“Don’t look where you aren’t going to step.” – Glenn Mitchell, quoted by his wife Theresa Shay in PrayerNotes
It’s all downhill from here
According to the story, Glenn (my spiritual direction teacher) uttered this pearl of wisdom to a struggling hiking companion while scrambling down a steep mountain path in New Mexico as they tried to outrun a thunderstorm. As I don’t need a looming thunderstorm to freeze me in my tracks on a steep downhill, his advice struck a chord.
My own issue is less looking where I’m not going to step and more thinking about all that could go wrong when I do step where I need to step. “That rock looks loose.” “That section looks slippery.” “If my feet go out from under me here, I’m really going to get hurt.” My fear blows up as suddenly and as hugely as a summer thunderstorm. It can be so debilitating that I sometimes cast dignity aside and take a seat to scoot down the worrisome part.
Glenn’s advice is more helpful when the fear that I’m facing is not a steep downhill trail but in my day-to-day life when I don’t have a default escape strategy. Because I haven’t yet figured out a way to scoot my way through a disagreement, health crisis, or massive life change, I must handle my fears differently, so they don’t freeze me in my tracks.
Many fears are fiction
Like my downhill fears, these fears are usually fictional accounts of all that could possibly go wrong. Unlike my downhill fears, these life fears are not limited in scope to falling. Depending on the magnitude of the event, I am capable of worrying in a million directions in an instant. In these moments, I am looking fearfully in many places where I am likely never going to have to step.
Identifying my fears as fiction is a powerful first step. Doing this requires me to detach a little from the panicked chatter filling my mind. Rather than letting the fears swirl around in a giant, menacing cloud, I need to catch each one and really look at it. Not only do I find many of my worries to be highly unlikely, but when I separate them from one another, I find two things. First, there are not as many fears in the storm cloud as it seemed. Second, individually they lack the capacity to paralyze me.
One step at a time
The next step in snapping out of these fearsome thought storms is, as Glenn suggests, keeping my full attention on the next necessary step. When I am fully engaged in just that one step – making the hard call, decision, or choice – my situation, whatever it is, feels manageable. When I’m not caught up imagining the whole journey, I find that I can somewhat easily take one step with confidence.
As a lifelong planner, it has taken me a great deal of practice (yoga, meditation, and prayer) to make headway when my fears start blowing. Honestly, I still need convincing that the planner in me is actually just a spiffed-up version of my inner worrier. Mindfulness practice convinces me daily that the present moment is always better in a million ways than any imagined past or future moment that my mind is conjuring to distract me from where I am and what I am doing right now.
Confidence does not mean you do not feel afraid
Finally, I want to emphasize that you and I are not practicing so that we do not feel fear. We’re human and being afraid seems to be a built-in part of that experience. Why else would the Bible state “Be not afraid.” 365 times?
We are practicing mindfulness so that we get better at recognizing and navigating our fear. So that we can even welcome it as a sign that whatever has made us fearful is worthy of our full attention. We are practicing so that there is a tiny amount of space between us and our fear – space in which we can take a breath, figure out our next step, and then, looking only where we’re stepping, take that one step with confidence and grace.
Now if I can only do that while hiking back down all the mountains I love to climb.
Are you interested in developing or deepening a mindfulness practice? I will be teaching a new hybrid course this fall called Growing in Grace: A Practice. Reach out if you’d like to learn more.