My yoga guru used to often tell us that the seat of fear is hidden in the stomach. When we are afraid, either of a real or perceived threat to body or mind, it’s the stomach that churns out messages that we must be afraid. The way to counteract the message the stomach sends to the brain is to send it a message right back. Of being unafraid.
I recently encountered fear during a trek to the Pindari Glacier in Uttarakhand. Even as we walked 10 – 12 kilometres a day, with no apparent sign of tiredness or fatigue, and I celebrated being almost as good as many half my age, fear struck.
It faced me in the form of an ice waterfall.
I remembered it well, from previous treks. A frozen rush of water that undulated over stones and fallen rock, reaching from some immeasurable height to [gulp], an awesome depth.
The mules and goats and all of the other trekkers had nimbly crossed over. I was stymied. Fear, illogical but very real, gripped me. I could not take another step.
Fear is a strange phenomenon. It lies dormant for years, hidden in a memory, to surface without warning when least expected.
Fear has done that to me many a time, for it is not just ice waterfalls that I am afraid of, but that is a story for later.
For now, there was this waterfall of ice, and there was no one within sight to hold my hand and ferry me safely across.
I had two choices. One: to wait, hoping someone would come my way, or noticing my absence, my companions would come looking for me.
Two: to try crossing the ice fall on my own.
I sat debating, hoping the choice would be taken out of my hands. It was not. The only thing to do was to brave it.
Two weapons could be used to fight the fear, I told myself. One was to push back the memory that caused it.
I had been a school girl when, climbing a hill near home, I had suddenly found myself ingloriously stuck midway. The soft earth beneath my feet had given way and I had watched the tumble of stone and mud bumping down the hill side. Fear gripped me with an image of me following fast behind, and I was literally petrified. A passer-by who heard my cries, got me down to safety.
That memory of tumbling mud and stone had to be erased. And the image it conjured of my sliding helplessly down the icy waterfall to lie in a messy heap somewhere far below. That fearful image had to be removed.
Weapon number two, I told myself, remember the yoga class.
When the chest is open and the breath flows free, fear slinks away, I remembered. And that was that.
Logic prevailed, caution added its bit, and using the tracks others before me had made as a guide, I drove my bamboo walking stick deep into the ice as anchor and took one slow step after another. No looking before and after, or imagining dire consequences of a misstep; just concentrate on the task at hand.
The exhilaration I felt at crossing the ice fall, was unbeatable.
I had beaten a fear!
Perhaps knowing you can beat fear helps make it easier.
Now, another story:
As a kid, who read horror stories, I had a pathological fear of the dark. I could not enter a dark room, or climb upstairs to an unlit floor, even in the safety of my own house. The high point of my fear of the dark came while I was at a conference in London. We were all in a hotel on Baker Street, called the Sherlock Holmes Hotel. Very exciting for a Holmes fan, but the Holmes-related artefacts placed strategically in niches and in glass cases along the walls had their effect. My room was in a cul-de-sac at the end of a maze of steps. The window, when I opened it, faced a brick wall. That night, I could not bring myself to shut my eyes, as nameless fears of speckled bands and hounds rushing through the London streets to burst into my room, gnawed at me.
I remember sleeping with all lights and the TV on, and laughing at myself in the morning. Yet, every evening the fear would descend on me. Much later, I found a way to exorcise the fear of the dark.
I peopled it with beings of my own creation, and as I was their creator, I told myself they would not dare harm me. The stories of the supernatural and the psychological that I wrote were the manifestations of my fear of the dark. And miraculously, in the writing of them, my fear turned tail and vanished.
Other fears have other stories around them. The fear of public speaking resulted when at a college fest, rowdy boys threw tomatoes at me after I fumbled. Today, I have, thanks to will power and circumstance, which forced me to address large gatherings, the ability to pick up the tomatoes [should any come my way] and use them to make ketchup.
Fear is a bogey the mind creates, especially irrational fear.
The trick is to face it, to breathe deeply and with a gush of fresh air, force it out of your gut. Standing tall against fear is the best way to oust it!
So I have learnt, at least!
This article was first published in the July 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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