Fear is the Mind-Killer

One of my favorite books as a teenager was Dune, by Frank Herbert. If you’re part of the baby boom generation, or within shouting distance of being a baby boomer, you’ll remember this best-selling science fiction novel. A famous line was “fear is the mind-killer,” which is part of a litany against fear. The entire quote says:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

As an adolescent, I remember reading this book and thinking this was a great quote. At that age, one is full of youthful energy, optimism, naivete, and invincibility. Fear and doubt are not the developmental necessities that daring behaviors (and ideas) are, they are obstacles to be overcome with no inherent value. We think we can do anything at that age, most of us–an idea that continues through our child-bearing and child-raising years. We need to develop the ego strength that enables us to shove fear and doubt away, or we’ll not be able to establish practicalities and routines that serve us. Later, though–usually in our 40s–mid-life and teenagers, tragedies and illness and deaths bring a person up short, seeming to punish us for our daring.

Now that I have been a widow for a year and a half, I’ve been reminded yet again about how fragile life is, and more specifically how fragile I am. I am a limited resource, living on limited resources. Everything and everyone runs out eventually. Though the air may not run out, my lungs will. What good is all the air in the world without a working set of lungs? It’s good for those who can still make use of it, nothing more, nothing less.

A friend wrote me a long email recently addressing the anxiety and fear she hears in my voice every time we speak. She’s right: I’m overrun with it, actually. I rarely wake up in the morning or go to bed at night without feeling the vice-like grip of anxiety around my heart. It tumbles around in my stomach all the time, almost, like the ball on a roulette wheel. ’round and ’round it goes, where it lands, nobody knows.

“Where the fear has gone there will be nothing” is hogwash. Fear leaves devastation and paralysis in its wake before it brings forth Version 2.0 of the True Self. This is what grief does; it’s not romantic at all. It’s messy, like giving birth. It’s also textbook, it’s largely predictable, it’s universal, and it’s got to be gone through if one hopes to emerge whole on the other side.

21 responses

  1. Eve and all of those who have replied to her here, I want to say that it is a privilege to read your words and to be amongst you, you who have suffered and are still suffering fear and loneliness just as I have. It’s inspiring to read how you have all conquered or are learning to conquer your fears. We all possess and are possessed by fear at some time in our lives, for short periods and for long periods which seem unendurable. My offering to you, Eve, in your loneliness and fear is this: I have suffered fear, anxiety and depression all my life and I have to depend upon anti-depressant medication for the rest of my life, and it keeps me alive in as much as without it I would surely find a way to die. The medication has helped with the anxiety and depression but there always remained that reptilian fear, lurking in the shadows and waiting for my weakest moments to reveal its ferocity. The one thing that has helped me most with fear is my belief that we all have a part of the Divine within us and that when we open ourselves to that Power and allow oursleves to be guided by it and protected by it we can find peace and happiness. Allow yourself to accept the Divine within you, Eve. Call that Power what you will, but turn to it for help, pray to it for protection. Call it God, or the Beloved or the Supreme Creative Force, or the Divine or what you will, Eve, it is your best and only chance for happiness. You must trust your whole life and its conduct and outcomes to the Divine within. You have denied that Divine and when you turn back and accept and love and trust that deep inner companion, the Divine within, you will start to lose your fear. Trust that all will be well in your world. You have had to be hypervigilant to protect yourself and your offspring from any dangers that might lie ahead or come lurking around your campfire. Trust the Divine within and let go of the hypervigilance. The next most important thing is to WRITE THAT BOOK! you need to make your mind work hard again, Eve, just like it did when you worked for that PhD. The little grey cells in your brain need hard work, and lots of it. Take on a course of study with which you are totally unfamiliar. If your major is Math, learn a difficult language like Japanese, for example. Trust me, this is how I survived dreadful loss of a loved one. I send you my love and I hope these words are helpful to you. Carol-Lynn

    • Carol-Lynn, thank you for your comments. I do pray and rely upon God every day, so appreciate your comments. Even Jesus wept, though; emotions, including fear, are part of suffering and suffering is part of life. We all get through as best we can.

  2. Eve,
    I have been following your story for a long time. I have had a long and winding road to recovery from severe anxiety and three autoimmune diseases, one of which none of my doctors knew anything about so I therefore was misdiagnosed for over 30 years. I just became sicker and sicker from malnutrition caused by celiac disease. If your body can not tolerate gluten one of many consequences is severe anxiety and depression. I also have complex PTSD from a multitude of traumas in my life one of which is being legally blind. I have had type 1 diabetes for over 53 years. Have come close to dying 3 times and yet I’m still here.

    If you are interested I have written a book (not published) I would be glad to send it to you. I used dreamwork to stay alive and eventually lower my anxiety to a tolerable level. I didn’t have the greatest Jungian therapist but my trust in my inner voice kept me going even when I was on death’s doorstep. I think one of the reasons I am alive is because I wanted to finish my book.

    I have to laugh now as one of my early dreams in therapy actually told me in symbolic terms exactly what was wrong and what to do about it. It took me over two years to figure out the dream. I just didn’t give up in searching for answers. My dreams lead me to use Jin Shin Jyusu to help with the anxiety and to explore many books about healing trauma. I also have used EEFT, a tapping technique on acupressure points that’s helps heal the body and anxiety.

    My dad died from Parkinson disease while going through all of this. I felt so helpless in being able to help him as I was too sick to spend much time with him. I have a feeling he also had celiac disease but was undiagnosed. Celiac disease is genetic and he and I had many to the same symptoms.

    My desire is that my story will give you hope and that in a small way it be helpful to you. Peace and hugs, Elsa

    • Elsa, I apologize for taking so long to respond. I’ve been avoiding writing, even on the blog (obviously). Your offer is generous, and I’d like to read your book. Dream work is, from my perspective, essential.

  3. I’m sorry Eve. It’s hard to read about you living in fear. Hard because I know it’s painful and hard because I prefer that those I care about don’t suffer.

    I left my husband four years ago this weekend. I was terrified, terrified that I would not be able to cope, not have enough money, be alone for the rest of my life. I was a ball of fear, but the days passed, many days passed, horrible things happened and wonderful things happened. It took a long time, four years. I continue to learn and grow. I now live with a lovely, difficult man who forces me to look hard at myself and who allows me to look hard at him. It’s not easy but I am thankful.

    Sending many hugs your way. I think of you often.

    • Deb, it’s been a gift to follow your story and see how your tenacity and courage have brought you these gifts. Just as you did when your life went down to the foundations, I put one foot in front of the other, knowing that eventually life will return. But there’s always the fear that the hidden seed is barren.

  4. Ahh, something I know something about (sigh)…

    I would loosely categorize fear into four groups:

    Mortal- where one’s life/health/safety is in danger.

    Psychological- fears that are based in the unconscious, i.e., one feels afraid for no discernable (rational/logical) reason.

    Mental- typically related to approaching or exceeding one’s limits or comfort/safety zone(s) and often associated with one’s ego/self identity and societal relations; commonly prefaced with the word “too”—too small, weak, poor, etc.

    Existential- this category is a little murkier and is, I believe (have experienced), related to loss, collapse, passing away, and represents more of a state than the others, which tend to be more transitory and specific; commonly described with the absolutes “never” or “always”—things will never change, things will never be different or get better, it has always been this way, etc.

    Intensity ranges across the categories from mild anxiety to going into the black (terror) and completely shutting down physically and or mentally (circuit breaker tripping from too much electrical load).

    In my experience, I would say the following:

    Existential fear is the worst and the hardest to extract oneself from by force or will or other means. I would not say that it is the same as the long dark night of the soul, but it is close and, I suspect, something one has to go through as best they can; much in the way Aragorn took the Paths of the Dead under the White Mountains in “Return of the King”. A grim, accepting (gallows almost), compassionate sense of humor has seemed to be the best tonic. My favorite quote:

    “My center is giving way, my right is in retreat; situation excellent. I shall attack.”
    ~Gen. Ferdinand Foch, 1914, Battle of Marne

    In a terrible irony, more often than not, I have been more afraid of being afraid than I was of whatever I thought I was afraid of in the first place.

    Somewhere in “Shaman, Healer, Sage” Alberto Villoldo quotes a South American shaman as saying that you can’t fight fear directly as any energy you expend in doing so only makes it stronger—a very Zen concept. Sadly, I forget what the shaman’s advice was, but I suspect that it was in being able to sit with the fear and hold council with it, neither giving energy to or taking energy from it.

    I have learned more from my fears than any other single source; however, that has not made it suck any less.

    In the face of persistent fears, which I didn’t deem to be existential, I eventually had to ask what benefit I was deriving from them; not an easy question to ask.

    Lastly, unless one has spent a significant amount of time in a constant state of fear, one really has no idea at all just how debilitating it is or the degree to which it saps one’s life, soul, and spirit; annihilating the past and stealing one’s future; the constant state of tension without relief…one way or the other—I am unaware of a more demanding or taxing enterprise.

    MOAC (Mother of All Complexes)

    “Flee!”
    the physiology screamed
    twisting and turning
    muscles shaking and spasming.
    “Stay…”
    the Spirit whispered—
    the Balrog,
    in the dark,
    this way coming.

    • This is helpful, thank you. Your last paragraph is true and supportive. “Unless one has spent a significant amount of time in a constant state of fear, one really has no idea at all just how debilitating it is or the degree to which it saps one’s life, soul, and spirit … the constant state of tension without relief.” It is, in fact, the most demanding enterprise. It’s the match of one’s life, to wrestle that angel, and nobody can do it for you. It helps that you understand.

  5. When you are the survivor after a loved one’s death, you might be looking for a new identity. If your life is that of a mom, then you have already proven, how strong you are, and how much you are capable of.

    After struggling with fear in my own life and knowing, that it brings solitude, hopelessness and a fatalistic, bleak existence, I would recommend, that you kick fears butt. Fear is only half right. Yes, we are going to die, but why focus on it for the next 50 years? That’s going to be a long, horrible, wait. Why not say, that death will be that guest who will one day come knocking, and take us to a peaceful place, where we will meet our loved ones, who crossed over. I do believe in that; with all the meditation, I have done for a big part of my life, I feel it is true. When death comes, we will be able to show him a big bunch of “flowers of life” that we picked along the way. Happy moments, that we made happen. Goals we made, and followed up on, and learned from.

    Fear burns like a fire and destroys without remorse. When it burns all day and all night, we will become shadows of our true selves. It can be a good thing, to sit down and say a mantra of “I know, I have a guardian angel/spirit, and I pray for protection. I see myself in a circle of a protecting shield. I will let go of my fear for 5 minutes and just be me. No fear. I won’t allow it. I can fear later, but not now. I will be empty. I will be protected. I will be safe.” And then… you might start to see things, that are more positive, than what fear wants you to see. And that, may help you to find your way out of the seemingly, never ending darkness.

    • “When it burns all day and all night, we will become shadows of our true selves.” How true. It reminds me of something Jung said, which was that if one is destined to descend into a deep pit, he had better go about it with all necessary precautions, lest he risk falling into it backwards. I have spent most of my adult life preparing to descend, so descending into the shadow world comes as no surprise. The shock, pain, and loneliness of it have been surprises. The suddenness of the end of my 30-year marriage was a shock. And the darkness on the shadow side is also a shock, especially when nearly all of my regular defenses, preparations, and provisions have been taken, too.

      Strangely, it’s the words I quoted in your answer that give me the most courage, because I know that, especially in Western cultures, we so fear darkness and suffering, and whatever is in the shadows. We fear the shadows of everything, and especially our own shadow selves. Maybe the function of fear’s burn IS to reduce us to shadow–the “us” being the ego we’ve spent our whole lives growing, the Bob the Builder ego who cheerily declares, “Can we do it? YES, WE CAN!” The truth is, there is much that we can’t do, and it’s a lie when we tell ourselves we can control fate. We can’t. Things happen all the time that are entirely out of our control, so we work hard at what we can control, which gives us the illusion of universal control. There’s nothing like tragedy, shock, and loss to remind a person that we don’t have as much control as we think we do.

  6. Fear is primal, isn’t it? I feel it’s clutches too, of late, after loosing my father 6 weeks ago. Every day it grabs me. I do not feel able to trust that everything will work itself out. Trust in…? Self/God/Life, I suppose. The fear and anxiety has increased exponentially. I think his passing has made sharper and more present what was already inside me. Lots of shadow work for us to do. Love to you, Eve.

    • Irene, I’m so sorry to read that you’ve lost your father. My heart goes out to you; I have some idea about what this means for you, how big the loss. Yes, the trust and hope go out. I think they’re supposed to, when we lose someone who’s so big in our lives. They can’t do anything but, and that’s what leaves us in shadows. Will you email me and let me know more?

  7. FEAR is Shadow Work. Not a pleasant endeavor, but very necessary for our personal and spiritual growth. The ego, our personal self, our mortality, our separateness from God, is the instrument of our suffering. Humbly, our suffering and incompleteness have to be accepted. According to Jung, humanity’s task is to make conscious, and to bring into symbolic reconciliation, the strife and tension which is inherent in the fabric of the universe. He states that suffering can never be escaped, but must be embraced and accepted as part of the human condition. The importance of “humanity” to “God” is that humanity can express, live, and hopefully transform the primal conflicting elements of which the Godhead is as it were “unconsciously” composed. Humanity brings the warring elements of God’s nature, the sublime light and mysterious darkness, the masculinity and femininity, the lofty love and earthly eros, into a new kind of relatedness. If we abandon this task because it is too demanding, if we abandon the crucifixion which images our painful suffering upon the cross of oppositions, then we give up not only our human mission, but also the divine’s age-old search for itself.

    Jung would argue that there can be no talk of wholeness until the darkness or “shadow” of human nature has been maturely accepted and integrated. Wisdom and spiritual direction does not reduce our suffering, but it makes it endurable and gives it higher meaning. The symbol for humanity’s lot in the Western religious tradition is Christ on the cross.

    You are not alone, for the Beloved lives in the human heart, your daimon awaits your acknowledgment, attention and love. According to Socrates, the erotic force that animated the soul was the semi-diviine partner, the daimon, who never forgot why his special mortal charge was born and who served only to keep that person on track while faithfully bearing his prayers to the gods. To Jung, the Beloved Other who appears occasionally at night to clasp a dreamer in an embrace she wishes never to awaken from confirms one’s wholeness as a human. The Beloved is our link to what we hold most sacred and long to be a part of, and, at the same time, it is our most intimate companion. The compelling force that lures us to where our soul most needs to go and emboldens us to get there as only we can do, the Beloved is the fuse between loving and being loved. To walk toward the arms of the Beloved is to choose an erotic connection with life. Just out of reach, like a figure half-hidden in dappled sunlight, the Beloved beckons us into a passionate embrace with all we undertake. The Beloved impels us to embark on a journey toward ecstatic engagement with people and places, ideas and acts.

    What are you waiting for? The world is a waiting lover.

    • Wendy, it would be helpful if you’d share how you did your own shadow work after losing a child or spouse. How did you do it? How did you find the world a “waiting lover” after devastation? I’m talking practicalities here, not theory. Theory is worthless if it doesn’t work in actuality, as far as I’m concerned. Thanks!

        • Wendy, I’m lucky to have great analytical and spiritual guidance. The time always comes when one must go forward into the dark alone. Samwise can only go so far, and after that the journey is Frodo’s.

  8. Eve, I never read Frank Herbert but I will because he sounds interesting and all these years later you still reference this book. It must be so meaningful to you.

    I’ve been out of touch because I couldn’t get Word Press to accept me but tonight it worked! I was frustrated so many times but I never give up. I think it’s that Irish fight in me.

    Fear is so primal. So reptilian. You are raising a family as a single parent and it’s so hard and scary but you are doing it. Today it is just particularly hard.

    I think part of everyone’s fear (especially when we are having a tough or lonely time) is to think, “Oh dear God, it will always be like this.”

    Well, when that thought crosses my mind and even my eyeballs roll around, I say, NO! HOLD ON, it will not always be like this! Then I try to find a place where I can find some peace. Maybe it’s only a little walk around the block listening to an old song. Oh yes, this baby boomer has many favorites.

    My body isn’t as strong as it used to be. I take a yoga class on Fridays at noon but wonder how long will I be able to do this? I almost didn’t go yesterday but I trusted and said, just do what you can. I walked into the class and there was a different instructor rolling out her mat. Oh, isn’t this interesting I think. Well, an hour later I walked out not even tired.

    When we least expect it someone or something will knock. Knock knock. And then you will open that door and there will be a wonder, a gift, a letter or maybe the merciful hand of God reaching out to cover your eyes.

    Peace, Eve, write that book,
    MJ

    • MJ, thank you for your effort at staying in touch! I love your yoga story. So many times, when we just put forth the effort of faith or hope, love meets us along the way. Sometimes it doesn’t seem so; but it’s the times when it does seem so that keep me going. Warm hugs to you (and when the spirit returns to me, I will write that book!)!

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