Fear is the Mind-Killer: A Sci-Fi Novel Teaches Us How to Conquer Fear
Not everyone is familiar with Frank Herbert’s Sci-Fi masterpiece Dune, but we all know fear.
We know fear because we instinctually create it to protect ourselves from harm. Sometimes it is absolutely necessary, especially in emergencies. Other times it can keep us from living our best lives.
It’s like a disease. It spreads from our minds and manifests in our bodies in the form of anxiety or stress. Then it multiplies. It can become chronic and affect our vital organs, such as the kidneys. It can even be contagious.
Some common fears:
Fear of rejection.
Fear of failure.
Fear of snakes. Heights. Public speaking. Humiliation. Death…
Which brings me to one of the many reasons why I love Dune.
It offers an antidote to the thing that all animals have in common: Fear.
Within the Dune universe, an ancient order of women, known as the Bene Gesserit, are concerned not with what makes us animals, but with what makes us human. They spend their lives mastering themselves and becoming experts in fields useful to their advancement in and of society.
Early in their training, they learn the Litany Against Fear, a necessary and powerful tool for combating it. It follows:
“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.”
Memorize this. It can come in handy.
While the Bene Gesserit have faults of their own, we can learn a valuable lesson from them:
That we can master ourselves is ultimately what distinguishes us as humans.
We don’t have to be slaves to our primal instincts. We can make them our b***. If we’re experiencing pain, we can tell our minds to ignore it (see the Gom Jabbar test of humanity). And if we are experiencing fear, we can eradicate it or transmute it for our own purposes.
Once we master our minds, we become free to explore the depths of human capability.
Because everything originates in the mind.
If we think it, it shall come to be.
So, let’s take a look at a few lines from the Litany Against Fear…
“Fear is the mind-killer.”
The second line of the LAF is perhaps the most quoted of the litany and of the whole series. People who have not read Dune have likely heard these words in some form somewhere. It has crossed over into the collective unconscious. Bravo Frank Herbert for that success.
I have even seen fear is the mind-killer tattooed on celebrities, or at least, a celebrity.
While I do believe this line expresses a fundamental truth (that fear can crush the power of the mind to advance humanity toward its full potential), I don’t think it is the most important takeaway of the litany.
The important lesson comes in middle of the LAF:
“I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.”
This is key, because it tells us how to fight our fears. We face them head on and watch how our body reacts, then we ride it out until there’s nothing left but us.
I more or less just explained the rest of the litany, except for the inner eye, which is a bit esoteric. If you’re not familiar with the inner eye, I highly suggest you look into it. Pun intended.
Of course, there’s so much more to the litany. I’m sure die-hard Dune fans have further insights, and I welcome them.
On a basic level, the litany works. I’ve tried it.
First, I tried identifying my fears, no matter how small (it can be good to start small).
For example, when I started a new job, it was the same week of the quarterly office happy hour. I hardly knew anyone yet because I was still training.
The thought of attending the happy hour put knots in my chest and stomach, and my instinct was not to go. I came up with excuses, such as, ‘There will be more happy hours, I’ll go to the next one when I’m more comfortable, I’m broke,’ etc.
But then I realized the reason I didn’t want to go is because I was shy and awkward. I was afraid, and the thought of going gave me anxiety. Then I double-realized… I do this all the time. I avoid social situations because it might be awkward for me.
I decided to face my fear and go to the happy hour.
It was still very awkward, as no one there knew who I was.
On the plus side, I did end up befriending someone who is still my friend.
Regardless of the level of awkwardness, I decided after that day to thrust myself into uncomfortable situations.
Because I want to live fearlessly.
If I’m afraid of starting something new — because I fear I’m too old, or too young, or not smart or talented enough — I’ll do it anyway.
Because I want to be free.
Of course, from time to time, I fall into dark patterns where I forget to face my fears. Don’t we all? That’s usually when it’s time to check in with myself (like now, as I write this blog) and re-evaluate my priorities.
It might even be time to revisit the books. If I start now, they’ll be fresh in my mind by the time Denis Villeneuve releases his new Dune movies.