How to Transform Fear

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

First, don’t confuse fearlessness with stupidity

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? 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 binding. 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.

Second, remember it’s all right to be 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 kind of wisdom or healthy mechanism of protection. That can lead to problems.

But another kind of vulnerability is being totally open, with 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 your teachers are not going to do anything to harm you. 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 do something 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, so that you know that being vulnerable is not going to cause any damage, so to speak.

Third, connect 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. It’s not just that simple, you know. People are not just good or bad, one or the other––it’s quite complicated, right? You have to take into account the whole conditioning of each person.

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. You know? 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 is the true nature of our heart. It’s there, it’s 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 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.


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.