Primal Fear

So often in my practice – and here I mean both my psychotherapy practice and the practice of my own growth – I see the enormously powerful presence of fear. Fundamental as it may be, the fear is rarely obvious, buried as it is under the more apparent feelings and states of mind that grow out of it. In fact in my experience it often takes quite a bit of work (psychotherapeutic or contemplative or meditative or what have you) to recognize the fear beneath so many of our unhealthy orientations to the world: beneath avarice lies fear of deprivation; beneath exploitative dominance lies fear of humiliation; beneath aggression lies fear of injury. Often in therapy I see how uncovering these fears – and learning a new relationship to them – opens up the possibility of finding more effective ways of navigating the difficult aspects of life.

This fear is often complex and rooted in various aspects of our specific lives and experiences. And yet I believe that much of the fear that shapes our engagement with the world is organismic, an element of the biological instinct system (or what Jung referred to as ‘the collective unconscious’), and it is this more primitive experience of fear that I want very briefly to touch on today.

We are vulnerable. Our hold on life is fragile. We evolved with the highly adaptive capacity to feel primal fear as an appropriate response to the fact that we have always been surrounded by great and very real threats to our survival. This fear is of course adaptive because it calls us to effective life-sustaining action; it is our biological inheritance, naturally selected through all the many thousands of generations of human and non-human ancestors who successfully survived to reproductive ages. We are here because, in part, our forebearers felt appropriately afraid.

For most of us in this present time and place, our survival on any given day is far more assured than it has ever been. And yet we carry around the collective and largely unconscious legacy of a great primal fear. I believe that in our civilized time and privileged place this fear is present and yet so often useless – in fact, typically wholly unused; for so many of us it is unattached to anything real, any truly life-sustaining action – the building of shelter, the acquisition of food – and is thus free-floating and quite maladaptive in its expression.

Depression and anxiety are the great emotional/psychological afflictions of our particular time and place. In my work with so many people who’ve had depression or anxiety as their “primary diagnosis,” I’ve seen how so often beneath the obvious presentation lies a sense of self marked by a deeply held underlying (and often unconscious) primal fear, often exacerbated by life experiences that contribute to a feeling of unsafety. The work of therapy is in part about uncovering the presence and genesis of our fear in all its forms, recognizing its impact and expression, and cultivating a more effective relationship to the fact of one’s vulnerability.