What’s the biggest problem in your life right now? If you are like most people I know, the “problem” that you have probably isn’t as bad as the fear you have from what you believe will be the result of your problem. Sure, you may have a legitimate obstacle in your life, standing in the way of your desired outcome, but it is the perception of your problem, the fear you have that may be a bigger problem. In other words, people fear a certain outcome before it has even happened, causing them anxiety, worry, nervousness, even depression (the fear that you lack agency in your life, that you have no control over what happens to you or what you do about events in your life). All of these emotions are just fear manifesting itself. Stress is another code word for fear. We feel stressed because we fear something is not going to happen as we like it. I’m going to reveal a big secret here–fear is only possible because of… attachment.
Fear always results from feelings or beliefs of attachment to something or someone. Attachment to success leads to the fear of ridicule. Attachment to loved ones leads to the fear of loss or death. Attachment to wealth leads to the fear of poverty. Attachment to a career or project leads to fear of loss of that work. Attachment to a relationship or romantic partner leads to the fear of adultery or rejection. Attachment to beauty and youth leads to a fear of old age. Attachment to a certain outcome leads to the fear of failure and ridicule. Attachment to your own life leads to a fear of death and discomfort. Above all, attachment to things that are not in our control leads to the fear of lack of fulfillment and eventual disappointment. It is clear, to me at least, that fear is only possible with attachment. This leads us to the inescapable conclusion that the answer to conquering fear forever is to remove any attachment that we have in our lives. Right? Right… easier said than done.
As social beings, we have the natural tendency to allow ourselves to feel attachment to others. We develop attachments to things and people and develop strong emotional ties to them throughout our lives. While strong relationships and physical objects that improve our lifestyle are necessary, attachments to people, outcomes and objects is not necessary, nor do I believe it is healthy. Yet, most of us do it anyway. Opinions differ on why this occurs, but I believe, as do many philosophers and psychologists, that we form attachments because of a perceived lack or void within ourselves. The belief that we are not enough leads us to feelings of attachment. Feelings of loneliness, worthlessness, and emptiness are all terms we use to explain the void. Therefore, the only way to avoid attachment that leads to fear is to accept that we are the void. Loneliness, emptiness and the like are natural to the human experience and you do not need to validate yourself with anyone or anything else. When we accept something, we can stop running from it and begin to reason as to what is in our control and what is not.
There are some tools that exist to help us deal with attachment and eliminate the fear that holds so many in prisons within their own minds. The most powerful, in my opinion, comes from the ancient Stoics who used negative visualization–daily meditation on the impermanence of all things and people. By constantly reminding ourselves that “this too shall pass”, we keep from becoming overly attached because nothing lasts. The beauty of impermanence is that is can remind us that life is short, so how we spend our time matters a great deal. Relationships with others can become stronger using this technique too. If you remind yourself that every moment matters, you will be less likely engaging others in triviality, choosing instead to savor every moment with that person. The most important aspect of negative visualization is that it reminds us that we truly do not own anyone or anything, including our own lives. Everything is on loan to us. We are the void. We have nothing. And someone who has nothing has nothing to fear.
The other most effective tool for controlling attachment and therefore fear is developing the ability to recognize what you have control over and what you have no control over. In modern society with the abundance of food choices, you mostly have control over your diet. Therefore, you have some control over your body and physique. You do not, however, have control over whether someone is leaner or more attractive than you. Thus, envy, jealously and the fear that you are not enough is irrational because you cannot control others. Another external factor that humans have a tendency to form attachment to are the outcomes of events. Take a sporting tournament. You may believe that you have control over how you train yourself and therefore how well you will do in the tournament. You may then develop certain expectations for the outcome of the tournament. However, whether you win the tournament is actually outside your control for the reason that you have no control over others and how well they have trained for this event. Therefore, developing an attachment to winning the tournament should not be the goal, but rather focusing on performing as well as possible. By focusing on what is in your control (your performance), rather than what is outside it (the outcome of the tournament), you may in fact win the tournament. Most people develop anxiety and nervousness from competition. By realizing that you only have control over yourself, you will spare yourself the fear of failure and disappointment that comes from attachment to an outcome. The irony here is that by focusing on your performance alone, you are more likely to win the tournament than allowing yourself to become anxious or nervous.
Fear is something that all humans battle throughout life because it is in our nature to form attachments. By remembering that we own nothing and that even our own lives are on loan to us from nature, despite our best efforts to increase our lifespan and quality of life, we can allow all attachments and the fear that accompanies them to fall away. Additionally, by reasoning what is in our control and what is not, we can better focus our energy and time on what we can work to improve, rather than allow ourselves to worry over external events. (Hint: if you look closely, there is always some control you have in any situation, starting with your beliefs about the situation.) My hope is that these tools are of some use to you while navigating through life. Remember, these tools, (negative visualization and reasoning what you have control over and what you do not) are always at your disposal. They are sitting in your tool bag at all times. Whether or not you decide to use them is up to you. As I often remind my wife, most projects that fail do so because the proper tools were not used. I hope this is not your fate.