The Dark Knowledge at the Root of Acrophobia & Agoraphobia

Neurotic fears and phobias are puzzling and perplexing, for they run counter to our practical interests and to all common sense.

Consequently, they seem merely irrational. There exists, though, a logic or method to their madness. To make sense of these maladies, we need to decipher their symbolic meaning. Once deciphered, they reveal more than we bargained for: the darker secrets of human existence! Consider acrophobia, the fear of heights. An evolutionary biologist might explain that fear in terms of its survival value. Those of our ancient ancestors who were unafraid of heights had a bad habit of falling off of cliffs, whereas the fearful ones became fruitful and multiplied.

Somehow, though, in our shift from being troglodytes to being urbanites, something went awry, such that many people today are fearful of situations where little real danger exists. Evolutionary biology cannot shed much light for, if anything, most fears and phobias are counter-evolutionary. They hinder a person’s ability to survive and to thrive in the modern world. For example, job seekers who fear heights might not advance their career by traveling to another city, if it required taking a plane to get there. Nor would they accept a job offer, if it meant working in a tall building or traveling by car over a tall suspension bridge.

The prevalence of maladies of this sort would suggest that they have little or nothing to do with childhood or other trauma, so the usual psychological explanations are dubious. Nor do they represent the reemergence of some sort of primitive instincts. On the contrary, they reflect the type of challenges to selfhood endemic to modernity or postmodernity.

There exist an amazing variety of fears and phobias, but we’ll focus here on two: acrophobia (the fear of heights) and agoraphobia (the fear of open spaces), as well as the panic attacks that derive from those fears. What we shall discover may offer us insight into the dark knowledge behind all irrational fears.

Dark knowledge? Yes, people who have irrational fears are similar, in a key respect, to those who suffer from a trauma: they know something, but they do not consciously know what they know. Paradoxically, they are in the dark about it. But we also use the oxymoron “dark knowledge” in another sense: this knowledge is of the contradictory — and therefore impossible — nature of the effort to achieve happiness and fulfillment.

For example, if we have enough insight into relationships, we can meet a young couple and predict, rather accurately, that they are fated to get divorced in a few years, and we could even discern the essential reason why. Those with fears, phobias and traumas intuit something far more devastating about the impossibility of selfhood. At least on the face of it, this knowledge is deeply pessimistic; it is dark, in the sense of gloomy. There exists, though, a light at the end of the tunnel, but that is another story and we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Acrophobia, Loss of One’s Ground

Everything about human beings — including their interests, desires, activities, conflicts and anxieties — is incomprehensible, unless we can decipher its symbolic meaning. What sense, then, can we make of the fear of heights? The symbolism of height is actually positive. Mountains are images of transcendence, of being above worldly concerns. Mythologically, they are the realm of the gods and, in some cases, have a sacred significance. For example, Moses climbs Mt. Sinai to speak with God. Similarly, we can, for example, speak of people who have reached great heights in their careers, a person who has lofty ideals, and someone wishing to take the highroad. We can also speak of the elevation, or apotheosis, of a person to the status of a saint.

It’s when there is a sense of false ascension that there exists a concomitant sense of fault coupled with nemesis. The ancient Greeks had warned that hubris results in a tragic downfall. We sometimes hear, for example, of a business leader who, like Icarus, flew too high and then came crashing down. Acrophobia is undoubtedly connected with this moral fear even if, in point of fact, a person is not seeking climb to the top, whether it be legitimately or illegitimately.

The sense of disorientation connected with acrophobia does not always have a moral dimension. In other words, it does not always derive the sense of fault for making a hubristic claim. It can also derive from a lack of meaning. A purpose, or meaning, is often thought of as a ground, or foundation. Everything rests upon that foundation.

Existential groundlessness is the sense of lacking an ultimate purpose for one’s actions and meaning for one’s existence. The lack of a ground or foundation, in the philosophical sense, expresses itself — quite literally, as in all neuroses — as the lack of an actual ground or foundation. A person looks down — like the cartoon character Wile E.  Coyote, having chased Road Runner off the cliff — only to realize that he is actually not standing on anything. Hence he plunges into the abyss of nothingness. This metaphysical vertigo, caused by a lack of meaning, expresses itself as actual vertigo. Those who suffer from vertigo have entered a psychological drama, a waking dream, in which actual elevation symbolizes having lost contact with a solid foundation, i.e., a meaning, or purpose.

Agoraphobia, Loss of One’s Center

If acrophobia has to do with the loss of one’s ground or foundation, agoraphobia has to do with the loss of one’s center. There is a story in one of Mircea Eliade’s books, about a primitive tribe who would stick a pole in the ground when they move to a new territory. The pole represents the center of their universe. It happens one day that a storm comes and blows away their pole. Eliade states that the result was disastrous. The tribe wandered about for two weeks and then died. People in modern society do not use a pole to center themselves. Instead, they may have an internal center. We say of such a person that he or she is centered. A purpose or meaning is one’s center. But those who lack a center or who have lost their center have the essential problem of the tribe whose pole was lost. They lack purpose and meaning and so wander about life, in an unfocussed way.

To find ourselves in an open field or in an unfamiliar space can cause us to lose our orientation, or center. Here, too, agoraphobia is the literalization of an inner perception about one’s existence. I.E., to be oriented, or centered, is to have one’s life have unity and focus, in relation to an ultimate meaning. Everything, in one’s life, must radiate from that center. To lose one’s center, then, means that everything one does has no connection to an ultimate meaning.

A fellow I know, who recently vacationed in India, tells me that he had a panic attack, of the agoraphobia variety. It was quite a long one, lasting about ten minutes. He said that the attack occurred while walking down one of India’s many rural roads, in the countryside. The sights and sounds were so unlike anything that he had ever seen or heard, that it precipitated a jamais vu experience, resulting in a profound sense of disorientation. Yes, he knew that he had, a few days earlier, taken a jet from New York to Bombay, and his tour map was able to tell him, more or less, his present location. But all that didn’t help, for during those ten minutes all connection to meaning, purpose and personal identity vanished. He had a profoundly disturbing sense of actually being nowhere. Although this sense of unfamiliarity and disorientation occurred to him in very unfamiliar surroundings, it can also occur in the midst of the familiar, in a nearby shopping maul.

Some people, like this India vacationer — due to greater intelligence, sensitivity, or openness to insight — are more prone to what the psychiatrist R.D. Laing called “ontological insecurity.” Consequently, they are more prone to the anxiety that puts their very being in question, but they are also closer to the truth of life, for our anxieties are the revelation of the truth — which is really about the unreality of that which we take to be real — even if the terrors of the moment prevent us from seeing it.

Anxiety and Dark Knowledge

Like all fears, acrophobia (the fear of heights) and agoraphobia (the fear of open spaces) is the product of an underlying anxiety. Freud was perceptive in contending that we seek to turn anxiety into fear, for anxiety is shapeless and free-floating. How do you avoid something without a shape? You can’t. A fear, on the other hand, has a definite shape and, as such, can be avoided. Thus if you fear snakes, you can make an effort to avoid dark forests. Similarly, if you fear heights, you can avoid mountaintops and if you fear open spaces, you can avoid driving along the Great Planes. If, on the other hand, you dread the existential void, there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. One way or another, it will find you.

Anxiety is the perception of one’s unreality. To have a panic attack is to be suddenly flooded with that perception. By reality, we mean one’s familiar world, the realm of the intelligible, where things make sense. There are other situations and events that can bring one to the edges of one’s world. Karl Jaspers wrote about border situations, which are situations in which we find ourselves having to act, but have little more than contradiction and paradox to guide us.

To encounter one’s anxiety is to reach the outer edges of the world. That’s where we find the truth. The paradox here is that we are really discovering is the unreality of what we normally take to be reality. What, though, is the world? The world a person inhabits is partly function of his personal identity, his values, goals, beliefs, worries, etc. It also has a social aspect, involving the worldview of the culture and society that he inhabits. Finally, one’s world, considered in the most universal sense, is a construct of the laws of reason and rationality. The edge of the world is the place of no place where life’s most fundamental terrors have their origin.

Sometimes, when the edge is reached, it has the sense of the world shrinking. There is a scene in the film Cast Away (2000), in which the protagonist (played by Tom Hanks) gets aboard the small ship that he has built starts sailing beyond the island that he has inhabited. The island that had been his entire world gets smaller and smaller, as he sails further and further away. Anyone who has left a significant interpersonal relationship, a place of long employment, a religion, a cult, a house that one has lived in or other emotionally invested environment, can have similar sense of leaving the known world. The film represents it as a critical situation, but not an anxious moment. The scene symbolizes the type of moment when the world we inhabit shrinks in significance. (Castaneda used the term “the shrinking of the tonal”). This is disorienting, for one is still in one’s world, in one sense, but the meanings are no longer there.

I remember having a powerful experience of this sort, quite some years ago. I had taken a nap in my apartment. I awoke and walked over to my desk. It was then that I had a feeling that the meanings of the various objects in my apartment had slipped off of them, in some sort of surrealistic way. It was a terrifying moment of jamais vu, for my world was right in front of me and yet not there. The feeling lasted maybe five terrifying seconds and then the meanings returned.

A more common experience that I used to have was simply wake up from a nap and be unable to remember where I was, even though it was obvious that I was in my apartment in New York City or in Binghamton, after I moved there. I do not know why this experience would only occur while awakening from a nap, but whatever it was, it pulled the rug out from my familiar sense of space and time.

A related experience — which would occur not only when awakening from a nap, but any time — would be one of intense vertigo, upon the realization that the world was round and therefore up and down were just relative notions. This relativity vertigo could also occur to me while in the waking state. I remember once, for example, browsing some in the philosophy section of a bookstore in Manhattan. I picked up a book about Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, whereupon I everything stared spinning. I quickly put down the book and found a chair where I could sit down for a time, until I recovered from my panic attack.

Possible Cures

Is there a cure for acrophobia and agoraphobia? There exist a variety of behavioral techniques. Back in the Nineteenth Century, Wolfgang von Goethe described how he had cured himself of his fear of heights by an act of will, which consisted of climbing to the top of a very high church and remaining there for hours on end. There is much to be said for taking on one’s fear head-on life this, and thus desensitizing oneself to them. The problem, though, is that one never comes to understand what these fears are really about. Consequently, the opportunity for self-knowledge is lost. If Freud is correct, the result would be a symptom substitution, since these fears are, as we have seen, reflections of an underlying anxiety.

There is another possibility. Since these maladies are due to the lack of a ground, center, orientation or ultimate meaning, a solution would consist in gaining all of that. Sometimes this is possible, but sometimes it is not. It may simply be that a person suffering in this way has not been able to connect with an ultimate meaning.

Or, it could be that he or she — having reached that state of being we have been calling “the end of the world” — now knows too much about the ontological nature of the category of meaning to be able connect with it. Such a person now regards meaning as akin to a Kantian category, a form of cognition that organizes chaos into an intelligible world. Once hip to the transcendental illusion, the notion that we as subjects create our world, it’s not possible to return to objective meanings, in quite the same way.

Instead of seeking to satisfy the requirement of meaning, would it be possible to transcend the requirement of meaning, or at least one’s relation to it? This does not mean that we would act haphazardly, seeking to live spontaneously, abandoning the categories of consistency and wholeness, such that our lives took on the chaotic quality of a Jackson Pollack painting. Nor would we become nihilists. On the contrary, we would live in terms of meanings, while knowing real nature of meaning, into its “hollowness,” as the Zen Buddhists say. It would then take on a game-like quality.

Ursula Le Guin wrote a book with the thought-provoking title “Dancing at the Edge of the World” (1989). To reach the edge of the world and to dance — rather than, let’s say, to throw up — would be quite an accomplishment.

Fear of Flying

My effort to understand these fears has had an existential relevance. Most particularly, I wished to overcome my fear of flying, which had always been a vertiginous ordeal. It hadn’t helped that the airlines have steadily declined in quality, during the past twenty years, resulting in an increasing sense of passenger dehumanization. In any case, flying was stressful enough for me when the skies were a cloudless blue, but when the plane encountered turbulence, I felt like I was grasping the edge of a cliff, my fingers were slipping and I was about to plummet into the abyss.

I knew that my anxiety derived from existential groundlessness, so I struggled with finding meaning in a religious life. To be honest, I’d become religious a few days before I knew that I had to take a plane somewhere. Reading various philosophical, religious and mystical texts to read provided some comfort, but not nearly enough. At the time, I was just beginning to explore these fears and phobias and didn’t have a lot of insight into their deeper meaning. Whatever insights I did gain were inefficacious, for I still dreaded flying.

Out of a sense of frustration that my efforts to find inner-peace had proved futile, I found myself becoming angry at the whole situation. Oddly enough, I didn’t really have an object for my wrath. Was I angry at the winds that caused airplanes to encounter turbulence? Was I angry at myself, at my own faintheartedness? At God? At  the void? I wasn’t sure, but from then on I would become fierce when the plane encountered turbulence.

Crazy though it may sound, adopting this attitude of righteous anger greatly diminished my anxiety and freed me from further attacks of airborne panic. I hadn’t achieved the ataraxia — the inner peace that the ancient philosophers sought — for anger itself is a turbulent emotion, but I had gained inner resolve and intestinal fortitude, such that I could remain upright amidst the winds of the spirit. Sometimes, on such flights, the defiant words of Shakespeare’s King Lear would come to mind:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!

You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout

Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!

You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,

Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,

Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,

Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!

Ah, but that is not the end of my tale, for deliverance came when I least expected it. It happened one afternoon last year, on a flight from Pittsburg to Louisville, that my plane encountered a particularly aggressive thunderstorm. As the plane rocked and reeled, I looked around at my fellow passengers. Some were wide-eyed with horror, clutching their seats. Some, like I, gritted their teeth like soldiers preparing perhaps for our last battle. But, apart from the roar of the plane’s engine, there was a chilling silence.

It was then that I heard — from a few rows behind me — giggling. I turned around to see a girl, of about six or seven, sitting next to her mother, who was nervously smiling. As the plane danced drunkenly in the wind, the little girl would giggle and then say, quite joyously, “Whooooooeeeeee! Whoooooooooeeee! And then she would giggle some more. Well, I could maintain neither my fear nor my anger any longer, but started laughing. At that moment, through a gift of grace, I was able to let go and embrace the void.


“Three metamorphoses of the spirit do I designate to you: how the spirit becometh a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child.” — Nietzsche

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2 People have left comments on this post

» eknivsnikta said: { Jan 12, 2011 - 10:01:55 }

Thank you, Dr. Dillof, for this insightful and illuminating article! It was just what I needed to read.

» mdillof said: { Jan 12, 2011 - 11:01:07 }


You are very welcome!

— Dr. D.

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