The root cause of most human psychological misery is the fear of life. This fear of life is a psychological autoimmune disease that arises in reaction to fearful experience very early in life, long before we learn that we have a mind–long before we are even conscious of ourselves as individual persons. The fear of life is an unseen assumption that life is inherently dangerous and profoundly untrustworthy. And it is upon this invisible foundation of fear and distrust that our minds develop over time.
The fear of life I speak of is not the circumstantial fear that catches fire in the presence of immediate physical danger, but a faint background hum of neurotic fearfulness and anxiety, a sense that there is something wrong with me or my life that can neither be fixed nor washed away. I cannot stress too much the fact that the fear of life itself is hidden from experience and can almost never be seen directly because it exists below the level of conscious awareness. Until it is cured, and the damage it has caused is neutralized, it is almost impossible to understand that the fear of life is the only problem that spoils life.
The problem that causes all your psychological pain does not rest in one or more aspects of your mind or personality; it is not particular aspects of your mind that need to be healed or discarded. Your mind is not a collection of aspects and particles, it is a fully integrated system. The entire collection of psychological mechanisms that comprise your mind must be replaced and although that process is much easier to accomplish than you might think, it can be very confusing and painful in the mind undergoing it.
Most of us have never known a mind not conditioned by fear, and we suffer under the unexamined assumption that “my mind is me.” And it is precisely this assumption that “I am my mind” that has given rise to the hatred of the mind that is a hallmark of some spiritual and self-help practices.
But my mind is not me. My mind is a mostly mechanical apparatus consisting in psychological mechanisms that define and color my experience of life. My mind uses memory, thought, and intelligence to reveal to me the present nature of my experience of my life, of my understanding of that experience, and of my understanding of what I can do about it. My mind depends upon learned habits of thought and judgment that arise according to life circumstance as seen through the lens of my mind’s eye. And for most of us who have been born into fear, the mind’s eye is warped and distorted by the underlying assumption that, above all else, life must be feared.
The cure for the fear that spoils human life is actually very easy. All you need to do is bring your attention for just one moment to the faint sensation of being yourself, and that foundation of fearfulness and anxiety disappears. That act of looking at yourself does not even require that you get conscious confirmation that you have seen yourself, or acquired any new understanding as a result. But, if you are willing to understand what happens during the recovery from the fear disease, that will clarify your understanding of the mental forces at play, and you will be much more effective in managing your own recovery.
The end result of the act of looking at yourself is true sanity and full immersion in your life in a way that you cannot now imagine. And you will lose forever the craving for a time of effortlessness, with nothing to do, nothing to want—no problems, no confusion, no decisions required.
So, here’s how it goes. You have seen the problem and you have done the act that solves the problem, and it might seem that that should be the end of it. Far from it. It won’t be long before you find yourself in the midst of what seems to be an all-out war waged by your mind against the dangerous idea that nothing is really wrong apart from the false notion that life is inherently dangerous and untrustworthy. The foot solders of this mental war are those blind and ignorant psychological mechanisms that have been fighting against natural life from the very beginning.
Once the act of looking has been accomplished and the period of unexpected ease of being that often follows has evaporated, what’s left is a mind that is now free of the fear and is beginning to heal. But it is still teeming with the diseased psychological habits of relationship to yourself and to your life that arose from the assumption that life is not to be trusted. Now you find yourself free of the fear, but under assault from the soldiers of fear, and they have begun to adopt a take-no-prisoners, total war stance, with you in the middle of it. Now the war has become more ferocious than ever. Negative and self-destructive behaviors that you thought you had gotten free of may start reappearing stronger than ever. Things about yourself that you thought you had finally gotten under control may suddenly pop up again, seemingly on fire with a vengeful determination to drown you in pain and confusion. What now? What can you do?
Well, you can curse the misery, curse the day you did the looking, and wish you could go back to your life before the looking, when the misery seemed to be at least somewhat under control. You could also just wait it out and do nothing. That is what Carla and I did since we had no real sense of what was happening at the time. We endured many years of psychological pain and misery until the day came when we noticed that the war had fizzled out.
Truth is that all you need to do is look once, and the process will painfully unfold on its own, and when it finishes, it will be as if it never happened. But what an opportunity you will have missed to use the time of recovery to develop and strengthen a self-reliant relationship with your own life.
There is good help available to you in our discussion forums. People who are in various stages of the recovery are bringing new clarity and confidence to our understanding of the recovery from this disease. The courage and willingness of forum members to write about their experience as their recoveries unfold, and their reports about what they have found to be the most effective ways to work with it, are teaching us all how to use the time of recovery effectively. They decline to simply endure it, and use that time to develop a self-reliant relationship to life as it is. Self-reliance turns out to be the most deeply satisfying relationship with life that we can imagine. but you have to experience it for yourself to fully understand what I am suggesting.
The method for developing this radical self-reliance is very simple. It is a matter of learning to control your attention.
As it turns out, you have no say whatsoever over the nature of the thoughts, sensations, experiences, and emotions that appear in your mind. After all, the experience of your thoughts, of your body, of the warmth of the sun on your skin, of your concerns about your health, and everything else present in your mind must already be present there for you to have the experience of them. The entire universe of your life in this moment must already be present for you to notice it. All we have any real control over is to what we choose to attend. And for most of us born in fear, that is nearly incomprehensible. For most of us, attention seems simply to be pulled automatically to the sensations that are the most energetic at any moment.
The fear of life, which is the underlying cause of this madness, is now gone, but replacing the armies of fear with a new, authentic psychology, born and raised in a clear mind takes time. And during this period, all the old soldiers of fear are still present and ready to fight against sanity. There is nothing to do about this other than decide for yourself what is worthy of your attention and what is not. In so doing, you learn that merely putting your attention on something energizes it and, conversely, ignoring it starves it of energy. You can, at any time, decline to attend to what you see to be useless or just plain wrong.
If working toward intelligent self-reliance seems too hard for you, you can always just endure and wait it out in needless misery. It will vanish eventually, no matter what you do or do not do, and it will all be forgotten in the arising of a sane relationship to your life, which is your birthright.
People often ask me if psychotherapy can help accelerate the recovery. The problem with psychotherapy is its focus on reforming or eliminating specific mental issues. Psychotherapy concerns itself with bringing attention to bear on the sickened mental processes in one way or another, with the purpose of reforming them, eliminating them, or replacing them. Such approaches can bring some relief to the troubled mind from the misery of specific neurotic psychological processes.
But the mind suffering from the effects of the generalized fearfulness we call the fear of life is more than a conglomeration of neuroses. It arose and developed in a context that assumes that life itself is the problem that threatens to one’s very existence. When one set of neuroses departs or is evicted by therapeutic measures new ones arise to take their place, and the new neurotic defenses are always more efficient at masquerading as harmless and necessary. Putting attention directly on those psychological mechanisms in a therapeutic context may actually energize them and train them to change form and shift places to evade extermination.
The very best that can be done while recovering from the effects of the fear is to exercise and become skillful in your control over your attention, and the best way to do that is with the practice of focused attention. I cannot stress this enough. The goal of this practice is to make it possible for you to see clearly what choices are available to you in life and decide for yourself—in the moment—what is worthwhile, what is harmful, and what is of no consequence.
The purpose of the practice of focused attention is not so much to provide relief from the specific issues to which you decline to attend, although relief is always welcome. The deeper purpose of the practice is to allow you to take authority over the only act you can actually control, which is to decide for yourself where your attention goes. And its effect is the dawn of full self-reliant sanity and satisfaction with the life you have as it is.
Diverting your attention to seek mere relief from specific trauma-induced neuroses will not stop the process of renewal that is already underway in your mind. I can attest to that from my own experience of many years in recovery, completely ignorant of the process that was underway to clear my mind of the effects of the fear. But you can learn from my experience and the experience of all who have come before you and make better use of the time it takes for the recovery to complete.
If you will put all your eggs in the basket of gaining self-reliant authority over your attention, I promise you that the length and misery of the recovery will be greatly diminished, and you will never regret it.