Fear and anxiety is suffering. And suffering, as the Buddha taught in the Four Noble Truths, is caused by craving. If one looks no further, one would say that craving comes first and causes fear and anxiety.
But the Buddha’s teaching on the structure of conditionality, on dependent arising, states that “where there is no feeling [pleasure, pain, fear, anxiety], there is no craving” and beyond that, the precondition that lies at the base of feeling is name and form, which we would call “labels.” (See my blog post, “Going through Life with Blinders - The Obstruction of Labels.”)
And so we find that fear and anxiety is both the cause of as well as the result of cravings. And that all these forms of suffering are a direct result of the labels that we, which is to say our thinking minds, place on things and situations based on our learned experience.
For example, let’s look at the craving for sex, for sensual experience. (Yes, I know that sex is a natural biological function, but our craving for sex, as opposed to having a skillful desire for sex based on equanimity, is another matter altogether.) When our craving for sex is not fulfilled, we not only feel frustration, we often feel fear and anxiety. Why do we feel fear and anxiety? It’s because fear and anxiety is behind our craving for sex.
And what is the cause of this fear and anxiety? It’s because we have been taught by our culture that sex is essential to our self-image as a man or a woman. And we have been taught that without sexual prowess or talent, we will not able able to have a successful relationship with a spouse or partner, and without such a relationship we will be alone in the world, unloved. These are the labels that we apply to the sexual experience. They boil down to words of success or failure.
And taking it one step further, why is success or failure so critical to us in this and virtually all areas of our life? This is the lesson that we learn from our culture, our peers, and typically our family. If we succeed we are valued, admired, perhaps even loved; if we fail we are nothing, invisible at best, bad, unloved, despised, or pitied at worst ... and it’s our fault.
What this learned experience has done, almost from the moment of birth, is to make us insecure. Most of us never grew up experiencing unconditional love. And it is that core feeling of insecurity that drives all the labels through which we view ourselves and which cause our fear and anxiety, which in turn cause our craving to be other than we are, to have more than we have, or if we have achieved what we desire to maintain or increase that achievement. And if that craving is not fulfilled, and it never can be fulfilled by its very nature, we experience fear and anxiety, as well as frustration.
Now, while all of our suffering has as its root cause the labels that we place on things and situations based on our learned experience, not all abels cause fear and anxiety. For example, the labels that we place on weather conditions certainly cause us frustration and can make us depressed (think of endless gray days in the winter) but they usually do not cause fear and anxiety because they are not based on fear and anxiety or on our insecurity. They are merely a result of our learned experience. The weather does not reflect on our self-worth.
So what to do about our fears and anxieties, our insecurity, our frustrations? We cannot banish these feelings from ourselves because they are part of our ego, our thinking mind. Even if we surrender our ego to our true Buddha nature and turn our will and our life over to the care of our true Buddha nature, our ego remains part of us.
This is true not just for the unenlightened but for enlightened ones as well. Even the Buddha stated that “a Perfect One’s feelings of pleasure, pain, and equanimity are known to him; his perceptions are known to him; his thoughts are known to him.” “As they arise, they are known to him, known to him as they are present, and known to him as they subside.” The Buddha had the awareness not to be ensnared by his feelings, perceptions, and thoughts. or the temptations placed before him by Mara.
So too, even for those of us who are not enlightened (which includes most practicing Buddhists, let alone the rest of humanity), if we learn to be aware through meditation of our thoughts as they arise, we have the ability to choose not to follow where those thoughts lead but instead to follow the guidance of our true Buddha nature, aware of the intrinsic emptiness of all our feelings, perceptions, and thoughts (indeed, all five skandhas), and view ourselves and the world around us free of the intervention of thought. (See my blog post, “Freeing Yourself from Fear” and my advice post “Consumed by Fear.”)
And with that, as the Heart Sutra teaches, all suffering and doubt cease.
Postscript: I have now from within realized that fear and all skandhas are just a product of the mind and so their power has all but disappeared. See my post, "Proof of the Nature of Mind - Fear, Ego, and Buddha Mind,"