Working with Fear: Carolyn Rose Gimian responds to your questions

Carolyn has wrapped up this online Q&A, so while she wont be responding to further questions and comments, readers can still click through to see the dialogue that’s taken place, and to continue interacting with each other.

“When you are frightened by something, you have to relate with fear, explore why you are frightened and develop some sense of conviction. You can actually look at fear. Then fear ceases to be the dominant situation that is going to defeat you. Fear can be conquered. You can be free from fear, if you realize that fear is not the ogre. You can step on fear, and therefore you can attain what is known as fearlessness. But that requires that, when you see fear, you smile.”
–Chogyam Trungpa, from Conquering Fear: Awakening the True Heart of Bravery

What is fear? Where does fear come from? All throughout life, and especially in trying times, asking questions like these can help us to face what we’re afraid of, and even to conquer it. This is the subject of our March ’09 issue, and it’s one that everyone can benefit from.

So we’ve created a special Question-and-Answer feature intended to address these and other questions you might have about smiling in the face of fear.

Carolyn Rose Gimian is a Buddhist practitioner who has been working with fear and fearlessness for a long time, and is the editor of Conquering Fear, the book quoted above. Here on Shambhala SunSpace, she has been taking your questions and comments about the topic of fear, in the hopes of creating a helpful dialogue that we all can learn from. (Carolyn is also the moderator of the Ocean of Dharma Quotes of the Week email list, which sends selected wisdom and inspiration by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Click here to join.)

You’ll find her responses to reader’s questions and comments below.

Want to join in? It’s simple! Just leave your question here as a comment. Carolyn will continue responding to your questions and comments for several days.


  1. Merkie
    Posted January 30, 2009 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    I have survived abuse from my childhood & young adult years & have been very grateful for finding the Dharma to assist me in overcoming trauma. I do very well as long as I stay away from my family. Recently, they have been calling me, not in a conciliatory way but rather as if nothing had ever happened & I felt an overwhelming sense of panic…no, terror. I sat with it but I can not bring myself to resume any relationship with them. I understand this is just ego protection but I feel I must protect myself from further pain & then feel bad because I can’t be there for my sister as she wants & obviously haven’t made as much progress as I thought. Anyway, now I am stuck with a very restless energy & wondered how much we have to take from others before we get to say enough? Thank you for your time. This is a problem of 53 years duration & I would love to let it go.

  2. the psycho therapist
    Posted February 4, 2009 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    Something I have gleaned over the years and used in my personal and professional life is asking this question when encountering any form of “resistance” (awareness of contraction): In this moment, what am I afraid of?

    I have found this single-pointed query yields an abundance of insight as long as I remain open to receiving whatever arises as a result of the query.

    My question to you: what are your considerations (thoughts, feelings, awareness, knowing) regarding the perspective if something is not experienced as love (expansion, inclusion), it is fear-based (contraction, exclusion) in nature?

    I tend to perceive fear as important a teacher as love, not something to cast out and “be done with it”. I value and honor its place in the larger river of beingness. Shadow as much a part of the whole as Light.

    Interested in your insights.

    Thank you.

  3. Sylvia
    Posted February 4, 2009 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    I can get to fearlessness when I’m feeling strong, but when things look grim — like a big company I deal with has gone bankrupt–I don’t know what to do. My equanimity flies out the door.

    I’d like to know how to work with my mind in the toughest times, like loss, grief, times of real poverty.


  4. Posted February 8, 2009 at 2:54 am | Permalink

    Fear is my life. Fear that I’ll lose something I have or fear that I’ll run into something I don’t want. My ultimate fear is the knowledge that I’m going to die. I’ve coined the phrase terminal anxiety. Being new to Buddhism, I have have become very aware of what you mentioned in your article as groundlessness. My fear is based on this yuckie dukka feeling of not having something firm to stand on. That there is something but then again there is nothing. Could you talk some more on groundlessness and how it relates to fear.

  5. teo
    Posted February 8, 2009 at 4:36 am | Permalink

    It;s very nice reading ,thinking about dharma especially those related to “fear & fearlessness”,but on practice on real situation need you to be brave you jump into old conditioning patterns ,so please how we could use these teachings more efficiently ,

  6. Carolyn Rose Gimian
    Posted February 9, 2009 at 11:34 am | Permalink


    Dear Merkie,

    First of all, I should make it clear that I’m not a psycho-therapist, so I can’t offer you professional advice. If you want or need counseling or therapy to help resolve this issue, you should seek it.
    What I’m offering is my experience and my own questions, in hopes that both of us and others may benefit from the conversation. The comment from “the psycho therapist” below seems in fact to be responding to you.

    I didn’t suffer abuse, which I think may have its own shape and logics beyond what I can address here or perhaps even understand. However, I have been in situations in my life where a person in a position of authority was behaving in a way that I needed to get away from. At times I had to remove myself from communication with someone for quite a long time, and I might never want to work closely with them or be close friends again. Sometimes, the communication re-arises on a new ground, a fresh ground. But if not, I think it’s ok to admit to myself that I’m not going to be close to that person, at least not in the foreseeable future. (Things do change unexpectedly sometimes.)

    One thing I’ve learned is that, as long as I’m preoccupied with the relationship and the problems, I’m still subject to the person in some way, whether I see them or stay away from them. To put it positively, I still have something to learn from the situation and the “stuckness.” When it’s really over, then in fact, seeing that person ceases to trigger the old patterns and reactions. This can take a long time, perhaps lifetimes in some cases.

    As for your question about when you get to say, “enough,” I think only you can answer that. One question I try to ask myself in situations that evoke fear, especially where I feel that I can’t handle much more, is: What is the next step I can take? The next step may be more important than the final solution.

    The Nectar of Manjushri’s Speech is a commentary by Kunzang Pelden on Shantidevas’ Bodhicaryavatara, itself a powerful text – and one of the best known now in the West — about the Mahayana path and the activity of a bodhisattva. Kunzang Pelden discusses what vows or commitments practitioners at different stages on the path should take. This decision is based, the author suggests, partially on someone’s ability, or what they can handle. In other words, a very great bodhisattva or awakened being might be able to give their life easily for someone else. Someone just starting on the path can’t handle that kind of sacrifice, in most situations, so they shouldn’t make that promise. The point seemed to be that it is better not to ask more of yourself than you can actually give, because breaking a vow is worse than not taking it at all.

    Another way of putting this might be: We need to be realistic and kind to ourselves, and this kindness to oneself is the basis for going further on the path. Eventually, we may face more and take on more. It doesn’t always feel to me that one has a choice – certain situations come up again and again choicelessly. Do you agree?

  7. Carolyn Rose Gimian
    Posted February 9, 2009 at 11:35 am | Permalink


    Dear Sylvia,

    Thanks for sharing this. I wonder if other readers have some insights to share into how they have worked with the really tough stuff in life. Anyone?

    We would probably all agree that it’s a lot easier to feel that you have equanimity when nothing is actually challenging it! But when things truly fall apart, that’s the true opportunity to practice – or to learn something. Perhaps that sounds trite but I find there is a great opportunity to experience spaciousness when things get tough. A big gap arises, which sometimes feels very sad and empty but real. Can we celebrate that? A sense of humor seems key.

    In difficult times, my own advice to myself is to stay with what is happening and what arises. I find the sitting practice of meditation to be a great aide in this, as long as I understand that practice is not about escaping the difficulty but rather going further into it. But in truly difficult times, it’s not just formal practice but moment to moment practice in everyday life that helps. I try to remember that solutions are not as important as staying with whatever is happening and whatever I am feeling.

  8. Carolyn Rose Gimian
    Posted February 9, 2009 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    IN RESPONSE TO the psycho therapist:

    Thanks so much for your insight. Another question I ask myself is:

    Who is afraid?

    Regarding your question about fear and love: Some people are more “fear” based; others more “love” based, meaning: some people thrive on learning from difficult situations. Some people learn more from acceptance and kindness extended to them. In some respects, love and fear, or attraction and repulsion, seem to be two sides of one coin. Neither experience lasts forever, and one is almost sure to have to work with both. Certainly, making friends with fear is important. I often wonder what fear is. It seems that it can be many things. Perhaps that is the same as your question, “What am I afraid of?”

  9. Carolyn Rose Gimian
    Posted February 9, 2009 at 11:36 am | Permalink


    Dear Patty,

    Fearlessness begins by acknowledging fear, which you seem to be doing all the time. Then, the next question might be: What lies under the fear? If you touch the fear or dive into it, what emotion or feeling do you find?

    What you describe as fear could actually be a sense of being very aware, in the sense that you seem to be describing a state of mind in which you are constantly on guard. If you relax that slightly, it could be a more simple sense of awareness, without so much of the guarded quality.

    Allowing ourselves to experience groundlessness in ordinary, everyday life is preparation for working with groundlessness and loss in extreme or heightened situations. So one might say: Congratulations for discovering groundlessness now. It is being kind to oneself to acknowledge the lack of ground when you have the opportunity to practice with that and become familiar with it. When you are in an extreme crisis, including the crisis of death, it’s said to be extremely fortunate if you have already practiced with the experience of loss.

    I hope this may be helpful. Again, it would be great to hear from other readers with their thoughts and experiences.

  10. Carolyn Rose Gimian
    Posted February 9, 2009 at 11:37 am | Permalink


    Dear Teo,

    This is an excellent point you are making. Yes, we definitely do revert to our habitual patterns in real situations of fear. That is why a mindfulness discipline is extremely helpful. I don’t know if it’s exactly “efficient.” But in order to see through habitual patterns, we need to acknowledge them, which occurs during the practice of meditation. Is this what you’re thinking about? Or something else?

  11. kris
    Posted February 10, 2009 at 1:11 am | Permalink

    I have a question about Buddhist practice and the pursuit of higher achievement. I am a novice to buddhist practice. I’m having trouble reconciling the buddhist beliefs on contentment and the need to pursue dreams. For example, what if Obama had committed to being the best community organizer that he could be. What a loss. Is there a way to explain the desire to achieve professional success consistently with a belief in contentment? I came across this on line conversation in my search for further material on Buddhist beliefs and success. I hope its not to far off topic. I know that the discussion is about fear. I am a subscriber to the mag. So, I thought I might find useful resources on the Sun website.

    Thanks for your consideration,

  12. Posted February 10, 2009 at 1:51 am | Permalink

    Carolyn thank you for your insightful response. How to relax will be good for me to work with but I am not sure how to go about that exactly. Having a guarded nature is so right on. I had not ever heard it that way. I’ve been told 100 gazillion times to lighten up…but you can guess where that puts me quickly. Being aware of this guardedness will be a great starting place.

    Blessings to you

  13. Carolyn Rose Gimian
    Posted February 10, 2009 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Dear Kris,
    Thanks for writing. Your question is not that far off topic at all. I think President Obama is actually a great example of someone who embodies one of the best ideals of Buddhism: he is dedicating his life to helping others. Being contented with oneself is not the same as giving up on your dreams. In fact, I would say the opposite. If you accept yourself, then you also embrace yourself — and acknowledge your dreams. In terms of fear and fearlessness, I would say that you are not afraid to have a dream. But you might also be content with your failures. Chogyam Trungpa said that success and failure are saying the same thing. They are both teaching you something about yourself and your world. You learn from both. I hope you find this helpful. Thanks for writing, Carolyn

  14. kris
    Posted February 10, 2009 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    Very helpful!

  15. Kim
    Posted February 11, 2009 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    I have a question about conquering fear from the past and not letting these things always linger and cause pain. My father left when I was a child, my first husband left and therefore I very much tend to cling to people. I am afraid they will leave me, need their attention to feel important. How do I learn to be brave enough to leave people or relationships in my past and move forward? Even with relationships where I know it is best to cut ties entirely and move ahead, I can’t seem to. I am afraid to be alone again and without them. These are not healthy relationships, yet I cling and am afraid to be wtihout them.

    Thank you for listening.

  16. Carolyn Rose Gimian
    Posted February 11, 2009 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    Dear Kim,

    To begin with, I should repeat that I’m not a psychotherapist, and if you want to work on these issues in therapy or counselling, you should do so!

    Although you have had a pretty extreme dose of what might be called abandonment, you are working with issues that are there for many of us. Loneliness and the fear of aloneness is something that comes up for almost everyone, at some time in their life and practice.

    You can’t actually do anything about the past but only with the past as it manifests in the present.

    Is there a space in which being alone is something that you see as healthy and positive? One of the things I’ve found through meditation practice is that there are spaces and times of aloneness that I actually cherish. This may help to loosen the fears of loss and the bonds of attachment altogether.

    Still, it’s difficult to change one’s patterns. I think being kind to oneself and taking one step at a time is important.

    I hope this may be helpful. Thanks for sharing this.


  17. teo
    Posted February 12, 2009 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    dear Carolyn
    thank you for your guidance , but may i still ask you to tell me or show me more practical techniques to improve my practice of meditation to conquering fear.
    with best regards

  18. Carolyn Rose Gimian
    Posted February 13, 2009 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Dear Teo,
    I’m happy to try to be helpful. Can you describe in your own words what you are doing when you meditate? Also, what are you doing now that is working with fear? This would really be helpful to me in responding. Thanks, Carolyn

  19. teo
    Posted February 15, 2009 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    Dear Carolyn
    T.hank you for your kindness,trying to help me solve my problems with ”fearfulness”,The way you dealing with us,to help us solving our problems.
    Actually in real situation when i’m dealing with a condition which may have bad or good consequences,during meditation fearful outcome( thinking)coming to my mind ,sometimes trembling my body (panic sensation),the situation that I wan to escape from that ,in this way cannot dealing with fear effectively,but when the real world is calm ,no important decision should be taking ,then I’m at ease with every thing although fast thinking come to my mind but most of the time it cannot overwhelmed me,but when the situation is stormy ,& it needs my participation,it is not so easy for me.panic attack comes to me& depression follows,although they pass by & i can rebuild my self but I think with every attack of panic i become weaker & weaker so I try to escape risky situation,even escape contemplating about them,because panic may come ,that’s my story.
    please accept my apology because of my bad english.

  20. Carolyn Rose Gimian
    Posted February 26, 2009 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Dear Teo, I’m sorry to have taken so long to reply to you. I hope you’re still checking this space. I had to go out of town and didn’t have access to a computer for about 10 days. I think that if you have repeated panic attacks, you may want to work with a counselor or therapist on this. In terms of working with your fear in the space of meditation and contemplation, I would suggest that you consider a couple of things: 1)Your energy is not necessarily a finite thing that will be depleted by experiencing fear or panic. In some ways, the experience of fear is the arising of a lot of energy, which could be invigorating.
    2)In a very safe space, like the meditation hall, you could actually invite things/thoughts that provoke fear. There are several ways to work with the fear that arises: one is just to look at it, acknowledge it and let it go. Another is to ask yourself, “What am I really afraid of?” Also, if you have instruction in sending and taking, you can breathe in the fear and breathe out spaciousness and relief. Doing that, you stand ego and fear on their head. You take in what you fear, and give out spaciousness to your environment. Let me know if any of this is helpful. Everyone experiences the panic you describe, by the way. It’s just that some people are more aware of the experience.

  21. teo
    Posted March 1, 2009 at 4:14 am | Permalink

    Dear Carolyn
    It was great to see your comment on my askings,hopefully the situation now is calm,& I think I can experience difficulties better,but i dare not to think about the fearful probabilities that may come,(because if I think about them ,I’m afide of they are really happen to me),then the ego tell me “you will be failed surly ,you are trembling as before”.,So I refuse thinking about fearful outcomes ,in order not to happen in reality(magical thinking).Trying to accept myself & situation even my fears as they are ,I am trying.
    Please do not deprive us from your precious advices !
    yours truly

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  1. [...] Read that article here, and join the conversation that Carolyn’s now hosting on the topic here on SunSpace. This entry was created by Molly De Shong, posted on February 18, 2009 at 12:55 am. [...]

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