Friday, September 18, 2009

Newton's Third Law

The other day, one of my roommates asked me an interesting question.

"What are you most afraid of? And it has to be something tangible. It can't be, like loneliness."

We were both standing in the kitchen munching on cereal when she asked this. While we crunched away, I realized that I couldn't think of anything really good that was actually true. When I was 4, I would have said monsters in my room. Probably up until 3 or so years ago, it would have been creepy-crawlies (I am now Po the Warrior Princess against all with >4 legs, both fearless and bloodthirsty).

When I asked her what her greatest fear was, my roommate answered without hesitation, "Sharks." I wish I'd thought of that one. Fear of shark is a solid, well-grounded, and respectable fear. (Looking back, if I had been on my game that day, I would have said ninjas. But that's still only half true...).

I'm not saying that I don't have any fears, because I most definitely do. For instance, I really don't like being on planes because I'm pretty sure the recirculating air is carrying tuberculosis. And given the choice, I'd rather watch Discovery Channel videos on cave exploring rather than spelunk myself.

What I found most interesting about her question was the condition that the fear had to be something "tangible." Something that can be sensed and categorized, some fear that is probably based on our evolutionary desire to, you know, survive. So for my ancestors, maybe stale air and darkness were really good things to avoid, right up there with man-eating sharks.

Maybe it was just the bit she tacked on at the end that took my mind down this road, but I was disappointed to find that I couldn't get past the "not loneliness" bit of the question. Because as I poked at my bowl of raisin bran (mmm...) I couldn't seem to get my mind off all the intangible fears that I have been carrying around with me for so long.

Loneliness, depression, anxiety, being thrown helplessly into the darker pits of my personality-- my greatest fear is of these things attaching themselves relentlessly to my life, refusing to give up their hold. At times I have been able to shake them off, certain that I have abandoned their dark demands for good. But as experience tells me neither distance nor time nor force of will can permanently remove them from my life. The frustrating part of these aspects of my life is their very weightless, slippery, non-tangibleness. There are no easy ways to avoid them, and being fearful of their presence does me little to no good. I can't simply avoid swimming in the open ocean or opt to take a train or canoe instead of the airplane. I can't laughingly ask my friends to take pictures of the inside of the cave while I bask in the open sunshine outside, learning kung fu (to fight the ninjas). There is no direct action I can take to battle these fears away for good.

I think the point I'm trying, albeit rather unsuccessfully, to get at is this: fear can be an emotion that overwhelms us with its needs. It compels us to react to avoid the cause of our fear or to cling to what we perceive will protect us. When given free reign, fear will readily take up command at the forefront of our minds, guiding all of our thoughts and actions.

The problem lies within our attachment to the fear itself--at some point, we need to be able to distinguish a healthy, useful fear from one that can give us nothing but stress.

So when we're in shark infested waters it's probably a good thing to be afraid. The fear of the sharks and the sharks themselves are both motivating factors for us to remove ourselves from the threat. In this instance, fear is a useful survival tool that propels us to act in ways that encourage our personal safety.

On the other hand my fear of things like depression, anxiety and loneliness has also led me to react, but in ways that are either completely useless or harmful.

Feeling fearful and, well, anxious about anxiety creeping up on me is a little like running soapy water over a barely-touched dish before putting it directly in the dishwasher. It's useless, unrewarding, and wasteful. Not to mention just plain silly.

I think it would be very beneficial for me to learn how to detach myself from this fear I have--to acknowledge and accept that the things I'm afraid of may be in my life for a while, but I don't have to let the worry over them consume my life. Or even if I can't abandon the fear itself, maybe I can at least limit my reaction to (revolutionary!) things that actually help me.

Radical, I know, but something that has not been blaringly obvious to me in the past.

"Detachment" is a common theme in yoga philosophy and one that I am only just starting to come to terms with. Along with it comes the understanding that you can have a thought without being the thought, have an emotion without being the emotion. Just as we observe clouds work their way through the sky, so we can observe the workings of our mind ("Look! That thought is shaped like a duck!"). From this vantage point, we may even come to realize that we can act as a witness, one who is able to remove us from the action/reaction cycles that are so embedded in our lives.

So (what was I getting at?): acknowledging the fear but not being the fear. Stepping back and recognizing when the fear proves a useful function and when it only acts as a detriment. Being able to pick those bad apples of my thoughts out, choosing the shiny delicious ones to hold with me.

...Looking back, this may just have to be one of those rambling posts that only make sense to me. I should try and work on these ideas when it's not 4:30 in the morning :). In any case, your thoughts on my thoughts greatly appreciated...


Marisa said...

FEAR=False Evidence Appearing Real

I feel the heart of your dialogue is what to do about the intangible fears. The tangible ones are usually easily avoided or confronted. What is hard are those nebulous, nefarious, notorious ones that either have no real basis or that hit you in the middle of nowhere. Two quotes that have helped me are : "No feeling is final" (good, bad, sad, scared--they all go away at some point, you just have to hang in there long enough) and "Lean into the sharp points" (which urges us to almost challenge that which is negative to us: "Bring it on, buster--I can take it!").

The secret to overcoming it all--finding something that is bigger than your fears, whether that is religion or yoga or love or ???? Remember that pain is inevitable but struggle is a choice.


Po said...

Well said!

I've been reading "The Wisdom of Yoga" by Stephen Cope and I really liked the way he put it:
"Pleasure can be fully experienced, but it must be allowed its impermanent nature...Pain can be fully experienced. But when we resist it, react to it, push it away, we simply get an intensified version of pain. We get both the pain and the pain of pain. The reaction to the pain."

Thanks for all your wonderful comments!