Jonathan Foust

February 4, 2009

Fear is My Friend

Filed under: Dharma, Observations, Photography — jonathanfoust @ 11:51 am


The topic this week in the Monday and Thursday class is “Working with Fear.” I am not teaching this week but the topic has been on my mind recently.

I’ve always been prone to anxiety. As a child I worried about everything. At about age seven or eight I decided if I imagined the worst outcome for anything that frightened me then I would not be surprised when it happened. My parents would drive off to go play pinochle for the night. I would assume something terrible would happen and they were not coming back. When I would wake up the next morning and they were there, well, good for me. This time.

Fear and anxiety are all wrapped up with the desire to be in control.

When I moved down to Washington DC a few years ago my arrival corresponded with an article I read which stated there were a number of suitcase bombs that were unaccounted for in Russia and Chechnya and were already placed in US cities. I grew up on a farm and had always lived in the country – with regular access to wilderness.  When I moved to Bethesda and had my first experiences in DC traffic, I started to freak. What would happen in an emergency – surrounded by so many people?

I started doing research on safety and disaster preparedness. I got pretty sucked in. (The web can be a terrible thing when you start looking at doom and gloom scenarios.)

I found out is important to have:

  1. A personal bag
  2. A “get out of town bag’ and
  3. A home survival kit

I could not find suitable information that summarized everything so I wrote up my research which you can view here.

As much as I may have spent a bit too much time hyperventilating and indulging in worst case scenarios, I got a really good insight out of my hours of obsessive thinking. I began to discern what I had control over and what I did not.  I do have some control over my personal safety. I don’t have much control over what could happen externally.

That distinction has made a big difference in my life. While I still habitually go to fear and anxiety, something in my awareness is just a little more quick to wake up to the conditioning. I spend less time on the hamster wheel of circular, negative thinking.

And … My car is stocked with food, water and supplies in case I’m stuck in it for some reason. I do have a bag I can grab with supplies for a few days and our house is now stocked with enough to ensure we’ll stay warm, dry, fed and hydrated for a while.

I feel a lot happier than I did before. More relaxed.

Having sat with that fear, I have found a balance between being responsible and increasing my capacity to savor what’s right in front of me.

If you’d like to like to read a summary of my research with some links, click here.



  1. Good start for preparedness, Jonathan. Off hand, I think that the water estimate is low. Red Cross suggests a gallon per person per day of potable water, and another two for flushing, showering, etc. If one is sheltering in their home, they should fill up all bathtubs with water before disaster hits. Also, when in dire straits, water can be used from the hot water heater (let it settle if there is rust) and toilet tanks. A few other tips; ensure that you keep your vehicles with half a tank of gas; in your getaway kit, keep copies of all critical documents (insurance policies, deeds, titles, wills, etc); have two agreed upon meeting places for the family if separated (one close to home and another farther away if the area is evacuated); cash for the getaway kit (if power is out over a large area, credit cards are worthless). Don’t forget to take your cushion and a good Thich Nhat Hanh read to deal with fear and anxiety.

    Metta, Brother J

    Comment by John — February 5, 2009 @ 11:44 pm

    • Most excellent. I do think that fear serves on a number of levels. We’re pretty much the product of a fear-based species. If you rest in the jungle, you’re someone’s lunch! The key I think is to befriend the fear and learn what we can from it … to view it as an ally. It’s when I get tight around it when I stop breathing. Nice to know someone else is thinking of this disaster stuff! As they say, “prepare for the worst and hope for the best.’ much love ….

      Comment by jonathanfoust — February 7, 2009 @ 11:17 pm

  2. While disaster planning is really important, I want to go back to the central question of the post of how fear can be our friend.

    In a recent discussion, we talked about anatta (non-self), which can be a hard one to grasp. But, it is also at the very core, along with anicca (impermanence) and dukkha (suffering). For one that is facing death, as in stage 4 cancer, there is the theoretical understanding of anicca and anatta, which is challenging by itself. And then there is the practice with a daily realization that the end of their existence is close at hand. For many, the concept of non-self brings out both fear and rejection. Perhaps this goes to the central theme of your class, but can we use fear to be better prepared for what some may feel to be the ultimate disaster?

    Comment by John — February 6, 2009 @ 12:26 pm

  3. Hi Jonathan,
    This is a lovely post, thank you. It’s a relief for me to read that someone who leads meditations can be prone to anxiety since I am too and I have been using meditation the past few months to come to terms with my fears. It seems to me that some people are not really prone to anxiety. I know people who are preternaturally calm at least 95% of the time. One of them is deeply Christian, and I know her faith helps her and has increased over the years, but the other is not religious and does not meditate. What do you think about that? Are they stronger than anxious people like me? Or do they perhaps have other burdens to bear that do not involve anxiety? I’m using a pseudonym, but I have meditated with you before on Capitol Hill and I really appreciated your sessions.

    Comment by Rooster — February 7, 2009 @ 2:49 pm

    • I think we’re prone to any one of the five major hindrances. It’s either ill will, craving, worry, sloth or doubt. Worry has always been mine. I think the good news for us worriers (like all the hindrances) is that we can truly free ourselves by looking closely at the phenomena that arise and our relationship to it. I’m quite amazed how much more free I am of anxiety than ever before. I think the key has been honestly investigating it. Thanks for the kind words. I so appreciate sharing this journey with such wonderful like-minded people as you.

      Comment by jonathanfoust — February 7, 2009 @ 11:04 pm

  4. Hey Jonathan,
    I have a question for you. It’s not related to your post, but I really want to ask you. Lately I’ve had some people forego their commitments to me. I have a friend who won’t call me and normally isn’t willing to get together with me, so I’ve basically ended that friendship and feel disappointed. I know someone else who said she would help me with something and did not respond to my email about it. I’ve had issues like this for many years. People don’t keep their promise to you. It makes me feel betrayed, hurt and separate from others. How are we all connected when people behave like this? How do you handle people not following through?

    Comment by Rooster — February 9, 2009 @ 11:02 am

  5. Jonathan – Reading/thinking about “what we have control over” I was reminded of a short selection from the writings of the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus – I use this from time to time as a discussion source with groups in prison:

    From “The Manual”: Some things are in our power and control, while others aren’t. It is in our power to decide what we think about things, and to decide which things we are going to pursue. It is also in our power to decide what we like and don’t like. In a word, we control our own actions. Outside our power and control are all bodies in the world including even our own bodies, and our own property. Also, we have no control over our reputations, and no control over whether people listen to us or not. Again, in a word, what are not our own actions.

    The things which are in our power are by nature free. Those which are not in our power are weak, slavish, and belong to others. Remember then, if you start thinking that slavish things are free, or that what belongs to others belongs to you, you will feel trapped. You will blame both gods and men. But if you suppose that what really belongs to you does belong to you, and that what really belongs to another does belong to another, you will be free. No one will ever force you. No one can ever stop you. You won’t ever blame anyone for anything. You’ll do nothing against your own will. You will have no enemies, because no one will be able to hurt you.

    If you decide to pursue such great things, you must also decide not to be attracted by money, property, reputation, and all the other things which are outside your control. You must give up some of them completely. The others you must postpone for the time being.

    If you want to be free, to have no enemies, to do nothing against your will, and at the same time to rule and control others and be rich, you will surely fail. You can become free and happy only if you gain power and control over yourself.

    Comment by Mark — February 11, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

    • Very interesting, Mark. Thank you for passing this along. When we look at control, we also inevitably see into the nature of self. Emptiness. Compassion. The space in between. Blesings ….

      Comment by jonathanfoust — February 11, 2009 @ 10:57 pm

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