How to Transform Fear

Although it may sound contradictory, we can actually be vulnerable and fearless at the same time.

Of course, it is important that we don’t confuse fearlessness with stupidity. Have you seen that show, America’s Funniest Home Videos? Some of them are not funny. They’re painful to watch, when somebody is getting badly hurt. It’s not funny at all, it’s painful. And that pain, you can easily see, is caused by a lack of wise fear. It’s good to have a fear that prevents you from jumping from the roof, right?

It’s pretty rational and logical not to jump off the roof. That kind of fear is good. You don’t need to transcend that fear. And you don’t need to cultivate a sense of fearlessness based on stupidity or a lack of awareness. You may feel that you have this sense of fearlessness, but jumping from the roof is not fearlessness, right? It is stupidity. We must see that clearly.

Fear is not completely useless, it’s not something we need to get rid of. Fear is not something that only brings you pain. Actually, some fear brings you happiness, doesn’t it? Fear of killing someone brings you happiness. Fear of robbing banks brings you freedom––if you didn’t have this fear, you could get locked up.

So fear is not something altogether problematic. Fear doesn’t only bring us suffering, heartache and pain all the time. It’s not like that. So first and foremost, we need to understand what fear actually is.

Being Vulnerable

Why are we afraid to be vulnerable? I think there are two kinds of vulnerability. One kind is when we are vulnerable without any wisdom or healthy mechanism of protection. That can lead to problems.

But another kind of vulnerability is being totally open, with a sense of safety there. I was put in this kind of situation with my teachers many times. That’s naturally a part of what happens in our Asian dharma studies in the Vajrayana tradition with our teachers, and in the Zen tradition as well.

So I was put in this vulnerable situation where I also didn’t have anything to fear. It was safe there, because our teachers were not going to do anything to harm us. That was a great blessing. I learned and absorbed so much from being vulnerable in that environment. For example, now I can ask stupid questions and learn something, or I can try something that maybe other people wouldn’t do.

When you are vulnerable with a sense of protection or wisdom, then there’s something backing up your vulnerability. There’s always something you can rely on. In that case you know that being vulnerable is not going to cause any damage, so to speak.

Connecting with the Soft Spot

The moment when we really experience our heart, this softness and gentleness, is kind of a vulnerable state. That’s why many times we don’t want to connect. We don’t want to be vulnerable, we want to be strong.

I watched a program about this juvenile detention center. It’s really a sad situation. These things are very good to watch for the purpose of generating some kind of compassion and love, however. It also helps us to work with our concepts of good and bad. Because people are not just good or bad, one or the other––it’s quite complicated. When we try to understand someone else, their feelings and their choices, it’s important to take into account their social and emotional conditioning.

So I was watching this show and they were interviewing these kids in juvenile detention. There was this one young kid who had a gang tattoo. And they asked him, Are you a member of a gang? And he said, “Yes, I am.” And this boy was saying he’s really soft inside, and he has so much fear. He was a really nice, gentle kid. But he said that outside he has to appear strong and that’s why he’s always shut down, like a no-feeling kind of guy. Tough-looking. And he said that now he’s done that so many times that he kind of feels that way, but he’s not. He has so much fear inside.

When I saw that it reminded me how we often do the same thing in a different way. Love and kindness are the true nature of our heart. Our heart is gentle and soft, and it’s a very vulnerable spot. That’s why we’re reluctant to identify with this element of our being. We’re afraid to open up fully and completely.

We don’t want people to look at us and feel our vulnerability, so we even try to hide it from ourselves sometimes. We can do this so much that we end up shielding ourselves from our own loving kindness. So the teaching is to be brave, to be heroic, in order to feel and connect with this soft heart of ours. We must connect with this vulnerable spot in order to transform our fear.

Courage to Be Soft-hearted: An Exercise

To get to know what holds us back from being vulnerable and open, we can do this check-in with ourselves.

1. Think of a time when fear kept you from asking a question or trying something new. Pick a situation where the worst outcome would likely have been some feeling of embarrassment.

2. Imagine yourself taking that risk, even though you feel some fear. Vividly imagine yourself in this situation. What is that like?

3. Now just breathe and relax for a few moments.

How did you feel when you were vulnerable for a bit and then relaxed

in a new experience?


Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche taught on these aspects of transforming fear during an interview with Dr. Dan Gottlieb in New Jersey in 2016, and in a public program in Seattle in 2017.