Fear and Dread

‘Why do I always meditate expecting that fear and terror to come?

Why don’t I get rid of that fear and dread just as it comes, while remaining just as I am?’ –MN4

The fourth effort is the effort to preserve, which is described several ways:

…very clearly and enthusiastically:

And what, mendicants, is the effort to preserve?

It’s when you generate enthusiasm, try, make an effort, exert the mind, and strive so that skillful qualities that have arisen remain, are not lost, but increase, mature, and are fulfilled by development.

…and also much more starkly:

And what, mendicants, is the effort to preserve?

It’s when a mendicant preserves a meditation subject that’s a fine foundation of immersion: the perception of a skeleton, a worm-infested corpse, a livid corpse, a split open corpse, or a bloated corpse.

What various ways have you all found useful to practice the effort to preserve?


Just to clarify, do you mean the objects of preservation, or techniques for inspiring the mind to persevere?

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I am puzzled about you putting fear and dread and the effort to preserve together as you have in your OP. Superficially it appears that you are seeking to hang onto terror. :thinking:

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Fear and dread are suffering that arises when identity view is threatened. Conventionally, we fear and dread the loss of health, youth and life. Their loss is realized on the charnel grounds. Charnel grounds aren’t pretty modern graveyards or even modern Varanasi by the Ganges. The Buddha describes a charnel ground as:

It’s filthy, stinking, frightening, a gathering place for savage monsters, and a weeping place for many people. –AN5.249

Therefore, the effort to preserve has as its recommended object the charnel ground. And we are directed to persevere, to maintain skillful behavior in the face of that object of meditation.

MN4 doesn’t mention the charnel ground, but the Buddha does say that:

‘Remote lodgings in the wilderness and the forest are challenging. It’s hard to maintain seclusion, and hard to find joy in it.

I used to backpack and loved the seclusion of the wilderness. Yet in that joy of wilderness, I also found fear and dread. I never went alone, fearing the dangers of solitary travel or living. I feared to be in need of help without recourse.

On the surface, that caution seemed reasonable until I started reading the suttas and then I realized that something deeper was in play:

‘There are ascetics and brahmins with unpurified conduct of body, speech, and mind who frequent remote lodgings in the wilderness and the forest. Those ascetics and brahmins summon unskillful fear and dread because of these defects in their conduct.

And what I learned was that fear and dread have an unethical foundation. I learned that identity view will always lead to fear and dread, to suffering.

So I ask about the effort to preserve, the effort to persevere. Conventionally, one preserves identity view and perseveres in that delusion. However, with right view and the help of a corpse or two or three or four or five we would practice the effort to preserve.

The Buddha gave the above example as an effort to perserve. The other three of the four efforts are to restrain, give up and develop. The first three are clearly open to daily practice. Yet it is the fourth that has somehow seemed more elusive in the shiny modern materialistic world of endless consumption. Immersed in the new, we turn so readily away from death and decay.

Ajahn Chah used to practice in the charnel grounds to deal with fear and dread. I wonder what the rest of us do with that odd fourth effort to preserve.



Possibly only for those who have reached a certain level of equanimity already. And remember that charnel grounds were common sites in olden days and weren’t as shocking as they are for us now.

I went through a period of experiencing fear of meditation some years ago. The way out of that proved (on the receipt of wise advice) to use metta and karuna to help me let go of the fear. So what I invited in and work to preserve are wholesome qualities that displace the frightening ones. (Lucky this is the Watercooler, as I don’t have any sutta references to hand.)


… or do you make a distinction between ‘preserving states of mind indefinitely’ and ‘keeping one’s mediative attention on the chosen object for the chosen duration’?

Possibly you meant just the latter while I was thinking of the former.


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I think we need to know what each meditation is used for, and how it works in view of the Four Noble Truths. Craving, are the target of skeleton and cemetery meditations. To repetitively do this meditation is to sandpaper the cravings away at an emotional level (citta vipallasa).

However kāma sañnā or sensual perception can arise spontaneously. Therefore like the monk who saw a skeleton’s teeth when a woman smiled at him, the person who’s always mindful can keep the asubha sanna the ‘foulness, of the body perception’. I find that at the beginning it must be intentionally kept ‘alive’ but later it subconsciously pops up, and if it doesn’t, it time for a asubha meditation again.

he said to Ven. Sariputta, “Friend Sariputta, what is the cause, what is the reason, why some beings do not become totally unbound in the present life?”

"There’s the case, friend Ananda, where beings do not discern, as it actually is present, that ‘This perception has a share in decline’; ‘This perception has a share in stability’; ‘This perception has a share in distinction’; ‘This perception has a share in penetration.’ [1] This is the cause, this is the reason, why some beings do not become totally unbound in the present life."Nibbana Sutta: Unbinding

The perception of the foul can direct the mind to nibbana:

"Monks, these nine perceptions, when developed & pursued, are of great fruit, of great benefit. They gain a footing in the deathless and have the deathless as their final end. Which nine?

"The perception of unattractiveness (of the body), the perception of death, the perception of the foulness in food, the perception of no-delight in any world, the perception of inconstancy, the perception of stress in inconstancy, the perception of not-self in stress, the perception of abandoning, Sañña Sutta: Perception

The perception itself isn’t a defilement. Therefore they shouldn’t be totally unpleasant, but a big dollop of the truth lying underneath superficial appearances.


Ahhhhhhhhhh. Thanks for that perspective. I had not made the connection here with the four immeasurables. The immeasurables wash away identity view and therefore fear and dread. With love, compassion, rejoicing and equanimity, even the skeletons of the charnel grounds dance and laugh in the winds of change.

Notably, the fourth immeasurable is…equanimity. What better way to observe the charnel grounds?


Actually, neither.

Before I started studying DN33, I would have thought the effort to preserve was as obvious as “keep meditating and don’t slack off”. But the effort to preserve isn’t that obvious. Reading the reference to five corpses was quite startling. Are the five corpses standing in for the impermanence of the five senses?

  • skeleton (sight: the very icon of :skull: death)
  • worm-infested corpse (sound: yes, I can hear the worms in my worm bin as they slip and slurp through their meal)
  • livid corpse (smell: decomposition odors are heightened as lividness manifests)
  • split-open corpse (taste: we break apart our food, but ewwww)
  • bloated corpse (touch: the opposite of the taught firmness of youth)

I’ve been listening to this little passage regularly for months and months and months and it is still not so simple! Just today I started following the ramifications of the five corpses.

They are indeed the same teeth. :skull:

And thanks for the reference to AN4.179. Here I see the four efforts mirrored in:

“Reverend Ānanda, it’s because some sentient beings don’t really understand which perceptions make things worse, which keep things steady, which lead to distinction, and which lead to penetration.

  • worse -> restrain distractions
  • steady -> give up bad qualities
  • distinction -> develop skillful qualities
  • penetration -> preserve (knowing impermanence)

So this also explains how the effort to preserve evolves with penetrating insight and wisdom. Truly a “big dollop of truth”. :smile:


Ah! Ok, so I think I’m understanding now where you’re coming from.

In addition to the above, I only feel I must also point out that the fourth Right Effort is more broadly the effort to preserve whatever wholesome states of mind have arisen. So if, for example, you’re a mostly generous person, you should treasure and safeguard that quality, even when others may question it.

Just as we tend to “look away” from death, it can also be very challenging for people to look at their good qualities objectively. It somehow feels narcissistic or proud, but the Buddha encouraged us to recall our own generosity: both as a way of preserving it and as a way of “leading upwards


But, to narrow in specifically on the recollections of death and frightful things which you mention here, there are many techniques still usable today. I can’t tell you what situations might trigger your fear and dread, but perhaps I can share a few examples from my own life:


When I was a child, I remember being gripped all night with a terror. I realized that I would die. Life isn’t a game, and death isn’t some abstract puzzle. I realized that, whatever I thought about death, I was, surely, going to experience it myself.

Many times in the years and decades since that night, I have occasionally, when in an existential mood, retraced that line of inquiry. Leading my mind back to that abyss again and again, I slowly became familiar with the territory. I began to witness how my life, my relationships, and philosophy affected the landscape around that uncomfortable truth.


Some time after taking on the eight precepts and becoming “homeless”, I spent most of a day and night in a cemetery in NYC.

It was a beautiful and peaceful respite from the business of the city, which I could still hear a few hundred yards away, but couldn’t see due to the cloister of chapels and walls surrounding the graveyard. As the hours ticked by, my mind settled and I felt how strangely beautiful it was to have nowhere to go and nothing to do.

And then it rained.

It was a cold evening, but not dangerously cold, so I decided to simply keep at meditating.

The animal part of my brain was indignant at being denied the opportunity to seek shelter, but my determination was strong. “These corpses don’t mind the rain. Why do you?” I asked my body.

That single question reverberated for a long time. I knew, intellectually, it wasn’t dangerous. It was simply cold and not even that cold. And yet it was deeply disturbing to be alone and wet and cold and scared.

“Because I don’t want to die” came the bare, honest reply.

Compassion welled up inside me and I held that, that is to say, myself… “I know… I know…”


One day, a few months in as an anagarika at my current monastery (in Thailand), I decided to blow off some steam and go for a hike. I walked around the mountain, to a back area I’d only been to once before and found some beautiful granite. I quickly eye-balled it as about a 5-7 or 5-8: easily doable without equipment.

At the top, I was rewarded with a spectacular view and a surprise: a couple abandoned monastic buildings. How odd! So these were the “?” labeled buildings on the monastery map!

I was in the middle of rummaging through some stacks of moldy books (looking for any that might be worth saving), when I heard someone behind me. “What you doing?!” an old Thai monk bellowed.

I nearly shat myself.

“Kao toad kap!” I said with wide eyes as I lept up, the only Thai I knew. As soon as I saw the fire in this unknown monk’s eyes I simply bolted. All that pursued me, though, were a string of angry words in a mix of Thai and English.

I ran down through the jungle (finding the normal path down) and just focused on what was the right thing to do next.

Back at the main temple, I told the whole story and confessed my trespassing to the senior monk in charge and expressed my willingness to accept whatever punishment he felt due. He listened and eventually simply shook his head, instructing me not to go poking around again — a condition I readily agreed to before bowing out and back to my hut.

The next day, another monk present for that discussion pulled me aside with a serious look. “Alex! Yesterday, when you were confessing, how were you not scared?"

I blinked. “Scared of what?”


And there it is. That stark fear.


One of the things that I do routinely is a variety of death contemplations. Every time I witness a situation that can result in death, I take it further and contemplate going through it myself.
For example, having a near accident while driving - contemplate being in a fatal accident, all the mental feelings, the physical feelings, the fear, the process of dying from those kinds of wounds. Or having nearly stepped on a lethally venomous snake, I contemplate what it would be like to have been bitten, how the poison takes effect, mental formations and feelings… watch the ‘panic’ arise, etc. In this way, I ‘de-sensitize’ to the fear of death. Also because death usually comes as a surprise (even when one is expecting it as with cancer), I find it is really useful to have contemplated as many aspects as possible in advance > no surprises :slight_smile: This aspect of ‘surprise’, IMO, is what often catches us unawares, and in the face of such challenging situations it is better to be well prepared.

At first the fear of dying alone was quite frightening, but when investigated it is quite irrational. The amazing thing is observing how such practices can lead to such changes within :smiley:

I don’t find this practice macabre at all, in fact it is quite reassuring :slight_smile: And it really helps with Not Self. :skull:

@karl_lew Is this the kind of thing you meant?

Added later:
I just wanted to expand my reply, as there are lots more benefits from these kinds of contemplations. 1) While watching the mind, it becomes clear if there is regret or remorse about ones conduct or actions. This then gives a clear pointer where further work can be done. 2) One becomes aware of the nature of attachments that exist, and again that gives clear direction to where further work needs to be done. 3) Because there is danger all around, and out bodies are so ‘fragile’ (one breath from death), it allows a constant focus on impermanence. Though I would only recommend this for people who are not moved to high states of anxiety about this.

All in all, it is a great tool to observe ones status on the path. I can only speak about my personal experience, but this is one of the things that I’ve found to aid perseverance, and direct right effort. I suppose it has come quite naturally for me since I have had health issues :smiley: (opportunity and benefit in everything)

Relating it to the OP, because potentially life threatening circumstances are all around us, being mindful of them, and going through these types of contemplations, means that Right effort can be preserved. It can become like a monitoring excersize.
The less equanimity and peace when facing death, the more work remains; attachment/delusion, not-self, impermanence. But it is just a tool, and it won’t suit everyone :slight_smile:

In fact, I’m reminded of one of Ajahn Chah’s teachings - die before you die :smiley:


I used to be afraid of dying. But there’s nothing felt after death so I thought what I was really afraid of was any pain which might accompany dying. By watching pleasure and pain repeatedly coming and going, and seeing how I’m not bothered by past pains, I’m less afraid of pain. There was the fear of ‘oblivion’ but that was not a major factor of my fear of death.

I wonder if I cling to being alive. But I feel I’m doing all that I can with my life everyday. I will die know there’s nothing more that I could do, but there’s likely to be remorse that I didn’t complete my journey.


Yes. This effort to preserve is quite subtle.

  1. regret and remorse are major components of fear and dread.
  2. attachments do leap into awareness with the contemplation of death. The rather large “I don’t want to die” attachment figured prominently in Ven. Khemarato’s and my own life.
  3. danger is omnipresent. Death can greet us at any moment. Are we ready? Before studying the EBTs, I thought of this as “the Titanic problem.” The Titanic problem is to consider the equanimity of being any of the individuals on the Titanic: a survivor, a steerage passenger, the captain, a band member, a spouse, a parent, etc.

My wife and I went climbing on Tuesday. We got to the top as a thunderstorm came in. Thunderstorms are death in the mountains. Lightning (Fire) and rain (Water) kill each year. At times like this, we learn what we cling to.

Much later, after much dire stress, we reflected that we each clung to keeping the other alive. “No stupid, you need to live, so go that way!” :laughing:

Interestingly, the practice of death contemplation, as a practice advocated by the Buddha for the fourth Right Effort, naturally leads to the elimination of the four prejudices. The four prejudices are completely pointless in the face of certain death:

Four prejudices: making decisions prejudiced by favoritism, hostility, stupidity, and cowardice. --DN33

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Where you afraid 100% of the time, or were there moments when you were not?! :grin:

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I was afraid for my wife all the time we were in danger. I therefore made foolish decisions endangering my own life that she intelligently countermanded since she valued my life. This relates directly to the four ways of practice in order of benefit from least to most:

  1. one who practices to benefit neither themselves nor others; and
  2. one who practices to benefit others, but not themselves;
  3. one who practices to benefit themselves, but not others;
  4. one who practices to benefit both themselves and others.

During the calm morning we were practicing to benefit each other. However, as death threatened in the afternoon, decision-making became more difficult. There were situations where it might be better for one to endure danger in order to help the other to safety quickly. There were moments when my inner dialog would falter to an anemic “at least she will live,” but she would always yell a more sensible solution out to me. And we could have just said, “see you at the bottom” and scrambled down each on our own. But it was harder and better to think about how to benefit both ourselves and each other. So I still need to work on that…

Therefore on that particular day, the fourth Right Effort to preserve would be to stay true to the practice for the benefit of both oneself and others in the face of fear and dread. In this particular case, the recommended meditation on split-open corpses would not be of any practical use since that was in fact the danger at hand.


I have confronted nearly death more than once. What I’ve noticed was that there was no fear on the mental level, but that when it came to the moment where finding the next breath was an issue a huge physiological urge arose that fought, and fought hard, to find the breath. It was quite interesting to observe. … I tend to assume that should I be very old and have the good fortune of a conscious death that there will be the opportunity to observe the absence of this urge, or that I will be ready to let it go.


It’s difficult to separate out the physiological from the action based on anxiety!

But we must assume that actually facing death isn’t essential. We mustn’t put ourselves in harm’s way, just for the sake of practicing. We can of course, utilise the opportunity, if it does present itself, as in the Suda sutta. SuttaCentral


It was sickness not practice.
Surprisingly there was separation.


Yes, this is the basis of differentiation between what is wholesome and what is unadvisable. Being an island unto oneself, isn’t being uncompassionate to others.

Sometimes fear paralysed my ability to think clearly. Then I found out that it’s reasonable to get another brain to help out!


Hi Viveka. I’m just wondering about these death contemplations of yours. Are they Buddhist contemplations, do they come from another tradition or are they something original? I ask because for me the eightfold path is more about the contemplation of reality whereas these seem to be about the contemplation of imagination. It may well be that my imagination is very limited (I think that maybe my school teachers would’ve agreed with that :wink: ), but I very much doubt that I could, for example, come anywhere close to say imagining all the mental and physical feelings associated with being in a fatal car accident. And then, how would I know if I got it right?