safe here. Your needs will be met.” Learning to speak tenderly to younger you is critical to soothing yourself. When you feel the fear creep in, begin by telling the child in you that you are older now, still alive, healthy, and capable. You have arms that are strong and capable of holding that younger “you.”

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2. Fear inevitably takes us into the past or future; mindfulness returns us to the present.

One young American came with a group of tourists to the Plum Village Monastery in France where Nhat Hahn lived and taught for decades. When the group was encouraged to write a letter to a parent, living or dead, the young man could not bring himself to commit pen to paper, so vivid were his feelings of fear toward his late father. Even in death, his father had the power to petrify.

We all have fears from the past—bound up with our families—that yank us around. It is important to make peace with those who came before us. Imagine all your ancestors as far back as you can go. They’re in you still, in every cell of your body. That’s not just a metaphor either—it’s genetics. Try as you might to cut yourself off from previous generations, they are always with you. For your own sake and theirs, it is better to embrace them than to reject them. To reject them is to reject yourself.

Forgiveness for others truly begins with acceptance of self. Once you accept yourself as you are right now—with your strengths and your limitations—you can do the same for your ancestors: grandparents, parents, even older siblings. If you can see them as people who did their best despite their shortcomings, your compassion for them will grow, and the anger and rejection will dissipate. They had strengths and problems just like you do.

3. Fear will pull you away from the here-and-now, where all the treasures of life and peace originate.

It would be convenient if our fears truly went away when we pushed them away, but even when buried underground they continue to bring us sadness. Being present in the moment is the beginning of the path to confronting those fears without being ruled by them. Those who experience mindfulness are able to get in touch with their truest nature.

If we don’t acknowledge our fears they rule us from our untapped depths and we can attract trouble and danger without realizing it or intending to. Some people get stuck in the past. Others tend toward the future with all its anxieties.

Knowing where the fear comes from will give you the opportunity to turn it into something magnificent instead of just covering it up and waiting for it to explode later. Many of us forget that many of the pieces needed for happiness are already present in our lives. You will only have eyes to see them if you stay in the here-and-now.

Take a moment when you feel frantic and internally "fast" to remind yourself "I have arrived. I'm already home." When you stop running you can return to life. This is the present moment, where you find the kingdom of God or The Pure Land of Buddha. Jesus compared the kingdom of God to buried treasure that a man found. The man then sold everything to buy the field where the treasure was hidden. If you want to find that buried treasure, you have to seek it in the present.

4. Trying to control emotions with intellect is like trying to survive a thunderstorm in a rowboat on open waters, instead of on land.

When we get caught in an emotional storm system of fear, our common response is to stay in our heads and try to resolve matters via intellect. This is dangerous and ultimately fails us. Emotional storms will sweep us away if we stay in our heads. It’s like trying to brave a squall while in a rowboat instead of on land. What you need is solid ground.

Begin breathing and pay attention to the rise and fall of your abdomen. Move your focus from head to guts. By focusing on belly breathing and simply observing your abdomen rhythmically rising and falling, you watch the storm pass from the safety of a shelter. By moving our focus downward away from the head and into the belly, we tether ourselves and find the grounding we need to outlast the storm.

In the moments they desperately need to remember it, most people forget they are more than emotions. We stay in our heads and try to consciously resolve the emotions. Imagine yourself as a tree in the midst of a storm. Bring your focus to the tree’s trunk. This is like focusing on your abdomen, moving your awareness toward your own trunk. Sometimes the trees seem vulnerable; there's no way they will survive the stormy winds of fear. Though branches may break, the tree stands strong. Bring your attention to this image when fear starts to intensify. A tree deeply rooted can’t be blown over.

5. For most people, “I think, therefore I am not present” is more accurate than “I think, therefore I am.”

The French philosopher Renée Descartes is famous for his declaration cogito ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am.” But if we ponder everyday experience, would it not be more accurate to say, "I think, therefore I am not here right now"? More often than not, our thoughts cut us off from the present. You don’t naturally meander into the present. It takes practice to continually return to the present. Breath is a vehicle that can bring us there. When you are in the present, you are in touch with your environment: the people around you, nature, the food you are eating, and so on. You are transported to the immediacy of life and you feel more alive. You live more deeply and fully, and attend to things differently.

Here are a few meditations to consider that will help you reconnect with your emotion and your body:

One simple practice is to sit in a chair, plant your feet firmly on the ground, and track your breath—in and out. In your mind, say, “Breathing in, I follow my in-breath all the way from start to finish. Breathing out, I follow my out-breath from start to finish.” Your breaths in and out can be as long as you like, but the goal is to trace the flow seamlessly. Following our own breath augments powers of concentration and frees us to be aware of what’s happening in the immediacy of the moment. 

Another exercise is, “Breathing in, I am aware of my entire body. Breathing out, I am aware of my entire body.” This exercise helps us restore the mind-body connection that we lose when we fearfully flit between past and future. Bringing them together, every part of you is present. You are present for yourself and you can be present for others.

6. The fears you keep shoving down can attract the fears of others—and all the dangers that brings.

When Thich Nhan Hanh lived in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, he had a tense moment with an American soldier on the tarmac. He asked the young soldier if he was afraid of the Viet Cong, the communist forces. It was a clumsy conversation starter in a war-torn Vietnam, where American soldiers had been trained to view anyone—including children and monks—with circumspection. They could be Viet Cong, too. The very word made the soldier bristle, and he put his hand on his gun, and asked if Nhan Hanh was a Viet Cong soldier. The monk took deep breaths to rein in the fear, and gently reassured the young American that he was not a soldier, that the war grieved him, and that both Vietnamese and Americans were victims.

Your own fear can attract the fear of others. If Nhat Hanh had responded to fear with his own fear, he would have been killed by a scared young American holding a gun. Instead, he chose to see the soldier with eyes of compassion, and soothed his anxieties.

The best way to ensure your own safety is to care for the safety of others. Fear breeds fear. Violence begets violence. Fear is at the root of our violence. Consider how people treat each other in the aftermath of a terrorist attack: Society is so filled with fear and everyone around you becomes a terror suspect.

Communication is essential to safety and to alleviating fear. If you don’t speak with those around you, you lose connection and lose trust. This is true of neighbors and nations. Most nations rely on weapons and barracks and armies to feel safe. But defense systems fail to get to the root of our fears. The United States of America has a powerful military and some of the most sophisticated weapons technology in the world, but many Americans are still trapped in fear. The strong defenses haven’t assuaged our fears like we’d hoped.

It’s never written up in the will, but pain is often an intergenerational inheritance that gets passed along. When we don’t know what to do with fear, we bottle it up until it explodes. The shrapnel of these fearful explosions lodges in the hearts of children who then grow up and mimic the same patterns they saw when young, passing on fear just as it was passed on to them.

When you practice weathering storms of fear and remain standing, you become a settling fearless presence in the lives of those you love. Simply observing your disposition will give them courage. Without saying a word, your presence can communicate, “It’s okay. Navigating life’s emotional storms is possible.”


These insights are just an introduction. If you're ready to dive deeper, pick up a copy of Fear here. And since we get a commission on every sale, your purchase will help keep this newsletter free.

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