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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

On Desire, Fear and the Activation of Our Character Defects

In Step Four, we see how the word "fear" occurs again and again in the third column of our resentments list. Then, again, on the last page of the Step Seven essay in The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, we read: "The chief activator of our defects of character has been self-centered fear - primarily fear that we would lose something we already possessed or would fail to get something we demanded."

But why are our lives shot through with fear? If we re-examine the fourth column of our Step Four inventory - what our part was in the situations we are still resentful about - we can ask why we have these fears, and the answer will almost inevitably come back that our basic interests or desires are threatened.

In the examples given in the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous. fear is bracketed three times beside 'self-esteem' and once beside 'security.' This prompts the question: Do we not have overbearing desires to be seen and treated in a certain fashion? Do we not willfully demand that other people see us and treat us in the manner we demand?

Step Six in The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions suggests that we do.
"Since most of us are born with an abundance of natural desires," we read, "it isn't strange that we often let these far exceed their intended purpose. When they drive us blindly, or we willfully demand that they supply us with more satisfactions or pleasures that are possible or due to us, that is the point at which we depart from the degree of perfection that God wishes for us here on earth. That is the measure of our character defects, or, if you wish, our sins."*
Thus, while fear is "the chief activator" of our character defects, it is our desire-fuelled demands upon life and other people that is "the measure of our character defects," that create the mental space for our fear-activated character defects to become operative.

If we do not have a desire about how we wish to be seen by others and stake our self-esteem on it, for example, then we can have no fear that we will not be perceived in that specific light. The same is true for the myriad of other desires about the amount of money we want, the personal and intimate relationships we crave, and the social positions we want to hold. This, of course, is the reason why all of the world's great wisdom and religious traditions identify our desires as the root of our human suffering.

Thus, in the Gospel of Luke, we read:
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!"

"And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?
If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest?"

"Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith!"

"And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you."
[Luke 12:22-31]
Similarly, according to the Buddha, the cause of our suffereing is our identification with the mind, and just so long as we live in the mind, then the desires of the mind will coninue, and with each desire further suffering. Desire, according to the Buddha, is the root cause suffering, and so he taught the path of witnessing the desires and, thus, going beyond the mind.

To this effect, the Buddha taught:
If you are not awakened, desire grows in you like a vine in the forest. Like a monkey in the forest, you jump from tree to tree, never finding the fruit - from life to life, never finding peace. If you are filled with desire, your sorrows swell like the grass after the rain. But if you subdue desire, your sorrows shall fall from you like drops of water from a lotus flower.
And, on fear, the Buddha notes: "The whole secret of existence is to have no fear. Never fear what will become of you, depend on no one. Only the moment you reject all help are you freed."

If we fearlessly face the proposition that God is either everything or nothing (see page 53 of the 'Big Book'), and we answer in the affirmative, then we can begin to realize that there is no other desire that need be filled. And if there are no desires, there is no fear that our desires will not be fulfilled, and therefore no activation of our defects of character through the action of our egoic self-consciousness.

While fear is, thus, the "chief activator" of our defects of character, without our self-centered desires, there can be no fear.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
* Many people shy away from the words "sin" or "sins." The term originates from a Greek archery term for when an archer misses his target, presumably to the left (as the Greeks called the right hand 'dexterous' and the left hand 'sinister'). Thus, the word "sin" is originally a metaphor for when our thoughts miss their mark. Understanding this, helped me to stay open-minded about the concept of "sin" (particularly regarding the 'seven deadly sins' of pride, greed, anger, lust, gluttony envy and sloth, as discussed in Step Seven in The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions), as - like alcoholic addiction - "sin" implies a physical and mental shortfall, rather than a moral failing per se.


  1. Great insights, thank you for sharing. I am going through Step 6 now, for the first time. I find it amazing how deeply fear griped me. I contrast my life now, with my life a year ago... NIGHT and DAY.

  2. trying to imagine myself being of 'no mind' or being in a 'neutral' state of mind so to speak..Egoless...its hard to imagine what that would be like continuously...Thanks for this post..