Meditating on Fear and Anxiety: Insights from Shinzen Young

Shinzen Young is a vipassana meditation teacher and towering figure in the American Buddhist community. 

One of Shinzen’s most powerful and practical teachings is about how to meditate on fear and anxiety. Instead of passively suffering through these emotions, he says, we can turn them into grist for the mill of enlightenment. 

This post is my summary of Shinzen’s teachings on this topic. It’s based on many talks that I’ve heard him give over the years. 

To access Shinzen’s most recent insights, read his book The Science of Enlightenment. I highly recommend it.

Four key premises

Shinzen’s teachings on this topic start from the following premises. 

Fear is universal. Fear is an experience that crosses religious, cultural, ethnic, and political boundaries. Every one of us will experience fear at many points during our lifetime.

Anxiety is a type of fear. In this article I use the word fear to include anxiety as well. Anxiety is often defined as chronic fear that interferes with our ability to carry out the activities of daily life. 

Anxiety calls for professional treatment. This can include mindfulness techniques such as those described below.

We can change our response to fear. Most of us are not taught how to deal skillfully with fear. Many people find that fear is just as gripping, painful, and perplexing at age 60 as at age 6. 

Fortunately, says Shinzen, it is possible to overcome this problem. Meditating on fear is a skill. And like other skills — such as playing the piano or learning to type — meditation includes sub-skills that you can practice and learn.  

Meditation on fear allows for appropriate action. Meditation involves a specific set of self-observation skills. These can deepen your awareness of fear and insight into how it happens.

At the same time, you can do whatever it takes to protect yourself from the things that you fear. If you’re being stalked by a mugger in a dark alley, for example, the appropriate response to run away or call for help. 

Meditation is not a substitute for taking appropriate action. It’s simply a way to change your experience of fear.

Two meanings of fear

Fear can exist in many degrees — anything from mild apprehension to stark terror. We casually use the word fear when referring to any point on that continuum. As a result, we lose precision. 

To gain clarity, distinguish between two meanings of fear. 

Suppose someone were to ask you: What is your greatest fear? You might mention things such as illness, injury, aging, or death. In each case you are referring to fear of a specific object.  

However, there is also fear as an experience — a subjective event, a psychological response. This response can be more or less the same regardless of the specific object or event involved. 

This second meaning of fear raises the possibility of gaining a new skill. We can analyze the experience of fear into a just few a basic elements and then learn how to work with them in meditation. 

If you can learn to work skillfully with the core experience of fear, then you can start to release your fears of many objects.

Three elements of emotion

Shinzen says that emotions are a combination of:

  • Thoughts — words and images in the mind
  • Sensations — feelings that can be located in the body
  • Craving — clinging to or resisting those thoughts and sensations 

Meditation on fear — or any other emotion — boils down to observing these elements. 

Consider an example. Suppose you’re walking down an inner city street late at night. All of a sudden you hear footsteps behind you. 

Immediately thoughts arise in your mind: It’s a mugger who wants to rob me…. I’m in danger…. I might get hurt…. This is terrible!

Along with such thoughts come an avalanche of bodily sensations: pounding in your heart. Weakness in your knees. A crawling feeling over your scalp. A fluttering sensation in your stomach. Sweat breaking out on your forehead. 

In response to those thoughts and sensations, you immediately tense your muscles. You might also say to yourself This can’t be happening or I cannot allow myself to feel this. This is your resistance to fear — a craving for the fear to disappear immediately. 

Thoughts and sensations as distinct events

Thoughts are one thing. Sensations are another. 

Can you see the distinction?

Untangling these two basic elements is one way to stand back from an emotion — to start observing it rather than being overwhelmed by it. 

If you think this is easy to do, however, then just try it the next time that you feel afraid.

That’s the reason for taking time to practice meditation every day. The goal is to gain so much skill at observing emotional states that you can do it even in the most challenging circumstances.

Separating thoughts and sensations

Shinzen assigns rough numbers for describing the quantity of thoughts and sensations that we experience. 

Your experience of fear, for example, might include 10 “units” of thought — 10 distinct words or images racing through your mind. You might also feel 20 “units” of sensation — feelings that register at 20 different points in your body.

Most of us find that thoughts and sensations just blend together. It’s as if those units get multiplied by each other: 20 units of sensation times 10 units of thought equals 200 units of fear.

But what if you keep thoughts and sensations separate as you observe them? According Shinzen, this reduces the impact of fear. It’s like taking those 20 units of body sensation and 10 units of fear and simply adding them instead of multiplying them. The result is 30 units of fear rather than 200. 

Don’t get too attached the numbers mentioned here. They simply offer an analogy. The point is to see whether separating thoughts from sensations reduces the intensity of fear.  

Observe the tempo of thoughts and sensations

Thoughts and sensations “hit” your mind and body at different rates.

Consider a relaxing massage, for example. This experience can produce long, slow waves of pleasant sensation over your entire body. You may also find that fewer words and images pop into your mind. You might even stop thinking altogether.

Compare that to the experience of fear. With this emotion, you might notice dozens of negative thoughts and unpleasant sensations that  “fire” on you at incredible speed. Fear has a much different emotional tempo than pleasure.

Observe with precision and equanimity

Meditation is most effective when your self-observation has two qualities.

First is precision. Instead of simply saying I feel fear, collect data points. See if you can notice specific words and mental images. 

Also see if you can pinpoint the exact location of body sensations. Do you sense them in your shoulders, stomach, hands, chest, arms, legs, feet, face, or somewhere else?

The second quality is equanimity. This means observing thoughts and sensations without judging them as good or bad. 

Instead of resisting thoughts and sensations, accept them. Instead of repressing them, open up to them. Instead of tensing up, relax. This becomes easier as you pour more mental energy into collecting data points.  

Allow the experience of any emotion

When some people hear about meditation, they fear becoming emotional zombies. They interpret the principles of precision and equanimity as commands to become cold, detached observers — or even to get rid of emotions altogether.

This is not the point, says Shinzen. As meditators, our job is welcome any emotion into our body and mind. The goal is not to stop feeling emotions. It is to stop suffering around emotions. 

After all, the elements of emotion are inherently impermanent. Unpleasant emotions will simply arise and pass away if we allow them to do so. And, we are free to enjoy pleasant emotions for as long they last.

Meditation allows us to make deeper contact with emotions through detailed self-awareness. This gives “getting in touch with your feelings” a whole new meaning. 

We get a lifetime to practice

Skill at meditating on fear depends on daily practice. It takes time, and the results come at a gradual pace. 

Even small gains, however, can reduce your suffering.

The wonderful thing about meditation practice is that you get an almost infinite number of times “at bat.” Unlike baseball, it’s not “three strikes and you’re out.” 

Rather, life is pitching you another “ball” every minute — a whole range of emotions. Hitting the ball simply means observing them with a little more precision and equanimity each time.  

Even if you make only one hit out of every 100 pitches, Shinzen says, you’re a world-class athlete in the meditation leagues. 

And there’s no better way to play the game than with familiar challenger—fear.