Sitting here in the snack bar at the base of Butternut Mountain, outside of Great Barrington, in an absolute shit storm of anxiety, I can’t help but ask myself why? Why do I consistently put myself in uncomfortable situations, expecting they will get easier? Probably because, on some level, I continue to expect that at some point I will somehow rise above the most basic of human emotions: fear.
Ironically I know I won’t though, because there’s no magic fear-removing fairy godmother involved. There’s only me, and the many different flavors of fear. The situations change; graduate level chemistry class, a social engagement with people I’m not comfortable with, a meditation technique that feels inapplicable, falling in love, travel to a foreign country, a business meeting about something that feels out of my depth, crowds, surfing, math, cancer, parenting, being alone for an extended period of time, loved ones with terminal illness, the immanent death of a spouse, pending divorce, how I might be perceived by my community for getting divorced- no lack of scary events, but I remain the same. I am the common denominator that does not change. And, though we are making progress, fear and I are still not comfortable with each other. So here I go again, stubbornly forcing myself into an anxiety creating situation, and now I must figure out how to gracefully move through it.
All that being said, I have made some progress. As you can see from the list above, there has been no lack of opportunity. When I was a kid, I had few tools in my fear-coping tool box. But I have yoga now, and because it helps me stay grounded in the present, I have a better handle on reigning in my anxiety these days, then lets say 5 years ago? Okay, well, sometimes. I’m not doing the best job right now, but hey, it’s a practice….
It’s not a panacea for everything, but yoga helps with a great many things. It teaches us to focus not on the “what if” projections of the future but on the present moment at hand. Judith Lassiter, an amazing yoga teacher, author and physical therapist, wrote a great little chapter on Fear in her book, “Living Your Yoga”, in which she explains
One of the interesting things about fear is that it exists in relationship to the future. When there is actual danger present, I am not afraid. When you are truly present in the moment, even when that moment is life threatening, you are not afraid.
So true. Take handstand for example. The thought of practicing handstand used to scare the hell out of me. Projections about what would happen if I fell over would flood my mind, my heart would start to race, and I’d begin to sweat almost immediately. Fears about failure would take over. ‘What if I’m never actually able able do handstand?’ ‘Does that mean I have a sub-par asana practice?’ and so on… My ego would engage and become goal oriented, task driven, and a downward spiral of self-reproach would start, even before my first attempt. This went on for quite some time, until I began to soften with myself, and send myself a little compassion. Watching my breath helped me focus my attention on the sensations of my body in the present moment, I began to calm down.
With a calmer Self, and consistent practice I’ve managed to look the monster that was once handstand in the face, and the fear has dissipated. I still fall over all the time, but I know what happens when I fall, and thus spend less time projecting about what’s going to happen when I do. I already know. More importantly I’ve been able to practice patience with myself. Handstand is humbling. It’s a difficult pose, and unless you have a background in gymnastics, or your genetics simply stack up well against gravity, it’s a pretty challenging no matter who you are. It rarely happens overnight for students, and having patience with yourself is key.
Today my fear is wrapped up around snowboarding. I’ve never done it before, and now that I’m here, I not sure that I want to start. But it’s too late, we’re here. My feet are cold (literally and figuratively) and armpits are sweaty, and I wish I could jump into the rental car and drive far and fast away. I have heard stories all week long about how much it sucks to fall time after time on one’s ass, how sore I’m going to be the next day, how steep the learning curve is, and how frustrating it can be. One of my closest girlfriends told me a story about how scared she was to jump off the lift and made a humiliating trip all the way back down the mountain on the chair.
So as I sit here anxiously watching the clock, until it’s time to wrestle with my rented snow boots and track over to my lesson, I am faced with several options: I can sit here and worry about the approaching event, and all the many different ways I’m going to fall, fail and frustrate myself. Or I can begin the practice of grounding myself in the present moment. After all, nothing bad is happening right now.
I listen to my breath, and try to smooth the next one out. Inhale a little deeper. Exhale a little longer. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.