“Fear is the little-death”

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.

Fans of Dune will recognize this right away.  It is sometimes called “the Bene Gesserit litany against fear.” [1]  I like it a lot.

fear 1First, I note that it distinguishes “me” from “fear.”  That’s subtle, but I think it is important.  I will argue, below, that it is a great help to distinguish “me” from anxiety and pain and wakefulness, as well.  Just to pick three. (The three to the left, members of Bene Gesserit, are not the three I would pick.)

We could say that fear “possesses” you.  That catches that “it” is strong and you are not.  But being seriously afraid joins the fear and the self; they are not two entities.  Regaining a sense of “me” is the first thing to do.

After the first sentence of the litany—a kind of goal statement—there are four “I sayings.”  I will face, I will permit, I will turn, and I will remain.  The first three are actions I may take; the last is the outcome of the actions.  All those distinguish “it” from “me.”

There is also a visualized space.  “It” comes.[2]  “It” passes through.  “It” goes past.  It moves through space, in other words, and I do not.  I see it come and I turn and see it go and I stand where I am.  And there is an experienced time.  This sequence shows a time before I encounter the fear, a time during which I encounter it, and a time after.  My sense of “I” is the same in all three times.

Those three aspects of this saying—the actions I take, the space I occupy and the time I experience—separate “me” from “it.”  I am not it; it is not me; we are not one.

Where does that get us?  Somewhere really valuable, I think.  And so does Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Full Catastrophe Living. [3] Kabat-Zinn has a good deal to say about fear—also about physical pain (Chapters 22 and 23), emotional pain, (Chapter 24), time stress (Chapter 26), sleep stress (Chapter 27), food stress (Chapter 31) and others—but you get the idea.

All these stand, in relation to fear, just as the litany pictures it.  That’s my argument, not Kabat-Zinn’s.  Once the hard work is done—I am not my fear, I am not my pain, I am not my hunger—then these are foreign to “me.”  They are other.  I watch them come; I watch themfear 4 pass over me; I watch them disappear in the distance—and I, I am still here.

I imagine that Kabat-Zinn’s children do all this “naturally.” [4] It isn’t natural for me.  I have what Kabat-Zinn would call “the monkey mind.”  In this, he is almost certainly being unfair to monkeys, but what he means is the mind, like the one illustrated below,  that is both hyped up and disorderly.  When it is like this, my mind is like a committee meeting with no parliamentarian.  People interrupt; they shout over each other; they introduce momentarily plausible but actually non-germane topics.  It’s not so bad when I am working on something.  It is perfectly acceptable right now, for instance, as I am writing this.  It is not, however, the friend of sitting quietly on the patio, relaxed and composed.  It is not the friend of sleeping at night.  It is also not the friend of my immune system, according to Kabat-Zinn, because of the drain on it that the constant stress produces.

I suspect that Kabat-Zinn would say, in a private conversation, that the “monkey mind” is bad.[5]  On the other hand, I think I would say it is like overdrive.  You don’t want to get stuck in it, but it’s good to have when you need it.  The problem, always, is how to get out of “overdrive” when we know it will “compound and exacerbate the pressures of living we continually face.”

fear 2My first response to these anxious or fearful thoughts is to disapprove of them.  “I” am trying to do something quiet and reflective.  “They” are disrupting me.  “They” are bad or wrong (it’s a choice of flavors) and need to be resisted.  “Resisting” these intruders is just another form of “monkey mind” to Kabat-Zinn.  It is perfectly understandable, of course, but it doesn’t help.

What does help?  He calls the general condition “mindfulness.”  It is being aware of what you are feeling right now—the air in the room, the pressure of the chair, the tightness of your breathing—and just attending to that.  Give these sensations a quality of attention he calls, in the passage below, “wise attention.”

Instead of discussing symptoms as woes and how to get rid of them, when we do focus on symptoms of one kind or another it is to tune in to the actual experience of the symptoms themselves in those moments when they dominate the mind and body. We do this in a particular way, which might be called giving them wise attention. Wise attention involves bringing the stability and calm of mind­fulness to our symptoms and to our reactions to them. We call it “wise” to distinguish it from the usual type of attention we pay to our problems and crises.[6]

This brings us full circle.  In the beginning, “I and my fear” were a single entity and the fear 3goal of the Bene Gesserit litany was to separate my experience of “me” from my experience of fear.  “Only I will remain,” accomplishes that.  Kabat-Zinn adds to that the possibility that now exists of “mindfulness.”  We can be aware of what is.  By doing that, we can notice, not condemn or resist but only notice, the invaders: the fear, the anxiety, the pain, the stress arising from time or status conflicts.  We give them wise attention.

That’s a long way, you will have to admit, from “fear is the mind-killer.”  And being a long way from that sound really good to me even now in mid-morning after my Starbucks coffee and a really good conversation.[7]  Tonight, when it is dark and quiet and I have my choice between fighting my sleeplessness or giving it my wise attention, it will sound really good.


[1] The group is described as an exclusive sisterhood whose members train their bodies and minds through years of physical and mental conditioning to obtain superhuman powers and abilities that can seem magical to outsiders.”  That’s what it says on one of the many many Dune sites.
[2] I get that from “face my fear” and “gone past.”
[3] The subtitle makes the emphasis clearer.  It is “Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness.”
[4] Or possibly, they have reacted against it and they are all high-wire investment brokers.
[5] If he did say it, he would say it beautifully.  He is a marvelous prose stylist.  He might say it this way, “Health can be undermined by a lifetime of ingrained behavior patterns that compound and exacerbate the pressures of living we continually face.”  He does, in fact, say that on page 248.
[6] Page 179.
[7] This morning’s began with whether Madison overestimated the American voter in The Federalist #10 when he said the people would choose “a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”  We wondered, this morning, what happened to “the chosen body” with all those wonderful characteristics.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
This entry was posted in Books, Living My Life, Paying Attention, ways of knowing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to “Fear is the little-death”

  1. Dan Hess says:

    I love this one, Dad. Thank you!

    Date: Thu, 21 Aug 2014 16:54:56 +0000 To: dan_hess@hotmail.com

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