I went to our local Trader Joe’s yesterday, to pick up a few things. I was surprised to see how crowded it was. It took me almost 10 minutes just to get a parking spot, which usually I can just drive right into. Inside it was wall to wall people and you could just feel the subtle panic energy. Later that day I heard about lines of people wanting to get into food stores and the stores running out of items. Even Trader Joe’s had ran out of several things I had hoped to purchase. The fear is in. The panic is here. It seems overblown to me but it reminds me that for most of us, the facade that we all call our life has a very thin veneer, masking utter dread, bordering on survival. And, that we are pushed just a little too far, most of us would go into survival mode, in which we would do almost anything to protect and preserve what we think of as our life. Even your next door neighbor would kill you and your family if he or she thought that was the only way for his or her family to survive. This is just a fact of the human existence, or should I say, the ego existence, which most of us operate under 24-7. I think I am more concerned about people’s reaction to the coronavirus than the virus itself.
There are basically two kinds of fear. The first is what I might call real fear. This occurs when your physical being is being threatened. This would be a situation where your actual body or life is threatened by some physical presence or person. Like if you lose control of your car on a slippery road, or someone is aiming a gun at your head. The other kind of fear is psychological fear. This is essentially fear of an imagined or potential unwanted future. Psychological fear has no basis in the now. There is no actual threatening presence at this moment. And even though the coronavirus has the potential to cause us harm or inconvenience, it is mostly psychological fear that has us running to the market to stock up on toilet paper. Now, this does not mean that taking practical steps in the midst of a crisis is psychological fear. So, how do we know the difference? Just check in with yourself and see how you are feeling. Psychological fear is always accompanied by short quick breaths and a sense of unease in the heart area.
The thing about psychological fear is, that it motivates us to do something external to handle it, to make it go away. Most people’s initial response to it is, “what do I do about it?” There is a strong impulse to take action. But the key thing to know about psychological fear is that the remedy is not external at all. All external action will not reduce or eliminate the fear because the fear is based upon something that is not real to begin with. There is no ‘clear and present danger.’ Taking action to eliminate a fantasized fear does not eliminate the fear. The immediate fear of that particular thing may be handled and you feel a sense of relief but that fear will only be transferred into the next fearful imagined future. In other words, the actual fear itself has not been dealt with, and it will resurface, usually very quickly, into another form.
The current pandemic hits a lot of different potential psychological fears for us. It could affect your job, income and ability to sustain your family. It could just mess up your plans, whatever they were, for vacation, a wedding, etc. If it affects your income, that could be related to your self-image so that you feel your very identity threatened. People whose basic identity is threatened will do many bad things given certain situations. This pandemic is threatening everyone to some extent, even though the actual virus will not actually hurt or kill most people. The World Health Organization says that 80% of cases are mild and that young children seem mostly unaffected by it. So, the coronavirus could kill you, or someone you love but it is not likely. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that in last year’s flu season, the winter of 2018-2019, 32,400 people died of the flu and this winter’s flu is expected to top that number. Interesting, yes, that no one is talking about the flu even though it is quite likely that it will kill more people than the coronavirus this flu season as well. As of March 10th there were just over 4,000 deaths due to the coronavirus. This may help put things into perspective but even these facts will not stop people from being the victim of their imagined fears and taking action on that.
Psychological fear can only really be eliminated by facing it internally. We have to recognize it, feel it, and see it for what it is. A Zen master used to tell his students, “What, in this moment, is missing?” Not what is missing in some imagined future, but right now. Are we really being threatened right now, in this moment? I would say for most of us, the answer is no. But the imagination-driven ego will keep conjuring up scary scenarios to keep our heart racing. If we can stop doing the external remedies to make this fear go away, and turn our attention within, we can actually heal that fear internally. When that happens, we see the world differently and make much better decisions, ones that are wise, instead of foolish. Making sound decisions about preparing for potential problems is not a problem. It is only when our fears take hold of us and shape our decisions and actions. You can count on it that the majority of people you know and meet, including many among your family and friends, will freak out. My suggestion is to not be one of the many, but be the one person in your circle who faces their internal fears long enough to come back to a sane and peaceful way of being. After all, it is the state of our being that matters most, in all things.