Fear is a four-letter word. Here are some others: name, look, data, open. How do these fit together?
Fear is a name for an experience, an instinctive physical and mental reaction to the conditions of the moment. The experience may be a quickening of heartbeat or clenched gut, perspiration gathering on the brow, or tightened muscles. The experience is different for each of us, depending on the circumstances. The instinct is part of our DNA and is certainly useful when we encounter a genuine threat to our lives and well-being. However, like all instincts, the reaction may arise when habits of perceiving mislead us.
Years ago, my family went on a mule ride to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Riding downward through miles of colorful rock formations, the view was both spectacular and—-terrifying. The road was narrow, steep and winding around in deep curves. My mule would walk to the edge of a bend in the road, lean over and sniff for a path. Finding no road, he’d turn and follow the rest of the pack. At least, that’s the story my fear was telling me as I clenched the harness and prayed for the end of the ordeal. The ride to the bottom takes several hours and at some point, it became clear to me that the only way out was through. That’s when my training in Zen came forward. I named the experience- fear. Once I could see fear as a word, it became something to look at and evaluate rather than something that possessed me. Looking at “fear” offered useful data about where I was focusing my attention. Seeing “fear” in this way, opened the experience of the moment and allowed me to see the whole of it, not just the feeling. My breathing and heartbeat returned to normal. My eyes lifted to the wonder of passing along the ages of the earth, layer by layer, as we descended to the canyon floor. Other thoughts floated through my mind- “I’ll never be passing this way again- make the most of it!”
In the current circumstances of an on-going pandemic, social and economic upheaval, it’s natural to experience fear. Circumstances justifiably warrant concern about health, jobs, relationships. At the same time, it’s important to pay attention to how we name our experiences as we work through plans, create alternatives, modify expectations and manage the business of day to day living. Throughout history, humankind has encountered severe challenges. We are a creative and resilient species. Seeing and naming the emotions that are infiltrating our thoughts and reactions puts us in control of those thoughts and reactions. Examining thoughts and reactions critically helps us open to the whole of life in all of its possibilities. Each of us has this one precious life to live in the ebb and flow of ever-changing circumstances.