Thoughts on the Relationship between Discomfort and Fear

To sit in meditation means to sit still and be with what arises—both physically and mentally. The idea, or one of them, is to resist the urge to move the body when discomfort arises. We’re always moving away from what is unpleasant toward what is pleasant. It’s an unconscious response that occurs all day, and all night, long. Shifting, fidgeting, scratching. Meditation is a time to resist the natural instincts to move away from the unpleasant and notice instead how and when it arises and our reactions to it. These are the moments when insights arise.

When I sit long enough, I’m sometimes able to notice a threshold where discomfort gives rise to pain. I noticed it the other day with the pain in my right hip. When I had stuck with it long enough I had two simultaneous responses to the increasing pain. My responses were subtle but vivid. They were panic and fear. Panic said I had get out of this situation fast. Fear said this pain will last forever. Both were untrue, of course. This was my mind talking. I know how my mind can talk a good story. I also know how some of those stories are not at all rooted in fact. They are unreal and groundless.

Often, when I experience a moment of insight, it feels so profound and big. Yet moments later I can’t remember what it was. Not so with the insight that came to me after noting this panic and fear. It occurred to me, as I sat there examining the mounting pain and the sensations that surrounded it, that behind all discomfort there is a wisp of fear.

What are your thoughts on the origins of fear?

6 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Relationship between Discomfort and Fear”

  1. What an interesting story, Daniel. Of course I’ve heard the explanation for the purpose of pain—survival. But I had no idea of congenital analgesia.

    I thought Big Fish was a fine movie, one of the few I’ve watched twice. Once with Kathryn, the other time with Robin. Robin thought it was ridiculous.

  2. I have seen Big Fish. That was a fun way of looking at the situation.

    I recently found out that there are people who have no physiological response to pain. In extreme cases, they cannot feel it at all. Their experiences make it obvious that fear is the whole purpose of pain. This is a quote from an article about some children: “One day they climbed on a ledge, put their arms around each other and dived head first on the floor. They couldn’t stop laughing. Another time, Paul held Vicky’s head and rammed it straight through a six-foot sheet of glass….That’s how they play.”
    http://www.thefactsofpainlesspeople.com/The_children_who_feel_no_pain.html

  3. Very true. Well said. Our greatest insights can often simply be these basic insights into our minds.

    Fear is useful — unless it controls you and does not serve you.
    Avoidance of pain is the same — fear serves avoidance. But pain can be useful (though not often). Ah, no easy answers!

    Well written.

  4. @Daniel:Your story reminds me of the movie Big Fish. Have you seen it? As a boy, the main character looks into the eye of a witch and sees how he’s going to die. He then leads a life of adventure without any fear of death.

    In your example and this one, there is a level of certainty that allows the characters to behave the way they do. In real life, though, everything is uncertain. All by itself, uncertainty is stressful.

    As far as tolerating any amount of pain, even if your were certain of a positive outcome, I’m not sure it’s physically possible over time. Eventually the body would succumb to shock, exhaustion, and death. So perhaps a deeper question is whether the mind could overcome the physiological response to the pain.

    @TWF: My theory is that fear, real or imagined and however subtle, is at the root of every negative emotion. As you’ve observed, the mind is able see both sides of the problem. But it’s a skill that must be cultivated, don’t you think?

  5. That’s an excellent observation! I haven’t really thought too much on the origin of fear, but I can see a lot of merit in your argument. Even the less tangible fears, like some people have of meeting new people, could be drawing from the discomfort of uncertainty. For some, that uncertainty can be too much discomfort to handle, and will result in panic.

    By the way, I have found myself in that same type of situation as you describe here, where my logical mind handled the discomfort quite well, but another part of my mind gets increasingly anxious as the pain continued. It’s like part of your mind is screaming GET ME OUT OF HERE NOW! while the other part is saying What are you all excited about? Sure it hurts, but it’s not the worst pain you’ve felt, and it’s not going to cause any permanent damage.

    It’s really interesting to be able to be both the observer and the observed.

  6. I once read a science-fiction story involving a civilization that had figured out how to quickly regrow any body part. They were renowned as soldiers because they seemed to feel no pain. It wasn’t true though. They did feel pain, but they knew they could always safely ignore it. Since then, I’ve wondered how much of that is true: Could you tolerate any amount of pain if it never caused any fear? It may be possible, but I suspect that you couldn’t remove the emotional part of pain or discomfort without a lifetime of reassurance that it was only temporary.

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