“Fearlessness is what love seeks,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her magnificent early work on love and how to live with fear. “Such fearlessness exists only in the complete calm that can no longer be shaken by events expected of the future… Hence the only valid tense is the present, the Now.”
This notion of presence as the antidote to fear and the crucible of love is as old as the human heart, as old as the consciousness that first felt the blade of anticipatory loss pressed against the exposed underbelly of the longing for connection. It is at the center of millennia-old Buddhist philosophy and comes alive afresh, in a splendidly practical way, in Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm (public library) by the great Vietnamese Buddhist teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, who continues to enrich, ennoble, and empower with his teachings well into his nineties.
In the general Buddhist style of befriending complexity through simplicity and with his particular gift for simple words strung into a rosary of immense wisdom radiating immense kindness, Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
We have a great, habitual fear inside ourselves. We’re afraid of many things — of our own death, of losing our loved ones, of change, of being alone. The practice of mindfulness helps us to touch nonfear. It’s only here and now that we can experience total relief, total happiness… In the practice of Buddhism, we see that all mental formations — including compassion, love, fear, sorrow, and despair — are organic in nature. We don’t need to be afraid of any of them, because transformation is always possible.
Such transformation is possible only through deliberate practice — none more challenging, or more rewarding, than the practice of transforming fear into love. In consonance with his teaching that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” he anchors this transmutation practice in four mantras “effective for watering the seeds of happiness in yourself and your beloved and for transforming fear, suffering, and loneliness.”
Unlike a prayer — which channels a hope at some imagined entity capable of interceding in favor of that hope and has only as a side benefit (though arguably its only real and robust benefit) the psychological self-clarification that comes from honing our hopes in language — a mantra is not addressed at anything or anyone external and is entirely devoted to distilling the object of hope to its clearest essence. This, in and of itself, transforms the hope into an intent, making it more actionable — but also saving it from the particular complacency against which Descartes admonished as he considered the vital relationship between fear and hope. A mantra is therefore not a form of magical thinking, for while there is a sense of magic to how such distillation seems to shift the situation by its very utterance, it is an entirely practical sort of magic, for a mantra simply clarifies, concentrates, and consecrates intent, and all meaningful transformation springs from purposeful, devoted intent.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
A mantra is a kind of magic formula that, once uttered, can entirely change a situation. It can change us, and it can change others. But this magic formula must be spoken in concentration, with body and mind focused as one. What you say in this state of being becomes a mantra.
Within this conceptual framework, he offers four mantras for transforming fear into love, beginning with “Mantra for Offering Your Presence.” A generation after Simone Weil insisted that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” he writes:
The most precious gift you can give to the one you love is your true presence. So the first mantra is very simple: “Dear one, I am here for you.”
Simple though this mantra might seem, he reminds us that actually cultivating the capacity for it — the capacity for presence, which is where our capacity for love resides — is intensely difficult against the tidal wave of demand and distraction that sweeps everyday life and sweeps us along with it, leaving us always on the brink of drowning, bereft of what Emerson celebrated as “the power to swell the moment from the resources of our own heart until it supersedes sun & moon & solar system in its expanding immensity.”
A century after Tolstoy insisted that “love is a present activity only,” Thich Nhat Hanh gently reminds us that the greatest resource of our own heart — our greatest source of power, our mightiest antidote to fear — is the quality of love we give through the quality of our presence:
When you love someone, the best thing you can offer that person is your presence. How can you love if you are not there? Come back to yourself, look into [their] eyes, and say, “Darling, you know something? I’m here for you.” You’re offering [them] your presence. You’re not preoccupied with the past or the future; you are there for your beloved. You must say this with your body and with your mind at the same time, and then you will see the transformation.
Such crystalline presence is the prerequisite for the next mantra — “Mantra for Recognizing Your Beloved”:
The second mantra is, “Darling, I know you are there, and I am so happy.”
To be there is the first step, and recognizing the presence of the other person is the second step. Because you are fully there, you recognize that the presence of your beloved is something very precious. You embrace your beloved with mindfulness, and he or she will bloom like a flower. To be loved means first of all to be recognized as existing.
In a sentiment of especial relevance and consolation in these disembodied times, he reminds us that these mantras can be performed across distance, across wires and cables and screens, not requiring the physical presence of the beloved — however they are articulated, they are at bottom meditations containing all four elements of true love as described by the Buddha: love, compassion, joy, and freedom.
While the third mantra, “Mantra for Relieving Suffering,” could be magnified and deepened by the atomic rewards of Thich Nhat Hanh’s “hugging meditation,” it too can be extended across the digital distance:
Even before you do anything to help, your wholehearted presence already brings some relief, because when we suffer, we have great need for presence of the person we love. If we are suffering and the person we love ignores us, we suffer more. So what you can do — right away — is to manifest your true presence to your beloved and say the mantra with all your mindfulness: “Dear one, I know you are suffering. That is why I am here for you.” And already your loved one will feel better.
Your presence is a miracle, your understanding of his or her pain is a miracle, and you are able to offer this aspect of your love immediately. Really try to be there, for yourself, for life, for the people you love. Recognize the presence of those who live in the same place as you, and try to be there when one of them is suffering, because your presence is so precious for this person.
The fourth and final mantra, “Mantra for Reaching Out to Ask for Help,” seems on the surface to be self-concerned, but is in fact the crucible of self-care from which all unselfish love and presence spring. It is also, Thich Nhat Hanh observes, the most difficult of the four, for it dwells in the place of our greatest vulnerability and at the same time pushes us to lean on our most crippling crutch:
This mantra is for when you are suffering and you believe that your beloved has caused you suffering. If someone else had done the same wrong to you, you would have suffered less. But this is the person you love the most, so you suffer deeply, and the last thing you feel like doing is to ask that person for help… So now it is your pride that is the obstacle to reconciliation and healing. According to the teaching of the Buddha, in true love there is no place for pride.
When you are suffering like this, you must go to the person you love and ask for his or her help. That is true love. Do not let pride keep you apart. You must overcome your pride. You must always go to him or her. That is what this mantra is for. Practice for yourself first, to bring about oneness of your body and mind before going to the other person to say the fourth mantra: “Dear one, I am suffering; please help.” This is very simple but very hard to do.
Complement this particular fragment of the wholly soul-salving Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm with Seneca on overcoming fear and Audre Lorde on turning fear into fire, then revisit the great Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön on transformation through difficult times.