Fear is the great equalizer. The indiscriminate disease of fear can strike any economic group, race, gender or age. Fear blinds us to the real issues at hand and seeks to subversively bind us to that which it has created: the unknowable. Fear projects an illusion then subtly but consistently instructs us to heed it; to act upon it. When we unwittingly hand control of our lives over to fear we lose our capacity to think and behave authentically. In the face of fear, our behaviors become defense-mechanism responses to illusionary stimuli instead of discrete, authentic actions. We are reactive, defensive virtual reality robots when fear reigns supreme.
Fear is a powerful resource that can be utilized to achieve great feats but we ultimately pay a dear price – physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually – for the use of it. Fear is an amazing tool for basic physical survival however unbridled fear is pretty shitty for overall evolution and as a species we are in desperate need of an evolution revolution. In the short term, fear energizes our bodies with hormones and allows us to use all of our bodies’ resources for one Herculean task such as fight or flight thereby keeping us safe however accessing these hormones over the long-term results in a myriad of physical and mental illnesses.
Unacknowledged, fear acts as a blinder which removes our peripheral vision and creates a tunnel-vision like affect. Unchecked fear creates a thick haze through which we myopically gaze and then perpetuates itself with justification. The justification comes easily because fear prevents us from seeing the picture holistically so we believe that we are making the best decision, be that in words or in action, based on the data that is in front of us. We are failing to see that the data that is in front of us is skewed and/or incomplete. Fear closes not only our eyes but our ears and our hearts too. Fear opens our mouths and says words that we don’t necessarily believe while constricting our throats and disabling us from speaking our truth.
Fear, when mindfully investigated, can also be one of life’s greatest teachers.
I believe my fear to be simultaneously one of the most powerful weapons in my survival arsenal as well as my greatest handicap/archenemy and I recently had the occasion to come face to face with it. I walk on the beach every morning with a four-pack of feral dogs who live on my local beach. The pack has adopted me as one of their own and each morning they greet me the same way they greet each other: by jumping on me and attempting to wrestle me to the ground with mouths agape and love bites. It is a beautiful greeting and I am humbled by it.
There is another “dog” who is not part of the pack who resides a little further up the beach. I put the word dog in quotes because this dog looks very much like a wolf and, in fact, probably is a wolf. This beach wolf is usually alone, minds his business and goes his own way. Every so often he will attempt to make his way past the area of beach where my pack resides; some days they grant him passage and other days they do not. Once in a while the pack will cajole him into playing with them but more often than not he just does his own thing.
I encountered the aforementioned lone beach wolf a few days ago while strolling with my pack. The beach wolf has never growled or snarled at me and in fact, typically just ignores me however the sight of him always causes my pulse to speed up and that morning was no exception. Because my heart rate had increased I noticed that my body was reacting to something in my brain so I tuned into the thoughts that were racing through my mind: “Oh God, there’s the beach wolf. Why is he here? Well at least the pack will protect me if he tries anything. Why would he try anything? Why would he pick me? There must be at least 50 people who walk past here each day and he clearly has not eaten any of them. I know he’s not harmful but God I wish he wasn’t here. I don’t want any harm to come to him; I would just prefer if he was not here and I did not have to deal with him. Or is it my own fear that I don’t want to deal with? Why don’t I trust him anyway? He’s never been anything but polite to me and in fact, it’s the other dogs who bully him…”
I then tuned out of my head and into my breath which was, of course at that point, non-existent. I took a few moments to mindfully breathe which is what I have learned to do in situations that elicit automatic emotional and physical responses. Going to my breath gave my brain a much-needed pause so that my mind could observe and see my thoughts simply as fear and my body’s reaction as an automatic response to that fear.
And in the calm of the Now, I understood.
I understood that the general state of unease with which I had awoken on that particular morning provided fertile soil for my fear of this benign, possible-wolf to take root. My mind then sought justification for the fear and easily found it in mental images that had been implanted over the course of 40-plus years. Stories, movies, books – all kinds of media depicting wolves as bad, mean, wild, ferocious creatures to be feared. Images of wolves growling, howling, salivating with their gigantic teeth bared, ready to pounce, ready to feast, ready to tear people and animals to shreds – these are the images that had been seared into my brain and I, in that mind-state of mild anxiety, quickly recalled all of these images – subconsciously.
Those mental images fed my fear and allowed it to grow larger despite the fact that the wolf in front of me, in reality, was not doing anything even remotely aggressive. Had I not acknowledged the fear as such, it would have been free to control my body and hence my actions. My brain and body would have colluded to turn me into a prehistoric version of myself: I would have gotten a glorious rush from nature’s speedball – cortisol and adrenaline, my heart rate would have continued to increase, my eyes would have dilated and my breaths would have gotten shallower. All of my body’s systems would have been prepared to do battle or to run very fast and, in fact, they had already begun the process without my approval.
On that particular morning however, I used those very signals from my body to alert my mind to what was unconsciously happening and I was able to halt the process by focusing on my breath. I accepted the fear and gave gratitude to it, my least favorite but perhaps best teacher, and in so doing I mindfully took back control of my body and therefore my actions. I was able to see, smell and hear all that was in front of and around me: the sky, the sand, the sun, the trees, the shells; the little ghost crabs burrowing, the tiny fish swimming, the birds flying and a pack of very sweet dogs, one slightly more robust than the others, frolicking in a surprisingly placid turquoise sea.
I accepted accountability for providing an unstable environment in the form of a distracted, mildly anxious mind-state which allowed a passing thought to bloom into fear. I also accepted responsibility for allowing my mind to drift from the present moment and to automatically reach into its conditioning bag of tricks to justify turning essentially a very furry dog into The Big Bad Wolf/sinister villain from my childhood stories and nightmares.
I smiled, my heart lightened and just like that; I became the wolf. I gained insight or as I like to call it “received an awareness.” I recognized how my external or physical self could be perceived by people who do not know me. I identified with the wolf because I too have been on the receiving end of the manifestation of fear of me as a concept by others. And for the first time ever, I understood and had compassion for their fear, for their discomfort and even for their hatred. They don’t know me but they have been subjected to images and portrayals of me, descriptions of me and negative marketing of me for generations. They don’t necessarily want to see me dead but boy they’d really prefer not to have to deal with me and perhaps not just because they don’t know what to expect of me but because what their fear of me symbolizes to them.
As I continued walking I felt much lighter because awareness and compassion have a way of lightening one’s load. On that day the pack decided the lone wolf could join them and he ran and frolicked with them. He noticed that every now and then individual members of the pack would alternately drop back and come to check on me and to get a little affection from me in the form of petting. After a few minutes he decided either he could trust me or that this was de rigueur for the pack; or perhaps he was simply curious. Regardless, at some point the beach wolf gave garnering affection from this human a whirl.
When he came to my side, I tentatively reached out my hand to let him sniff it. I then moved my hand to the scruff of his neck and gingerly touched his thick fur. We connected – a lone wolf, a lone woman, my fear, his trust – everything and nothing happened in that moment. I thanked him for the opportunity and he jogged off to meet up with the others and I was left again with the powerful symbolism. The fear was still there but it was a great deal smaller than it previously was so it was much easier to look at him in the same way that I looked at the other wild dogs – with pure love.
I hope one day the fear does not register at all but for today, all I can do is to acknowledge it, accept it, appreciate it and move beyond it. I now understand that it is my responsibility to check my fear and to love the lone wolf as I love the others in the pack; it is not his responsibility to prove to me that he is safe. We all need to accept accountability for our fears, for our anger, for our hatred and then move beyond them if possible; it is not the job of that which we fear to alleviate those fears.
 I’m not a zoologist. See photo – you be the judge.
 Every now and then another beach wolf, which looks strikingly similar to the first, appears and the two of them hang out together. I have no idea where beach wolf #2 normally resides.
 For the record, this is not the first time I have identified with the lone beach wolf; he has taught me a number of lessons about myself.
 The signs are obvious to all who have ever experienced it: avoidance of eye contact, tense false smiles, lack of breathing, stiffness in bodies, etc. It would be a lie to say that I did not ever perceive the signs to be there when in reality they were not. It only needs to happen once or twice at an early age to create the proverbial “chip on the shoulder” or what I call the “fear haze” but alas that’s a topic for another post…