Some readers might suspect the answer to this question is yes, possibly because of the growing body of research demonstrating the benefits of meditation in improving negative moods and psychological distress, including anxiety, depression, and anger. There is also a compelling body of work in cognitive neuroscience that shows that meditation changes brain structure and function in ways that decrease fear and panic. Others might assume the answer is no, because meditation brings emotion, including emotions like fear, into awareness. Maybe both answers are accurate. As we gain experience with meditation, we may be able to allow ourselves to experience more fear, but the actual experience of fear will disturb us less and less. Eventually, we could experience all of our fear without being afraid.
As a doctor and as a person who practices and teaches meditation, I’d like to offer my thoughts on this question based on both what I have observed and studied and what I have experienced. Let’s begin with definitions. For the purposes of this brief discussion, we can define meditation as an exercise or technique that strengthens awareness by bringing attention to rest on a stable focus. All meditation practices teach you to focus your attention on some aspect of your immediate experience. For instance, the traditions known as “mindfulness” (which originated as Buddhist meditation practices) often focus the attention on the shifting sensation of the breath. Other meditation practices might suggest that you focus your attention on the sensation of the body in movement, or on a visual image, a sound, or a thought created for the meditation, such as a syllable (a “mantra”), a prayer, or a visualized image. Each approach has its proponents, but we lack much evidence to suggest that one type of meditation is best. The object of focus doesn’t seem to matter as much the process of focusing in a sustained way.
It sounds simple enough, at least until we try. Despite our best attempts to focus our minds we are likely find that our attention promptly wanders away. It may be a shock to discover that our minds have minds of their own, and that they would much rather drift into the past or fantasize about the future than settle down to do our bidding. It can be humbling to realize that our minds aren’t all that interested in what we think they should be doing.
Meditation changes this state of affairs by increasing the stability and strength of attention. We then have a choice about where we place our attention. We can direct attention away from fear if we so choose. We can focus on the comforting cycle of the breath or the reassuring stability of the body at rest to help us to connect with our own inner stillness and silence. Gradually we find that we can stay there for a bit, and then maybe for a bit longer. We can eventually learn to intensify this ability to concentrate our minds so that during our meditation practice all of our attention is filled with the breath, or the mantra, or the prayer. This type of complete meditative absorption is deeply peaceful. In the moment of full absorption there is no room for the experience of fear.
Unfortunately, even the deepest peace of this sort is usually impermanent. Although we can leave our fear behind for a bit, eventually we need to depart from the comfort of meditation practice and return to the rest of life. Moments of anxiety, fear and panic will return as well. Even if we could retire to a monastery and do nothing but meditate we will find something to fear. Or maybe it will find us first. However, these moments of peace are one way in which meditation can help overcome fear. For many, the realization that there can be a safe harbor–the ability to dwell in a deep inner peace within the stillness and silence of solitary meditation practice– can have a profound effect. They can deal with the moments of fear because they are confident that fear is impermanent, and because they know that they can back out of them when that is desired. This is a powerful ability and one that has helped many people ease their fears.
There is another way in which meditation can help us cope with fear, a way that can be much more transformative and meaningful than even the deepest and most blissful peace. It is most simply described as an intensification of depth and meaning in experience. Many people express this experience in spiritual terms, even those who have no interest in religion. I have seen this occur in thousands of participants in the Penn Program for Mindfulness at the University of Pennsylvania and in my own personal mindfulness practice. It is as if awareness itself becomes concentrated. This awareness is our deepest identity, separate from the particulars of our existence, from the story that we tell ourselves or the beliefs that we cherish. It is a vivid lucid radiance. When it becomes manifest everything seems different even though nothing has changed.
This intensification of meaning is not the provenance of mediation alone. It happens to everyone and is found in the most ordinary and unexpected moments. It could occur when we look at the sky, or when we stop talking to ourselves for a moment and actually look at the person we are with. Instead of just looking, we see more deeply. It is a quality of our mind, of the way that we notice, of attention. It is not in things; it is in us. Meditation helps us to see that it is already here.
The awareness itself, the part of us that is lucid, sentient, and awake, is clarified through the practice of meditation. Previously awareness had been mixed with thoughts, feelings and sensations into an uncertain and vague sense of self. Now it is explicit and definite. It is a clear sense of aliveness, of wakefulness, that contains all of what you are yet remains distinct and singular. Yet the more closely that you look the more it seems to be without beginning or end, timeless and infinite. Unfortunately, timeless and infinite, although true to the experience, are words that seem much more dramatic than what I am describing. They will lead you to look elsewhere for that which is right here. This awareness is completely ordinary.
Describing and evaluating such a personal and internal experience is challenging. In my research on meditation, I have given more than 1,000 participants in my mindfulness-based stress management program a survey that was developed to evaluate non-religious spirituality. The survey quantifies spiritual experience in three dimensions: peace, meaning, and faith. The participants in this completely secular meditation program consistently report significant increases in all three of these areas.
Many people are surprised to see that measure of faith was increased. I teach meditation in a completely secular context, with no mention of religion or spirituality. Yet graduates of the program are more likely to agree with the survey’s statement, “I feel connected to a higher power (or God).” If you watch the process closely it is easy to believe personal faith is deepened, regardless of what that is. People who learn to meditate have an experience of depth and meaning that becomes woven into the fabric of their view of the world. If they are a Catholic priest they may call this experience grace. If they are an atheist, they would not use that word, nor are they likely to enter the priesthood. A Muslim or a Buddhist would have a different word. Everyone experiences meaning within the context of their own life. Nothing about anyone’s belief system needs to change to accommodate this truth. In fact, you don’t even have to believe in it to experience it. It happens all of the time. It is not what you think.
So back to the opening question and its answer. Does meditation help you to overcome fear? Yes and no. When your deepest self is known to be this vast there is nothing to fear. Yet fear happens, over and over again, forever. So does everything else. Sometimes it rains and then the sun comes out. Sometimes you look at the sky or fall in love. There is a flowing stream of life right in the center where you are right now. The fear is another ripple in the stream.
Overcoming fear is no longer important. All of life, including the fear, is part of what makes it so outrageous, so incredible, to be here.