Besides sounding clever and having notable historical resonance, what might "we have nothing to fear but fear itself" mean?
Fear: the thing wished to be avoided. Aversion. Take this cup from me.
Is fear in the thing feared (spiders, dentists, the dark, heights) or in the relation, or in simply its own factness?
If we accept that heights or spiders are universally fearsome, then human variance is very great indeed, as some people are more or less or not at all afraid of whatever it is that we find universally fearsome, and then we have to do that persistent existential labeling the West is so obsessed with (to be an X-gamer, to be a daredevil, to be a risk-taker, for example) with everyone from Steve Irwin to your average rock-climber.
If the THING is fearsome, then those who aren't afraid of that thing (or not as much as we think they should be; and who sets that average "we" anyway?) have to be accounted for. Upbringing? Personality? Suddenly it's all about us (and really, it's about our labeling) and we've totally lost track of fear and can't say anything useful about it.
Is fear in the relation?
There's the spider (or Kapotasana, or heights, or whatever), and here I am, and boy howdy, there's some fear here. This works better; it's closer to how reality functions. But where is the fear, what's it made of? Cultural history? Watching the wrong movies? Or is it experiential (do you remember your first encounters with Kapotasana? Me too)? But what about people who are afraid of other people (racism, classism, others)? That's supposed to be countered by experience, not enhanced by it. Perhaps there's a cathartic thing that happens, like when people touch snakes and find out that they really don't feel like slime, they feel like purses.
But what if fear is energetic, not a thing-to-thing relation, but an energetic relation, an energetic expression?
Let's go to Empire Strikes Back for this one. "I feel...cold...death. What is this place?" "That place...is strong with the Dark Side of the Force. In there you must go." "What's in there?" "Only what you take with you."
In his fear of Vader, Luke strikes himself down. Creates his own nightmare. Perhaps it's a duty that he feels, also, but that duty/destiny (Star Wars is so, so big on destiny, right?) is also something to be afraid of. Aragorn has a related problem, and there too, it's family.
If fear is energetic, then it is both a thing (energy is a thing, ask any physicist) and a relation (in the same way that desire is also an energetic relation). In French, the expression is "avoir peur." To have fear. We have this in English also, but our active expression is "I am afraid." In French, it's "j'ai peur!" I have fear! The closest we get to that in English is some Beat novel I've forgotten the title of, where the guy shouts, "I got the fear!"
Hunter S. Thompson used to play games with friends, to become as paranoid as possible. You see some sunshine reflecting off something and imagine it's a sniper's rifle. Eating huge meals of fear, stoking it with the imagination.
Let us have some examples.
This morning I had two wisdom teeth extracted, and I'm five hours into a dose of Vicodin as I write this, and if writing this takes an hour, I'll take another one.
I'm about to talk dentistry here, so if that really terrifies you (see how topical?), go to the next dotted line and proceed.
I haven't, for reasons I'll go into in the next section, been to a dentist's office in twenty years. The short version of that narrative which I gave to the assistant on Wednesday when I had x-rays, was "I was an argumentative teenager and my parents really wanted me to have some teeth taken out and I said no, so they arranged non-consensual surgery and it didn't go well and it put me off dentistry for a long time."
And I knew, from all that time ago, that I have at least one wisdom tooth that is totally horizontal and would likely, with time, press into the rest of the teeth in the bottom jaw, and create all kinds of pain and problems. On Friday night a week ago, it began pressing, as it does about one night of every three months or so. I usually press back against it, and it backs off after a few hours of pain. That tooth and I have been relating like this for years.
But this pain did not stop, not Friday, Saturday or Sunday. I went through a number of emotional and cognitive reactions. Should I get it looked at, and risk the diagnosis of decay and root canals and ugly surgeries and guilt and all that crap that dentists did in the old days? Who? How? Should I grin and bear it? Should I require that someone take this one and ONLY this one, should I try to set rules? At first there was pretty enormous fear, mostly of a "return to surgery," a direct return of the repressed. But with time, the fear sort of fugued, split, fell into numerous sections, like I couldn't find the "I" who felt it. This is also what's been going on with my "ego" identity since I became a parent.
Or in jnana terms, "who is afraid?" "Who is fearing?"
And then all of the accumulated thinking/wisdom (I'm sometimes not sure which is which, it sounds pretentious to ever say, "I have wisdom!" (what are we, D&D characters?)) about "I'm not this body" and Buddhist moments where the past is dead, one dies every day, that person isn't this person, the wonderful creative dissociation that is living in present tense.
And I started to wonder if that person with the non-consensual surgery did nothing more than PASS ME A NOTE, tell me to be afraid of this.
Can you consent to fear? We never think of fear as something ON OFFER.
So I stepped off of my own history, and the fear became a thing I could look at, and what became very strange is that the fear became UNFEARSOME.
I could still become the person Who Was Afraid, but I could also NOT be that person. The fear existed, but it Belonged to Someone and Didn't Belong to Someone Else. And because the fear belonged to "a me" (if you will), it didn't belong to surgery, and I got less afraid of surgery (plenty nervous, but less directly afraid).
And I think that "fear itself" can concretize as a relation, but a relation between "a me" and an event, and as time passes, the concretized relation pretends that it has immortality (for nothing wants to die, not even energetic concepts), and it doesn't. The same truth I discover for myself, I discover for my fear. "My" fear, right?
And now you've made the jump, and I'm still going to talk about dentistry, and you're like DAMN IT PATRICK, talk about YOGA or something. Oh I will, I have something to say about that too, but make the next jump and you'll get there.
I forget the precise chronology of my adolescence, not because it was long ago and I forget, but because I realize with more time, that I've re-tread that ground so often, mining it for the "causes of pain" and all of that, trying to find the root of various traumatic things that I believed happened, that I can't see the original footprints and haven't been able to for decades, and now it doesn't matter.
Milan Kundera once said that the past is multicolored taffeta.
I had braces, and I didn't want them. I knew that they made one "uncool" and since I got glasses at 13 and really needed them all the time by 14, and wasn't particularly sporty or popular, I knew that braces would doubtless be the death knell and that would be that.
Gregg Araki once said, about his "Teen Apocalypse Trilogy," that teenagers were amazing people to make movies about because they get a pimple and they treat it like the world is really and actually ending.
So I got the braces, and I got some guilt about not keeping the teeth clean and immortal enough (of course they didn't say "immortal"; I did), and then the fittings for bands (those metal rings they used back in the 1980s, hopefully you never had to remember those crazy things) really hurt and they tried one that was too small, and then the gluing the little metal squares on, and then the (I think it was) 18 months or so of slow pulling, which really was what the wisdom-tooth-pressure reminded me of.
All of this, of course, was accompanied by tooth removal. I forget the exact why and wherefore of the non-consensual surgery; I think the story was that I had some teeth taken out for braces preparation and then needed some more taken out, and I was totally pissed off about that. My parents were not keen arguers, and when I said no, they answered with "Well you have to." Have to? Who says? What for?
And I realize now that they could never have seen any difference between basic adolescent orneriness and real material questions, but I wanted ACTUAL answers. SERIOUSLY. What WAS all of this for? Fixing an overbite, right. But did it REALLY interfere with my ability to eat? Not that I could see. Ok, well fashion and cosmetics, then; people judge you on how you look. "Well that's bullshit, I'm not doing it."
What I wanted them to say was, "We live in a world where appearances create opportunities, and first impressions, while shallow, are how this particular world works. We don't know how to fix that and it's so deep-set culturally that we can't change it right now. If you choose not to do this, you'll always be angry with other people for judging your appearance and you won't be able to change them, and we're afraid that you'll wind up permanently angry and unhappy and that would suck."
That would have at least made me pause and think for a while.
But instead they said, "This is how the cookie crumbles" and I believe I said something like, "I'm going to turn this freaking planet upside down if it takes every day of the rest of my life."
Dada, Surrealism, angry art cinema, Debord, psychedelics, Abject Art, climbing walls, ashtanga yoga, Buddhist non-ego, all of that. It's simplistic, of course, but look how keenly I've pursued a rhetoric of revolution, failingly politically and then individually, practically for/on myself, and now in a way, and most effectively, invisibly. But that's off-topic.
The non-consensual surgery was billed to me as a checkup. No gas, no unconsciousness. There was gas, but they said, to me in the chair, that this would just be to make things easier. I woke up from darkness, with a mouth full of bloody gauze. I was at the front counter before I realized thre was gauze in my mouth and didn't see blood until I was in the car.
I made my parents pay for that for MONTHS. Any mention of dentistry whatsoever, even in passing or on a TV show, and I'd be on my soapbox about lies and deception and blood and how evil and wrong their decision was. I ground that into them HARD.
And only now with great distance, and the re-confrontation with the dental *because of pain* do I see how it basically all had to fall out that way, because they were them and I was me and dentistry liked guilt and the world really looked, and still does to some people, like something that "has to be that way."
It's all emotions, that I inherited, that stayed as they were. There was really no trauma, or if there was, there wasn't a traumatized "me" who stayed permanent, immortal, unchanging. He's one of many. But this memory and that identity made it impossible to walk into a dentist's office "just for a cleaning" and have them look around and tell me they'd need to do some horrifying surgery.
So this is a weird gift: begin with surgery, get a cleaning in the process which is mild by comparison, and what's even better is that while they did find a lot of accumulated goo, they said my hygiene is quite good and that there need be no root surgeries and no crowns or other reconstructions.
Even though I have to have the lower two wisdom teeth taken out sometime in the next few weeks by an oral surgeon, which means sedation (and sedation always knocks me on my ass, except for the one time when I was a teenager when I woke up in mid-surgery and they didn't put me back down), this isn't "the same," and it's not a revisit to "the traumatic." It's just an event and some history.
And another life narrative falls apart.
Ok, you made the jump to our YOGA chapter! Well done, good on ya, Sheila.
Or words to that effect. Ok, sure, the medication's wearing off now.
So there are discussions, and have been for months, about how/if/when the Indianapolis ashtanga scene builds a morning practice room. Where? Who? How? Endless discussion about this.
I was added, by the owner of the studio where I teach, to a Facebook group called "317 yogis" and it's all of the yoga people who teach in 317, which is a big middling stripe of an area code right across Indiana. A lady shows up with a post saying, "I just did 200 hours and if you're into ashtanga, my pilates place might be doing some Mysore-style!"
Now, my first reaction to this was confusion with some fear in it. Oh crap, some north-end studio I've never been to is going to jump into the tricky waters of Mysore-style? Who, what, how long, which, what, whaaaa?
So I said hello and asked a bit about the program (Dallaghan's Thailand training, good stuff) and we've agreed to say hello and have chitchat sometime soon, and this friendliness-despite-suspicions-at-first has really depowered the fear. As the Sutras say somewhere, when you feel negative thing X, counter it with its positive version.
Mysore-style in town is all about enthusiasm; a somewhat unhinged enthusiasm which is dangerous in its lack of guidance and specifics, but we're trying simultaneously to tie it down and to let it flourish, which anyone who gardens can understand.
So I didn't use "my" program to dominate everything else on the block, and I'm glad I didn't, because Yoda's tree is strong with that kind of authoritarianism, and it's tempting to squash people rather than to set up a conversation.
A lot of fear in me, both hither and yon, is/has been about self-preservation. I'm not interested in saying it ALL is, because I'm not certain that's true. Preserving my "cool" such as it was, preserving honesty in my relations (such as it was), preserving my teeth as they were (overbite and all; not all self-preservation is wise or guided by right), preserving "my program" as it is. We could certainly add "preserving my relationship as it was" or "preserving my practice as it was."
But preservation is also done with formaldehyde in some cases.
And the past is alive, but not all of those lives are lives we need, and not all the time. To hold "I" together, to really try to make "a life" out of all of the events of "I," seems impossibly contradictory and complicated. Who would ever attempt such a thing. The "I"s all remain, and you can pick and choose. Maybe most importantly you can put them down. What better teacher of the impermanent than a blast from the past?