Fearlessness is a negative quality. Negative, not in the sense of “bad” or “undesirable”, but in the sense of subtractive. Fearlessness is the state after you remove fear. Take away fear, and you have fearlessness. Fearlessness is something separate from qualities normally understood, such as courage and bravery, which are qualities that are earned and built-up incrementally over time through one’s actions. Fearlessness is not something you earn, build up, or work for. We’ve all had times when we experienced fearlessness: engrossed in a movie, looking out at a sunset, working in one’s garden, etc. We found ourselves without fear while in the present moment, giving full attention to what was in front of us. Fearlessness is not a matter of personal pride, worth, or esteem. Fearlessness is available to everyone —not only for the brave, confident, strong, successful, popular, etc.— because none of those things are prerequisites to experience fearlessness. Even if you often struggle with fears, fearlessness is still available to you. You also do not need to wait for some external situation or circumstance to change to enter into the state of fearlessness.
Science now supports that a brain in meditation shows certain shifts in its activity and blood flow. A brain during meditation shows marked increased blood flow to the left prefrontal cortex, and decreased blood flow to the parietal lobe, and accordingly, meditators report experiences such as diminished sense of space-time, decreased attachment to ego, as well as an overall increased holistic feeling, well-being, and emotional stability. Meditation has been shown to strengthen the left prefrontal cortex, allowing it to more effectively control amygdala activity, the main fear-processing center of the brain. An overactive amygdala has been associated with conditions such as PTSD and anxiety disorders: the left prefrontal cortex is unable to keep the amygdala activity under control. A number of therapeutic protocols specifically aim to strengthen the left prefrontal cortex so that it can better keep amygdala activity in check. Their activity shows an inverse relationship: strengthen amygdala activity and you weaken prefrontal cortex activity, and vice versa. So how does meditation strengthen the left prefrontal cortex? In general, you strengthen different areas of the brain by increasing activities for the areas in question. For example, you practice a new motor skill, and you will reinforce neural connections and activity in the areas of your brain that control that activity, thus “strengthening” those areas. That’s the general premise of neuroplasticity. So if you want to make your left prefrontal cortex stronger, you increase USE of the left prefrontal cortex and it appears that meditation effectively activates the left prefrontal cortex.
But what is meditation? To me, meditation is a cultivation of non-judgmental present-moment awareness. Evolutionarily speaking, it makes sense that a brain in present-moment awareness would make one more objectively aware of one’s surroundings. Obviously, it would not be advantageous to also be flooded with thoughts of what one would prefer than what is, as well as becoming incapacitated by fear. It would have been imperative that a present-moment aware state would have allowed access to all your faculties, unclouded by regrets or wishful thinking, to objectively assess the situation at hand, in order to give you the best chance for survival. My guess is that primitive man had to exercise this capacity of the brain for hours at a time throughout the day, as survival depended on the ability to be fully in the present-moment. They did not have to set aside time to practice present-moment awareness. They did not have to make use of desire, or discipline to make use of this brain capacity. Life demanded it. That is also why it seems that using the mind with present-moment awareness is not a naturally appealing or attractive state. In fact, I would guess that a strong preference for this activity did not evolve in humans, as so much of its use was demanded by life regardless of one’s preference. Primitive humans, when presented with opportunity, would have preferred to use their other brain capacities (i.e., planning for the future, learning from the past, etc.), as life did not provide as much occasions to use those other capacities. That is why I think the brain developed a negative bias AWAY from being in a state of present-moment awareness. Since life demanded the robust use of its present-moment awareness way of being, man did not evolve to want to use it when not necessary, which for the case of modern humans is generally most of the time. This is a similar line of reasoning to how historically, scarcity of sweets developed in humans a strong attraction to them, and abundance of necessary movements for survival developed in humans a strong attraction to inactivity whenever opportunities for inactivity was made available. Significant amounts of present-moment awareness demands of life, kept the left prefrontal cortex vital, active, and well-connected, effectively keeping anxiety, worry and fear in check. It appears that the brain is just not evolved or “wired” to simultaneously process and activate BOTH present-moment awareness area(s) of the brain, while also activating the fear processing area(s) of the brain.
I wonder if meditation was just man’s attempt at keeping this present-moment awareness brain capacity from atrophy, when life began to demand less and less of this capacity. When not as imperative for one’s immediate survival, the brain naturally turns to its other capacities such as dwelling on the future or the past, since their historically relative scarcities of opportunities to exercise those functions as a consequence developed a strong bias TOWARD using those capacities, whenever presented with (historically rarer) opportunities to do so. I do not see something particularly special about present-moment awareness per se. I do not see it as something objectively desirable or undesirable. To me, it’s just one of the brain’s capacities, necessary to support a balanced brain function resulting in a more resilient adaptable brain better able to deal with unpredictable external changes. There is value in thinking about the future, as well as the past, as there is value in nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. But when civilized life no longer demands enough of this brain capacity to balance out the brain’s other functional abilities (that the brain already has a positive bias toward), the brain becomes imbalanced at how it processes external stimuli, as evidenced by emotional manifestations such as increased fears, depressions, and anxieties from non-immediate non-life-threatening triggers that you often find in modern life. I do not need to convince you that dwelling too much on the past or the future often results in negative emotional outcomes. If you have not cultivated significant amounts of time with your brain in a state of present-
moment awareness (which may be the case if your life did not demand otherwise), then it would be difficult (given its aforementioned negative bias) to cultivate this function from a mostly intellectual approach. The brain does not appear to have evolved this capacity from a mostly intellectual approach. That is why I find using bodily sensations helpful in bringing your mind to the present. For example, cold is a pretty jarring sensation in comparison to most sensations you may encounter in your (mostly) comfortable days. The cold aids in bringing your attention to the present effectively without distractions. Also, I find the act of increased respiration also aids in bringing your attention to the present, with the noticeably increased sensation of the musculatures involved during the deeper breaths, as well as its accompanying increased bodily sensations resulting during the breathing practice.
So you do not need to be a brave or courageous person to experience fearlessness. As stated, fearlessness is not something you accomplish, or something to feel proud about. It is something different than courage or bravery as normally understood. Fearlessness is just the natural state of the brain in a state of nonjudgmental present-moment awareness. And because modern life usually no longer demands enough of its use to balance out the brain’s other functions such as worrying about the future (i.e., financial security), their potential benefits which turn detrimental when allowed to dominate or go on too long unchecked, it would be to our benefit to cultivate more nonjudgmental present-moment awareness throughout our days, not necessarily for some “spiritual” motive, but from a balanced brain function motive. I believe the present-moment capacity of the brain increased our ancestors’ chances for survival. Though likely not as necessary for immediate survival today, I believe it still has the potential to develop in you a more resilient state of mind; a mind better able to deal with uncertainties, obstacles, and setbacks that life at times throws your way.
Hong Noe is a WHM Instructor based out of Los Angeles.