The places that scare you

When we protect ourselves so we won’t feel pain, that protection becomes like armour, like armour that imprisons the softness of the heart. Pema Chodron

I wake early and sit on the verandah of my little Balinese bungalow. The ocean roars below. Dawn is breaking. A pair of small bats flap around and through the rafters of the row of huts. They pelt past me, ducking and weaving through wooden pillars and trees. I watch in awe.

Blind as a bat, that’s how the saying goes and yet they navigate with apparent ease. I’m pulled between feelings of admiration and a mild fear that one will come crashing into my head.

This torque between awe and fear captures my experience in Bali. Quite possibly it epitomises my reaction to life in general.

There is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. Alan Watts

This place is beautiful but a little unsafe. No, not really unsafe. Unfamiliar. There are imagined disasters at every turn. Can I leave my son in the bungalow for an hour to go to yoga? What if something happens to him? What if I get hit by a scooter? What if we get sick? What if I lose all our money? What if there’s a tsunami? A volcanic ash cloud? What if we get stuck here and I run out of money? What if I chose the wrong place to stay? What if we are too isolated here? What if…?

These thoughts have plagued the early hours of the morning. Waking me from a blissful tropical sleep into heart-pounding anxiety. It is said that the body doesn’t differentiate between a real or an imagined experience. And here I lie in paradise traumatising myself with imagined disaster scenarios.

The human ego prefers anything, just about anything, to falling, or changing, or dying. The ego is that part of you that loves the status quo – even when it’s not working. It attaches to past and present and fears the future. Richard Rohr

This same torque exists within me, a strong need for security coupled with an adventurous and inquisitive spirit. There is absolutely no way to quell these needs simultaneously, there are always choices that serve one but not the other. And I feel ever pulled in different directions. 

Anxiety is a strange beast. It’s been with me forever and yet I am only just starting to see its pervasiveness. I think in the past I had a host of coping mechanisms – not good ones it has to be said, but temporarily effective. 

These strategies seemed to mask and divert my anxiety into manageable, material things. I felt anxious but I had a solution, I just needed a drink, a drug, a man, a family sized tub of Haagen Dazs…

The desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet. Alan Watts

Then there is the strategy of control and micromanaging. It goes like this, if I keep my life small, contained and manageable, if I stick to the list of things I can’t do because they scare me, then I keep anxiety at bay. Well, that’s the theory.

Except I discovered none of these things actually works in the long term. Like a hyper-resistant virus, anxiety soon finds a way through all my defences. “Ha ha it says. You can’t beat me!” It’s like the ever confident poker player always willing to raise me one more until I fold.

So what to do then?

Nothing goes away until it teaches you what you need to know. Pema Chodron

So what does my anxiety have to teach me? Paradoxically I think it teaches me to be brave. I know that sounds crazy but bear with me here.

When every day, all day, every little decision, every action scares you, it means you are constantly overcoming fear. Unlike someone who lives in the illusion of security, an anxious person is only too aware of the unstable nature of life, inherent is suffering, misfortune and ultimately death. 

The trick is to be at peace with this awareness. It is how we react to the anxiety that makes the difference, not trying to get rid of the anxiety itself.

What lies beneath this anxiety about seemingly trivial things is the fear of no control, and ultimately the fear of suffering and death. Anxiety is borne of a lie that if things were a certain way, then I’d be okay. But in reality things are in constant flux and mostly out of my control.

The places that really scare us are within and not outside of ourselves. That’s the ruse. Anxiety makes us feel that the threat is out there, that there is safety and security to be found if only we manage well. 

Coming to Bali, leaving my son to go to yoga, all involves acting in face of these fears. The fear turns out to be an illusion. This acting in spite of my fear strengthens me for the next bout of fear. It teaches me to be present in the fear and act with integrity and courage anyway. It teaches me that although I have no control, I do have choice. 

The more we witness our emotional reactions and understand how they work, the easier it is to refrain. Pema Chodron 

Here I have none of my defences. I wear little clothes, no make-up. I have no job, no profession, no role. There is no schedule, no timelines. I am without my armoury. Without my anchors of familiarity and routine. In this free flowing unfolding of life my anxiety runs around like a headless chicken. “What if… What if… What if…”

After centering myself, reminding myself gently that I came to Bali to revisit my spirit of adventure, I say “Wouldn’t it be lovely to walk to yoga in my favourite studio in the whole world, knowing my son is completely safe and so am I.”

And that’s exactly how it goes.

Now I’m not saying bad things don’t happen. That’s not the point. The point is worrying and anxiety are not going to stop bad things from happening. And mostly those things are the ones we never see coming anyway. Like the coconut that fell from a tree missing my head by inches as my son and I walked to the pool. Didn’t see that coming! I didn’t wake at 5am worrying about having my skull caved in by a falling coconut…

The point is not to let fear poison and dominate my life’s experiences and choices. To as Pema Chodron says go to the places that scare you. Be present there, and live heart-fully in spite of fear. To accept my vulnerability in a world where quite possibly anything could happen. To be invigorated rather than petrified by this.

When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation, and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment. Pema Chodron 

All this has emerged as I feel the shift into my heart chakra. This year I have been allowing myself to flow through my chakras very slowly and intuitively. Last month I was enjoying the fiery energy of Manipura. And even as I finished writing my last post I could feel the shift into the heart centre.

The alchemy of surrender is a term used by astrologer Sarah Varcas. She uses it to describe the power that comes from embracing the state of unknowing. She talks about the shift that happens when we stop trying to think our way through uncertainty and begin to feel into it.

Over the past ten days I have remained present through my varying states from mild panic to complete calm and peace. Having just been attuned to reiki, I practiced this on myself and tuned into where the nervous energy was stuck in my body.

Anxiety is awareness without presence, just as fear is excitement without breathing. Russ Hudson

Anxiety is just energy. When you think about it, there’s very little difference between anxiety and excitement except the story the mind tells itself.

In yoga class, the teacher led us through pranayama breathing exercises. He reminded us that without proper breathing the energy cannot flow. Yoga asanas, or any energy raising practice for that matter, without breathing will raise energy but not move it, creating blocks and imbalances.

Anxiety is an energetic charge created by our mental perception. Breathing into the anxiety. Focusing on where it is being trapped in the body – both subtle and physical – allowing a compassionate observation of our thoughts and sensations, creating space for them, is a powerful way to transform anxiety into a mindfulness practice.

This is not something we do once or twice. Interrupting our destructive habits and awakening the heart is the work of a lifetime. Pema Chodron

Anxiety and fear is a call to arms. Without it would I have pursued a spiritual solution? I doubt it. If not driven by my discomfort, what motivation would there have been for me to investigate meditation, yoga, Chakradance? That’s not to say that anxiety is all that motivates me, I have a connection to the spirit world that is precious and wonderful to me, but it was desperation that got me started.

For those of you who haven’t experienced anxiety it begins with a feeling of something running on a mouse-wheel in your chest. There’s a feeling of panic even if there’s no real sense of what the panic is about. It’s like feeling scared. 

People – the ones who don’t experience anxiety – will say it’s all in your head. Yes. Like real fear. That’s in your head too. And your body doesn’t distinguish between the two. For someone in the midst of an anxiety attack, they may as well be tied to the train tracks with the 4:32 fast approaching.

Anxiety certainly gets your attention. It’s hard to ignore that freight train rocking through your chest, the dry mouth, the pounding head, the urge to run. Maybe that’s the point. Anxiety wants me to pay attention. Like a parent who has asked politely twenty times for their child to come to dinner, anxiety ramps it up a notch just to get their attention.

We’re all very familiar with the experience of fear escalating, or the experience of running away from fear. But have we even taken the time to truly touch our fear, to be present with it and experience it fully? Do we know what it might mean to smile at fear? Pema Chodron

Meditation helps. It helps because it is a practice which disciplines us to let thoughts go, to not attach or overly identify with them. It helps because it brings awareness on to the breath, and breathing can become shallow when anxious, and breath moves energy through our subtle body. 

And it helps because it teaches us to just observe whatever state we may be in with loving compassion and a little detachment. In meditation I am present, aware, but not a slave to my thinking.

Someone once told me that the problem it not how we feel, it’s how we feel about how we feel. So when I’m anxious I have the choice to feel anxious about my anxiety – can you see the snowball effect of that line of thinking? 

Or I can choose to accept that I’m anxious, without reacting to it. This was a strategy I first encountered in Russ Harris’ book The Happiness Trap, but essentially it is the basis of many religious and contemplative practices. Begin in the now, with what is, accept it, breathe, refrain from judgement or reaction. Be an impassive observer of your own inner workings. Create a space between the feeling and the observing of the feeling.

Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy. Pema Chodron

I know it sounds so simple, but it’s also really hard to unlearn years of habitual thinking. So I have found I need to be very gentle and compassionate with myself. Sometimes I react to my anxiety, that snowball starts rolling and I’m out of control.  And that’s okay. It always comes to a head and then I regroup. I meditate, I dance, I run, I do yoga. I sit on a stationary bike and pedal until all the nervous energy has burned out of me. I begin again.

I am sure much of my anxiety comes from a defensive self-protection. I want to be open to life, to explore, to love, to experience. 

Yet part of me feels that in the past when I have opened to life, to love, it has been a Trojan horse, which seemed at first, like a wondrous gift, but once within my walls, once it had me vulnerable, it attacked. After charming itself into my world it let me down in the most spectacular way. My heart hurts from this disappointment and betrayal. 

As much as I wish to be rendered new, these scars linger. But what if that’s the point? What could be more brave than keeping my heart open knowing that pain is inevitable?

A dark night of the soul is some of the most transformative times that we go through in our lives. They are sacred initiations. Marianne Williamson

Marianne Williamson talks of the modern tendency of pathologising of normal human suffering. Pain and suffering are part of life, we are built for it. As well as a physical immune system we have a psychic immune system. After a physical injury or illness we allow time for the bruises and scars to heal. The same goes for our psychic scars, after loss or sadness or disappointment there is a time when we feel bruised, and are healing. Time and self-compassion and acceptance is the way through this process. 

The thymus gland relates to the immune system in the body and is the gland that is located in the area of the heart chakra. Is it possible that this psychic immune system is also located in the heart centre? 

Just as our physical immunity strengthens from exposure to allergens and bacteria, perhaps our psychical immune system strengthens through these times of fear, pain and grief that so test our hearts.

Marianne Williamson maintains that much of what is diagnosed and medicated as anxiety and depressive disorders is actually the very sane reactions we have to the world we live in. Bombarded daily with images of violence, poverty, disease, only the hardest of hearts could not feel pain. 

The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart. Helen Keller

Spiritual malady is often called the ‘dark night of the soul.’ As Buddha and Christ demonstrated suffering is at the core of the spiritual experience. Indeed the need to be happy – that we are so bombarded with – is a set-up for disappointment and despair.

When what we really need is to develop acceptance and resilience to pain, compassion for ourself and others, by understanding and accepting its intrinsic role in our human experience.

The energy of the heart is simple. It is love. It wants to love. To radiate its light. To bring warmth and healing to others. To open to the radiance of life. 

In Sanskrit, Anahata means unhurt or unstruck. 

The heart is always unhurt and unstruck. That sacred centre cannot be scarred. The scars are energetic memories of past suffering. They are not bad, just products of the mistaken belief that closing, hiding and shielding the heart will prevent pain when of course the opposite is true.

Jung described the heart chakra as the beginning of individuation. The place where we begin to experience something beyond our ego-self, something we might call spirit.

When we begin to heal the heart chakra, we create a softening of the heart. This softening stirs the energy of love and compassion and through awareness we can begin to dissolve the hurt we so often bury in our hearts. As our heart awakens to its own loving potential we begin to experience genuine connection with others, and our relationships grow healthy and radiate love. Natalie Southgate 

The heart Chakradance is a dance of integration, of uniting the masculine and feminine energies, the energies of the more dense chakras below, with the more etheric above. As we dance we honour Father Sky and Mother Earth, day and night, light and dark, yang and yin. We experience that beautiful space where all is united and integrated, where all apparent opposites move together in harmonious dance of love.

I remember the last time I led the Heart Chakradance, it was close in time to an experience that had hurt my heart. I was more than a little afraid to be going there, especially leading a class. ‘What if I break down?’ I worried, knowing the pain was just beneath the surface.

Yet in the dance I didn’t experience my pain, I held the space for the dancers, and what I found was the essence of the heart energy, endless, unfathomable, bottomless waves of love and compassion. The room was bathed in emerald green light, as I shifted the energies that people released, yes, there was sadness and grief and disappointment, but it paled in the face of this infinite supply of love. 

When you begin to touch your heart or let your heart be touched, you begin to discover that it’s bottomless, that it doesn’t have any resolution, that this heart is huge, vast and limitless. You begin to discover how much warmth and gentleness is there, as well as how much space. Pema Chodron 

The recent years have marked a shift for me into setting my sights high and acting with self-belief. And while the fear and anxiety are often there, they no longer dictate my actions. Often I see anxiety as an indicator that have stepped outside of my comfort zone, into new territory and I remind myself this is a good thing.

After returning from Bali I met with the leader of my Druid grove and she guided my through walking the wheel. The Druid wheel is both a calendar for the eight seasonal ceremonies of the year and like the Native American medicine wheel, a sacred symbolic and archetypal map for the stages of development and the energies we are working through at a given time in our life. 

As part of a grove or Druid community, it also suggests the ceremonial role that we should hold for that year. While we work through the energies of an aspect of the wheel, we can also hold and represent those energies for the group during ceremony. For me the wheel guided me to stop just North of West, at the position of the knight. 

Don’t move the way fear makes you move. Move the way love makes you move. Move the way joy makes you move. Osho

It a curious position, archetypally the Knight is a young male, still adolescent, who embarks on a spiritual quest, the search for the Holy Grail, if you will. He represents the spiritual warrior. While it seemed strange for a woman at my stage of life, somewhere in the mother/queen realm to be guided to this energy, it also makes perfect sense.

This year I have been guided to make my spiritual journey a physical one, with my pilgrimages to Bali and India, and next year to Ireland. I have very much been called to get on my horse and physically seek. I have also been guided to do so alone. For the first time in my life I am not looking for a partner, if anything I feel I have no space for one right now. I’m the knight on his holy mission and it’s a path I must travel alone.

And how interesting that at a time when anxiety over my life choices has reared up, this warrior energy has emerged for me. It feels like a beautiful integration of the solar plexus warrior energy into the heart. Where my will and passion is channeled through my heart centre. 

It’s exciting for me to see spirit guide me in this way, it’s validating. As I march into the unknown, I have unseen guides alongside me. 

And like the turning of the wheel, my time as the knight won’t be forever, only until I have worked with these energies, gained their wisdom and I am ready to integrate this and move on.

The most courageous thing we will ever do is bear humbly the mystery of our own reality. Richard Rohr


Bless!

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4 comments on “The places that scare you

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