“One fear to rule them all, one fear to find them, one fear to bring them all and in the black box bind them.”

– Tolkien (1954)

 

Why do we fear the unknown? What is fear of the unknown?

Fear without a cause: pure, existential fear, frustrating freedom without rhyme or reason. A fear in which the familiar suddenly appears strange, even our own face in the mirror.

This, in essence, is not fear of the content of life, although some have called it the fear of being alive. It is the fear of direct, unadulterated perception through the physical organs of consciousness, of which the brain is the headquarters.

Driven by an aversion to fear, we’ve produced volumes of psychological texts. We’ve categorized fears as learned and inherited; as the result of trauma and the consequence of biology. We’ve divided them into collective, individual, epigenetic and inevitable. We’ve studied them as physical, emotional and mental. We’ve countered fear with behavioural strategy, with reframing the story and with exposure therapy. We’ve noticed how fear underlies anxiety (fear of the fear) and how anxiety underlies neuroticism and many other psychopathologies. Yet we haven’t come that far in gaining true insight into this existential fear – the one that needs no excuse or mission – the one, causeless fear that just is – (because we are).

In traditional psychology, cause-less fear is seen as the enemy of functioning: it’s weakness, impinging on our attainment of that amorphous, materialistic condition of ‘normal’. In spiritual circles, it’s often worse. Existential fear is often seen as the opposite of love, and the testy barrier to the surrender needed to reach enlightenment. If you can’t let go of fear, it’s said, you’ll never arrive. But how do we let go of a fear that we’re too terrified to touch?

In 2016, out of the plethora of psychological literature on fear, a simple white feather drifted to the academic ground zero. Prof. Nicolas Carleton of the University of Regina in Canada proposed that there could be one meta-fear, a fear that rules them all. Fear of the Unknown: One fear to rule them all? is a groundbreaking paper published in 2016 in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders.[1] In the paper, Carleton defines the Fear of the Unknown as: “an individual’s propensity to experience fear caused by the perceived absence of information at any level of consciousness or point of processing.”

It’s easy to follow the reasoning, the fear of death, the fear of pain, the fear of the sexual ‘other’, the fear of insanity, the fear of rejection and the fear of illness can all be distilled to the fear of the unknown. Even Metathesiophobia (the fear of change) – so often cited in spiritual circles as the fundamental fear – is anchored in the Fear of unknown outcomes. The ‘absence of data’ to mentally process leaves a void in which anything is possible, including our worst nightmares.

So here it is: the Fear of the Unknown (the paper uses the acronym ‘FOTU’). This is where normative psychological approaches to the global epidemic of fear are ripening for a Nondual awakening. What’s needed could be a paradigm shift in the way we conceptualize the role of the mind and its relation to the unknown. It could be that FOTU could at some stage emerge not as our worst nightmare, but as an opportunity for psychological freedom.

The FOTU error is bred deep in the bone through our collective conditioning around the nature of mind. The Fear of the Unknown could be seen as a direct effect of the architecture of our belief systems. These beliefs discredit the felt sense and prioritize the thinking (so-called rational) mind over emotion. A phenomena as arbitrary and helpless as a thought pattern is given sovereignty over experience, and of course, it constantly fails to keep life (and experience) under control. This added emotion of failure generates more fear of exposure. The long-term biological and psychological consequences of denial, repression and suppression testify to the inability of the mind to resist new experience and to control feelings from the top down, and the potentially negative consequences to mental and physical health.

“Each of us has an image of what we think we are or what we should be, and that image, that picture, entirely prevents us from seeing ourselves as we actually are.”

J. KrishnamurtI 

Misconception extends to the belief that consciousness is an inconsequential effect of thought.This is not science, but assumption. On experiential inquiry, consciousness can be lived as primary not only to thought forms, but to all forms. It’s here before, during and after every thought. It’s expansive and untethered. We can even be conscious of consciousness.

When you take the known out of consciousness, you don’t get the unknown, you are blessed with the experience of conscious expansion, called by many ‘spiritual awakening’. Within this conscious awakening, there is the opportunity for total reset of attitudes towards ourselves, or beliefs about ‘life’. This evolutionary reset is possible because consciousness is here irrespective of the localized phenomena of thought, or the presence or absence of thinking.

This is not highfalutin fantasy, consciousness is ubiquitous to every moment of living experience: it’s continuous. Yet it can deliver a freshness in every moment – the pure seeing of beginner’s mind – which without education can be experienced as depersonalized, strange, alienating and fearful. When existence comes to life, so do any old fears around the possibility of existential annihilation. We’re wired that way.

All the way down to the cellular level of stress responses we have been conditioned to distrust the unknown. Yet when we gaze into the unknown, we are opening the portal of awe, wonder, freedom and direct, living intimacy with all that is here to be experienced, whether it be ugly, bad, or very, very good.

References:

[1] Journal of Anxiety Disorders; Volume 41, June 2016, Pages 5-21; Fear of the unknown: One fear to rule them all? R. Nicholas Carleton