A few weeks ago I had a frightening experience which for various reasons I won’t go into details about.
In the days following, I felt like a different person. My moorings had been cut away and I was adrift, floating in a sea of salty anxiety. I know it will be one of those defining moments in my life, the loss of a kind of innocence, or ignorance, where there was a before and now there’s an after.
It put me in touch with all others who experience trauma, which can come in so many forms from combat stress, to living in the midst of war, to domestic violence, to bereavement, or serious chronic disease and pain. I felt I understood the impact of that a little better.
As well, it got me thinking about fear itself. I might have expected that having a big shock like this would place lesser fears into some kind of perspective. But it doesn’t seem to work this way, of course. For in the aftermath, it was more as if a highly infectious Fear Virus had been released. All my plans for the future seemed tinged with doom and anxiety. My quota of resilient optimism drained away.
It wasn’t as if I had no prior experience of feeling fear. Growing up, my father had mental health problems himself and spread an atmosphere of acute tension and unpredictability around him. It was a relief at 18 to leave home and be able to distance myself from that time, telling myself I was all the stronger for it.
As an adult, fear has been mainly of the low-grade, nagging kind. A chronic gut-ache, rising and falling in intensity but never all that far away. Every-day, ordinary fear that holds me back from letting go into the flow of life. Intellectually I can tell myself it’s ridiculous to feel this way, but down there in my belly the feeling rumbles on regardless.
Laughing with my son, being absorbed in making or creating, dancing, eating cake, or numbing out with a glass of wine – all of these can quell that fear, for a little while.
It’s only when meditating, though, that I can sometimes – for a few moments – practise turning towards that uncomfortable bundle of feelings. Then I realise, it’s just energy and it’s always changing. It’s not really that solid at all.
This fear is part of being human – a survival mechanism gone awry, the neuroscientists tell us – emanating from our hyper-reactive, ancient reptilian brain. We draw on the negative aspects of our past experiences, maybe from when we were powerless children or even deeper into the evolutionary past, and project them into the future. The result has been for me a decades-long struggle to live more authentically and courageously versus the pull to cocoon myself in as predictable an existence as I can create and control. The familiar fear is a sub-vocal whispering in my mind telling me – “You can’t do that”, “That’s not for you”, “No way are you clever or beautiful or popular or good enough for that kind of life”. Thoughts and habitual beliefs that hobble me like an old workhorse who dreams of galloping away across the fields.
Only through the practice of mindfulness, first noticing that corrosive chatter of self-denigration and then allowing it to bloom and fade, bloom and fade over and over, with a gentle heart, do I gain access to those open fields.
“Fear is nervousness; fear is anxiety; fear is a sense of inadequacy, a feeling that we may not be able to deal with the challenges of everyday life at all. We feel that life is overwhelming. … Where does fear come from? It comes from basic bewilderment…When you don’t feel grounded or properly seated in your world, you cannot relate to your experience or to the rest of the world.”
I sense this is true. When we’re not grounded, we’re off kilter, wobbly, and that’s where the unease issues from. The Buddha likened this general malaise of fear, anxiety and dissatisfaction, termed “dukkha”, as like riding in a chariot with an ill-fitting wheel. That broken wheel is about mundane, daily suffering from which we do our best to distract ourselves with a big slice of chocolate cake or a favourite TV show. But then it always seems to land up right back with the fact that our life isn’t quite working out as well for us as we’d hoped.
Fear is understandable and there’s a lot to be afraid of, not least of life’s transience and fragility. It’s just that fear of fear is really pretty useless and dysfunctional – a bad habit we’ve somehow got ourselves into. Not by choice of course. My recent experience may not have helped me with this lifelong “problem” but it has brought the whole issue into sharp focus. And I hope it will help me to empathise in a more genuine way with other people’s trauma.
And despite all this talk of fear and suffering I do still cling to the view that life is wonderful, overall. A big, glorious adventure beckons and only fear holds us back from accepting the invitation. Perhaps the answer is to dance with the fear itself and how to do that will have to be the subject of another post I think….
photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/trentstrohm/347100657/”>Trent Strohm</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a>