“Fear is the mind-killer.”

Finding Everyday Inspiration, Day 5 — a quote

“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.”
~ Paul Atreides / Frank Herbert, Dune (1965)

~ Dune is one of my favorite books. And I think this quote, spoken by the young hero early in the storyline when facing a singular physical & mental ordeal, captures part of what makes the cerebral sci-fi epic so damn good. Aside from being extraordinarily imaginative yet readable, featuring fully realized worlds and empires, Frank Herbert imbues his characters with philosophical depth. The fear is the mind-killer quote means a lot to me. Over the years, after reading the book in my youth and then re-reading it relatively recently, it has become something of a mantra to me. It presents a concept of a practical and spiritual nature that I consider in my own life philosophy. I will try to relate what I mean.


“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”

There is this dualism in fear. It can create or destroy, inspire us to feats of the extraordinary, or kill the workings of the mind itself. If only we had some perspective on our fears. What is fear? Why do we experience it? How do we overcome it?

Fear is certainly logical. It’s in our natures, a feature of our instincts for survival. Such physical reactions to avoid danger, mitigate risks, and escape all manner of psychological and physical harms are ingrained within us for good reason. Animals are biologically bound to protect themselves, to live to carry their gene pools on to the next generation. Fear can be considered a driving force in evolution — how much of what we see in the world, in all living things conforming to the rigors of natural selection — is a product of fear’s work?

However, when speaking about fear in this way, as a force for evolutionary change, we aren’t really talking about fear — we are talking about an organism’s reaction to it. This is the crux of the thing, succumbing to our fear versus overcoming it. An animal immobilized by fear is destroyed, i.e. little-death = total obliteration. But what of the modern human being, who has traded in duking it out against big cats in the jungle to the interplanetary geopolitical storms of galactic empire-building? The role of fear becomes one of motivation and calculation, a factor in our decision-making. A defiance or capitulation to fear then contributes to the mental make-up of those rational actors making up the games to power in this new environment. Our sentience — our awareness of our state of being, of our thoughts, our development of language — is the thing, alongside intelligence, which separates us from our ancestors and from other animals. And yet, fear is an equalizer. It connects us to all other life and grounds us to our primordial past; our spaceships simply new caves. The complexity of our machinations has compounded, but the endgame is still the same — total obliteration.

So what of the modern human who concedes mental territory to his fears? Bowing down before small ones, even only a little, and resulting changes begin to take effect. To succumb to fears of the non-lethal, seemingly low stakes variety begins a process, one of regression into deeper avenues of the psyche. “I’m not going.” “That could never work.” “I’m not ready.” “I don’t want to get hurt, again.” Small decisions, simple decisions, even in widely different arenas of our lives — made in repetition, cyclically — begin to permeate aspects of our behavior we can find it hard to perceive. I think many people’s lives, in an existential sense, are collectively the result of fears initiated or uninitiated unto. Socially, professionally, emotionally — our identities are wrapped up within a fear of failure, fear of chasing a dream, fear of being alone, fear of being forgotten. There are as many fears as faces, each unique to an individual’s circumstances. The common thread of these ‘little-deaths’ being the potential for them to bring ‘total obliteration,’ whether we grasp that or not.

“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.”

We do understand that fear can be overcome. A celebration of this feat is momentous, it’s embedded into our culture through triumph and story. The remedy is quite simple: face it. Easier said than done. Fears give us over to a psychosis, without our consent. It can become anathema to even acknowledge our fears, let alone dive into the fire.

But what does it mean to ‘face it,’ truly? What if facing our fear simply meant a sincere attempt at understanding it? Such an endeavor would involve introspection, conversation, writing or speaking your truths about what your fears may be, and doing it aloud. How much do we keep locked up inside our inner consciousness, in darkness, unrevealed to those important to us? And yet, what is there in this world that cannot be further illuminated, understood, and appreciated under the sunlight? Fear is inherent, it is ancient, and it is in our DNA; it may not be as simple as a description of a problem to be dispensed of a solution, as in a calculation. But I posit, that our fears are made up of components that can be expressed. And they should be expressed; we should be facing up with them.

Just as Paul Atreides in Dune, we should be taking the Gom Jabbar.

If we cannot see what is happening, how our fear may be controlling us to ends we do not desire, then how can we hope to counter such slips into oblivion? To be able to observe our fears as objectively as possible, understand them and unpack their components — to see from whence such fear has been spawned in our mindspace — would mean a measure of enlightenment. To comprehend our fears would be to begin to dispel them.

Within each of our routines and behaviors, what is the driving force? Try to step back and inspect them. Determine what is real about your own fears and their role in your life.

~ Why do I talk to this person in this way?

~ What am I avoiding here?

~ Why don’t I want to go?

~ Why have I chosen to be here?

~ Why does this feel incomplete?

~ What am I running away from?

~ Who am I trying to be?

~ Why do this?

Turning the inner eye to the path of the fear — you can see it. If the fear is faced / comprehended, the reality of what it truly is and what it means for the person facing it is acknowledged. Upon this peak of understanding, then the adverse conditions generated by it can be followed through to their source and dealt with as the illusions, i.e. the ‘nothing,’ that they are.

What we are left with is the instinctive and biological powers fear can afford. The fear of failure courses through your veins and spurs you to do everything you can to succeed. The fear of putting yourself out there, to be vulnerable, open to criticism, open to love — maintains for you the supremely vital importance of this eventual action. In effect, you need to experience this, especially because it is hard.

Upon the shores of this enlightenment, fears experienced past, present, and future can be perceived simply as catalysts for the changes necessary for self-growth. The fact that such an objective perspective is currently out of reach does not make the sentiment an untruth, nor does it mean it isn’t worth striving for. ~

“Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” ~

fear is the mind killer