NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Fear” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome.
Fear: Moving on
Copyright 2012 David J. Bookbinder
John F. Kennedy once said, “When written in Chinese, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” Kennedy’s interpretation of the Chinese word wēijī was inaccurate, but his concept is the key to overcoming fear.
Some fears are essential to our survival, such as the intuitive fear that knows, more than we consciously know, that something is amiss, is dangerously wrong, and we have to get out of there. This kind of fear is hard-wired and, as Gavin De Becker points out in The Gift of Fear, is the “check engine” light of our nervous systems; ignore it, and the result can be disaster.
Evolution optimized us for quick reactions to danger and enabled us to survive in the harsh conditions of mankind’s early history. Our brains have twice as many cells that respond to danger and pain as to pleasure and they act an order of magnitude more quickly. So, early humans could take their time enjoying food that tasted good, but they immediately spit out anything that tasted bad. Those who didn’t sickened and died before they produced progeny. This protective wiring, still in place, allows us to take our time enjoying love and affection, but to react immediately to a thrown punch or a car bearing down on us as we cross the road.
Where it all goes wrong is when we use our fear response in situations that feel dangerous but are not – where, as the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Tsokyni Rinpoche says, “Feeling is real – but not true.” When our fight/flight/freeze system is activated in situations that it was not designed for, our “check engine” lights become unreliable, warning us against imagined dangers while ignoring the real ones. The result is a pervasive, free-floating anxiety, a kind of white noise of the soul.
Most of our fears were instilled in us early on by our families, schools, and the surrounding culture. We learned to be afraid before we knew the difference between real and imagined peril. If we do not challenge these early fears, we carry them with us throughout our lives, limiting our relationships, our careers, and other opportunities to be fully ourselves. Some of us become prisoners of these fears, escaping into distraction or curling up in protective shells like pill bugs. Sometimes fear rises to the level of panic, triggering the adrenaline bursts our ancestors needed in order to fight or run for their lives – but with nothing but our own thoughts and feelings to battle or escape.
Our fears are amplified by the steady flood of media reports emphasizing danger. Murder, dread disease, terrorism, and financial catastrophe appear to happening everywhere, all the time. This fear bombardment raises our baseline anxiety and it takes only a little more stimulation to set off the fear response. In the extreme, fear hardens into defensive patterns that can be phenomenally destructive, such as the fear of “the other” that generates racism and genocide. This kind of fear is not the survival fear De Becker talks about. It is madness. Terrible things are happening all the time. But not always to us, and not often from whom or what we are afraid of.
When we are in a fear state, both our rational and intuitive selves are offline. To free ourselves from blind reaction, we must undo the programming we have been subjected to.
Much of the work I do with fearful clients involves developing a mindfulness-based relaxation practice to lower the overall threshold of fear. We then co-create a compassionate, understanding self to soothe the frantic self within. The client and I work with the compassionate self and the fearful self, encouraging an ongoing inner dialog. These self-soothing practices interrupt the fear cycle. Over time, resilience increases, and with it the ability to remain grounded in ourselves, in this moment. We become more confident we can deal effectively with whatever comes, so we don’t need to worry about it.
Last summer, I had an opportunity to try out and to clarify the process of overcoming fear and converting it to its physiological cousin, excitement.
After a serious back injury 33 years ago, I gave up motorcycling, which had been an important part of my 20s. Even after the injury had healed, though, it was easy to find reasons to stay away from riding: I’m too old, too fragile, it’s a foolish indulgence, part of my past. Beneath these rationalizations was fear. Yet every spring I’d watch other motorcyclists gracefully negotiating the twisting roads in Western Mass or New Hampshire with a sense of longing.
More recently, I began to toy with trying it again. Two of my brothers ride, and over the years we’d talk about riding together, but we never managed it. While my brother Paul and I were visiting my brother Mark for his daughter’s wedding, I mentioned wanting to ride again. “Well, Dave,” Paul said, “I’ve got a motorcycle you can have if you want it.”
I struggled for a year with that offer and finally, the following spring, heart pounding at the thought, accepted it. I bought a helmet, a book on motorcycle safety, and a one-way Greyhound ticket to Syracuse, NY, where Paul lives. I gave myself two days there to learn to ride again and another two for the 350-mile ride back. Either I would pick up riding again right away, I reasoned, or I would abandon the idea for good.
The trip took on a Hero’s Journey quality from the start. Stuff happened. On the bus, a mentally ill young man tried to steal the bag containing my helmet. The first time I put on the helmet, I badly wrenched my neck. On the way to a parking lot for a practice ride, the zipper broke on my old leather motorcycling jacket. Later, a dog sprang out of nowhere and bit me in three places. It was hard to resist interpreting these events as signs that this was a Bad Idea, but I knew enough about self-soothing to quell those fears.
The biggest obstacle, however, was that I hadn’t ridden in 33 years. The binary equation I had imagined – it’ll come right back or I won’t be able to ride at all – wasn’t what I was experiencing. During my ride to the parking lot, I found I could ride, after a fashion, but it was terrifying. The bike was like a wild horse trying to throw me. Every move took immense concentration and I was drenched in cold sweat before I got to the lot. There, I made one mistake after another, screeching the tires on downshifts, stalling out, overshooting stop lines – errors that would get me killed in highway traffic. With each misstep my confidence dropped. In my head somebody kept shouting, “This is stupid. Get off this thing and give it up, you fool. You’ll never make it.” After twenty minutes, I parked the bike, took off my helmet, and told Paul, “I don’t think I can do this.”
Ten minutes of parking-lot therapy ensued. As I described my feelings of frustration, discouragement, and finally despair, we both realized that each of us, when faced with what felt like insurmountable obstacles, reached a giving-up point. Although in many cases we regrouped and continued on, we were always winging it. Each new “crisis” felt catastrophic.
We realized neither of us had grown up with models for moving through fear. Understanding that we had learned this paralyzing pattern, that it was not intrinsic, was liberating. We could change it.
I had two days. Together, we concluded that I could still give it up, or I could truck the bike home, or try again at the end of the summer after some training. Or follow the original plan. I had nothing to lose by trying.
So I continued to ride and, although I continued also to feel fear, I learned. From that parking lot moment on, I noticed that when I’d stop the bike and rest for a while, the next time I got on, what had previously been terrifyingly difficult seemed easy. The next step – going faster, getting on the highway, riding in the rain – was still scary and hard, but I was beginning to develop confidence. By the end of the allotted two days, I was ready as I’d ever be.
It was a white-knuckle ride all the way home and it included many mini-therapy sessions at 60mph between my relatively calm adult self and the panic-stricken child within. “We can do this,” I would say. “We can stop whenever you need to, but I know we can do this now.” I hit pavement grooves in a construction area that forced me into oncoming traffic. Each new road surface was a challenge. Rain and wind came and went, at its worst just as I reached the trickiest stretch of highway. “We’re almost there,” I told myself. “We can’t die now!”
I made it back intact, relieved, and happy. I spent the rest of the summer learning how to ride again and in September returned to Syracuse. Mark came in from Ohio and the three of us, finally, went on that group ride together.
With this mini Hero’s Journey came several boons. Expected was the thrill and gracefulness that motorcycling had always given me. Unexpected, but more significant, was reconnecting with my brothers. We have an active conversation on motorcycling through emails and texts and plans to ride together as often as we can.
Perhaps most important, as well as most surprising, was what I learned about overcoming fear. Now I had a model for transforming it to excitement.
My clients know I have returned to motorcycling and some of them have heard this story. (“That’s badass,” one of them told me.) I ride year round, so it serves as a living example. “If he can do it,” they seem willing to believe, “then so can I.” Within the crisis of their fears, whatever they are, they find opportunities to grow, and they move on.