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Fear is the mind-killer

Mindfulness advice from a Sci-Fi novel

Quote from Frank Herbert in Dune, addressing how to face fear with mindfulness

As a long-time science fiction fan, I love the classic 1965 novel “Dune” by Frank Herbert.

I read the book and watched the movie when I was a teenager. However, it was only in my adult years, perhaps sensitized by my personal struggles with fear, that I truly noticed fear as one of the book’s central themes.

The protagonist of the story uses the following mantra - which has since become a frequently cited passage from the book - to control his fear response:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.

Only I will remain.

At a first glance, this reads like a cool-sounding passage from a great story. But it actually contains valuable psychological advice, emphasizing the importance of facing our fear in a mindful way.

One of the big discoveries of neuroscience in the past decade is that avoiding negative emotions usually makes them stronger. It’s a fact that avoiding the things we’re afraid of will make us even more afraid of those same things. The only way to overcome our fear is to face it.

But how do we go about this? It’s easy to misinterpret the invitation to face our fear as a call to battle. To “conquer” or “fight” our fear, as countless self-help articles and motivational quotes suggest. But this will have the same effect as avoiding your fear. Resistance is just another form of avoidance.

The key is permitting fear to pass over us and through us. Mindfulness was not yet popular in the West in 1965, but it’s exactly what Herbert describes here; we don’t have to identify with our fear, we are separate from it. Through mindfulness, we can create the necessary distance that enables us to observe our fear and let it pass by. And when we manage to do that and “turn the inner eye to see its path” (another fitting analogy for mindfulness) we realize that the fear has gone and that we remain.

Psychological advice for the 21st century from a book written in 1965? Sounds like science-fiction 😀

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