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An ancient Buddhist strategy for overcoming paralyzing fear

The first step in taming all-consuming dread of a Trump presidency is to get calm.

“As a collective energy, fear and anger can be very destructive,” says Brother Phap Dung, a senior monk and teacher at Plum Village.

In the days since November 9, an oppressive cloak of fear and dread has descended upon a great many Americans.

The causes are endless: Our government is at risk of becoming “systemically corrupt” under President-elect Donald Trump. Muslims are wondering if they’ll be subject to new discriminatory scrutiny. The emboldening of white nationalist groups and the appointment of their hero Steve Bannon to a top White House post has people of color bracing for fresh hate. Immigrants protected under DACA fear the total upheaval of their lives. People who get health insurance through Obamacare face the prospect of losing it. Anyone who worries about the environment now has to reckon with the potential dismantling of decades of federal environmental policy and worst-case scenarios of climate change. The list goes on and on. Altogether it is a bleak canvas.

This fear is not trivial and it may not be easily subdued. Fear is a biological response we’ve evolved to protect ourselves from threat, and is generated in the limbic system, the brain’s emotional conductor.

Neuroscience tells us that uncertainty inflates our estimates of threat. So it’s not surprising that the uncertainty of what will come to pass in a Trump administration is leading many people to flirt with all-consuming, paralyzing panic.

We’ve got 62 days until Trump takes office, so it seems like a good time to seek out the world’s oldest psychological teachings on transforming oppressive fear into something more productive. Buddhists have been studying the human mind for thousands of years, and clinical psychology is increasingly embracing and validating a variety of Buddhist strategies for dealing with the abundant suffering that comes with being human.

The first step in turning paralyzing fear into something more useful is to calm yourself

One of the most fundamental Buddhist teachings is mindfulness — the act of bringing awareness to the present moment. I spoke to Brother Phap Dung, a senior monk and teacher at Plum Village, the Buddhist community founded by the Zen master and author Thich Nhat Hanh, about bringing mindfulness to bear on fear.

“We see the mind like a house, so if your house is on fire, you need to take care of the fire, not to go look for the person that made the fire,” Dung says. “Take care of those emotions first, because anything that comes from a place of fear and anxiety and anger will only make the fire worse. Come back and find a place of calm and peace to cool the flame of emotion down.”

The simplest way to calm the mind is with the basic meditation practice of sitting quietly, focusing on the breath.

Calming the mind and body is stabilizing, but as Dung points out, it’s also protective against unwise action. “As a collective energy, fear and anger can be very destructive,” he says. Stewing in fear and anger is also incredibly draining, even wasteful of energy that could be channeled elsewhere.

The Buddha faced plenty of his own fear and terror of imminent death. Here’s a passage from the Buddha’s early writings that Jack Kornfield, a teacher who helped introduce Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West, quotes in his book The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology:

How would it be if in the dark of the month, with no moon, I were to enter the most strange and frightening places, near tombs and in the thick of the forest, that I might come to understand fear and terror. And doing so, a wild animal would approach or the wind rustle the leaves and I would think, “Perhaps the fear and terror now comes.” And being resolved to dispel the hold of that fear and terror, I remained in whatever posture it arose, sitting or standing, walking or lying down. I did not change until I had faced that fear and terror in that very posture, until I was free of its hold upon me … And having this thought, I did so. By facing the fear and terror I became free.

There is unskillful fear and there is skillful fear

In the strange and frightening forest, the Buddha found freedom from fear by facing it down and recognizing it as a temporary mind state. In other teachings, he makes the helpful distinction between unskillful fear and skillful fear. I heard a good explanation of this in a recent talk given by Brian Lesage, a Buddhist and a teacher of meditation, at the Insight Meditation Society’s Forest Refuge.

“Unskillful fear … has got such a good argument: which is, anything can happen in the next moment.” A President Trump raises a multitude of deeply troubling possibilities of harm in the future, and while “that seems like a really convincing argument to keep on worrying and being afraid,” it’s actually not a good reason to remain gripped by fear in the present. We can’t know the future, and so allowing fear to hold us prisoner in the present is ultimately unskillful.

Skillful fear is watching it, getting really close to it, and uncovering the purer feelings, like love, underneath it. We can use fear skillfully by redirecting its energy and our attention toward more wholesome virtues, like courage and kindness, Lesage explains. “We must build dikes of courage to hold back the floods of fear,” Martin Luther King Jr. said.

On a more practical level, Brother Phap Dung recommends that people stop reading the news if it feeds fear. “Go take refuge in nature, and find a cause where your heart doesn’t feel inactive and in despair,” he says. “This is the medicine.”

We can and should focus on more tangible needs of the people around us than probable Trump doom. “Your friend may be somebody who is being discriminated against,” says Dung. “You can only be there to offer them kindness if you are stable. You cannot help them if you are filled with hate and fear. What people need is your non-fear.”

Further reading

— The science of mindfulness meditation

-- Watch the spread of Buddhism, and the world’s four other major religions

Correction: This piece originally stated that the limbic system is the reptilian part of the brain. In fact, the limbic system is the part of the brain that distinguishes mammals from reptiles.