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[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”14″ align=”left”]Fear: an emotion induced by a threat perceived by living entities, which causes a change in brain and organ function and ultimately a change in behavior. Fear may occur in response to a specific stimulus happening in the present, or to a future situation, which is perceived as a risk to health or life, status, power, security, or in the case of humans, wealth or anything held valuable. … In humans and animals the fear response is modulated by the process of cognition and learning. Thus fear is judged as rational and appropriate or irrational and inappropriate. (Wikipedia)[/mk_blockquote]
When I signed up for our family zip lining adventure, I was told that rappelling off the 70 foot cliff was optional. In my mind, rappelling off a 70 foot cliff wasn’t an option. There was absolutely no way I was going to do it.
Imagine my emotional state, then, as I stood at the edge of that 70 foot cliff and was told that hiking down was even more dangerous than rappelling. I’d just stared fear squarely in the eye seven times as I stepped off tiny platforms to hurtle across rivers, jungles, valleys and the like while harnessed to two wire cables. I was still (literally) shaky from that “excitement” when I received this news.
I took a deep breath, looked at my daughter’s best friend (who I love like a fourth child and who had no intention of stepping off that cliff either), looked at the guide and said, “Explain it to me.” He explained, in great detail, how the ropes and pulleys worked as he strapped my youngest into the harness and asked her to step backwards over the cliff. My heart rose into my throat as she dropped over the edge of the cliff and out of sight. The only way I knew she was still OK was that he was still slowly playing out the rope in his hand.
At this point, it is safe to say that I was having a textbook reaction to fear. My brain was spinning, my heart was racing, my breath was quick. As in the definition above, I certainly felt that I was in a situation that risked my health, life and security. With clear eyes, I assessed my “options” and judged my fear of stepping over the edge of that cliff while attached to a perfect stranger by a rope and two pulleys to be perfectly rational and appropriate.
Except that, according to the guides, my other option was even riskier. Looking back at my daughter’s friend, it was clear that choosing to slip and slide down a treacherous trail was not the way to go. Another look into her frightened eyes modulated my own fear response. Suddenly worrying about rappelling seemed a lot less rational than worrying about her. As my concern slid from my own well being to hers, I took another deep breath and said to her the exact opposite of what I’d been feeling a split second before, “We can do this.”
Fear is a funny thing. It feels physical, but is emotional. At the same time, it is affected by the intellect – sometimes bolstering itself with a web of thoughts, other times shrinking in the face of reason and rationality. In other words, because it plays on every aspect of ourselves, fear can be exceptionally hard to manage.
Yoga has given me many opportunities to better understand fear. I’ve learned that some things scare me for good reason – I’m simply not ready to do them. These fears go neatly (and with very little angst) into the “to be conquered another day” column. Sometimes, I think I’m going to be scared to do something and then surprise myself by doing it. These fears go immediately (with a huge smile) into the conquered column. Other things scare me for outdated reasons. While they may have been too much for me before, I’m more than capable now. When I have these fears, I often teasingly call myself a “head case” and get down to the business of doing whatever it is. For the most part, it’s not too long until I can place these fears in the conquered column. Still other things, scare me even though I can vividly imagine myself doing them. I’ll set myself up and literally freeze as though paralyzed. When I have these fears, the name-calling is often a lot less good natured. These are the fears that consume the most energy and the most time before I am able to move them into the conquered column.
As our moment of reckoning arrived, the thought crossed my mind that it was a good thing my practice had forced me to do so many scary things. Like it or not, I couldn’t allow rappelling to paralyze me. It was clearly going to have to be a fear that immediately went into the conquered column. I asked my daughter’s friend if she wanted to go ahead of me or behind me. She chose to go first and I poured myself into bolstering her. “You can do this.” “You’re totally strong enough.” “It’s going to be easy.” “Don’t look down.” I issued this final admonition as she stepped backwards off the cliff edge. Trying to maintain eye contact with her, I did exactly what I’d told her not to do – I looked down.
Immediately, the fear which I’d tamped down swelled again. As her rope played out, I fought my fear with my mind and my body. My inner voice became soothing and supportive. I defaulted to yoga breathing. I deliberately disengaged from my thoughts – which were skittering in panic. As the guide attached me to the ropes I was slowly regaining the upper hand over my fear. I repeated his instructions over and over in my mind like a mantra as I backed over the edge of the cliff.
About halfway down I had a moment of panic when I swung out away from the wall of the cliff. A clear voice in my head said, “This is not the time to freak out. You just have to do this.” I fixed my gaze on that rock wall, gritted my teeth, resumed my mantra of instructions and started to descend again. While it felt like my 5 minute descent took two hours, I eventually made it to the bottom. My legs nearly collapsed as my feet hit the ground and were still noticeably quivering as we walked back to our starting point.
Thanks to my practice and to my concern for my daughter’s friend, I was able to conquer fear that morning. That said, I’m not sure rappelling will stay neatly in the conquered column. Luckily, I don’t think I’ll need to do it again anytime soon.
What scares you?