It seems that, for me, my biggest challenge in life has been dealing with fear. Off and on, I go through cycles of various anxieties or worries, and they are always times of profound personal growth. Recently, I had been going through a period of time in which I was experiencing a lot of fear. Not big huge fears, like of dying or losing a job, but it was all those little worries that were getting to me. Will that person cut me off and we’ll get in an accident? What if I’m a few minutes late to that class? How will I juggle everything that I need to get done this week? Oh no, I’ve left the clothes in the washer – did they mildew overnight? What if someone stole them out of the washer?
Little worries and anxieties, and I hadn’t even been conscious of them, until one afternoon when I decided to work on Handstand. And there arose that fear of my arms buckling and falling. I sat down on the floor and cried, realizing how tired I was of being afraid. It was wearing me out and beating me up, and I just wanted it to stop.
I had rationalizations for each fear, yet what good were they doing me? Did they really help the situations I was afraid of? Or did they simply drain energy out of me for very little reason? I decided on the latter, and that it was time to do something about it.
Anxiety and clinging to what’s safe
We all come up against situations in life that bring up fear, anxiety, or worry. They’re usually situations that involve some sort of risk, whether great or small. We may not even realize how much we’re affected by these minute anxieties. It can involve simple decision-making: should I cook this for dinner? Well, I’ve never cooked it before. What if it turns out bad? What will my husband/partner/date think if it tastes terrible? We may start imagining the worst, and then the body gets tense, the stomach churns a bit, and we decide to go with a familiar and safe recipe.
Of course, we encounter this on the yoga mat. Should I try Headstand in the middle of the room, and risk falling? Maybe I’ll just go over to the wall again, even though I don’t really use it. Should I attempt that arm balance? What if I topple over and land on my nose? Maybe I’ll just practice squatting instead. These choices may be very appropriate, depending on our level of experience. At a certain point, however, we know we’re ready for the next step, and something in us just refuses to budge. Clinging onto what’s safe, we don’t venture outside of our self- imposed perimeters.
Moving beyond those perimeters involves Intelligent Risk. We’ve all seen reckless risk – forgetting to “look before we leap.” Getting involved in a financial investment that’s kind of quirky, and not bothering to look into the facts. Diving headfirst into a relationship without taking enough time to get to know the person. I’ve seen yoga students do this with poses from time to time – a sort of panicky rush to get into the pose, hoping it will somehow happen, without having the appropriate knowledge of how to approach it.
When we participate in reckless risk, we’re actually still in reaction to the fear, and letting it get the best of us. We don’t want to look at the fear, or consider how to deal with the risks, so we ignore them and leap. Unfortunately, this kind of risk-taking is often what ends us up in the very situations we wanted to avoid in the first place.
Intelligent risk moves us towards transcendence, in its most simple sense: going beyond what is already known and comfortable. It involves a mindful, conscious practice of particular qualities and skills. It is a willingness to step into unfamiliar territory, based on having some relevant knowledge, wisdom, and experience from which to draw upon in the new situation. It also requires faith, courage, and letting go. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras spells out these keys to transcendence – moving beyond our self-imposed limitations and perceptions (including fears) – clearly:
Sraddha Virya Smrti Samadhi Prajnapurvaka Itaresham.
Faith, Courage, Memory, and Wisdom
can lead us to the state of transcendence.
Into the places that scare us
Would you go backpacking in the wild without a map? Probably not – if you wanted to find your way back! But, we can venture into unknown territory – the places that may scare us a bit –if we have a map, or a general sense of what to expect. It would also be a good idea to have the appropriate skills. Some experience with hiking, camping, and first aid would be likely prerequisites for taking a backpacking trip. Without those, we could be setting ourselves up for an unpleasant experience, maybe even danger.
So when we’re approaching something new and that brings up fear, whether it’s a yoga pose or interviewing for a job, it’s good to be prepared. That preparation is knowledge and experience stored in our memory – Smrti. Being able to do downward facing dog, understanding the appropriate actions in the hands, having good strength in the arms, and flexibility in the armpits and shoulders would be helpful preparation for Handstand. This lays a strong foundation – having skills and knowledge stored in our consciousness to deal with the situation at hand.
Then we need wisdom, or Prajna – the appropriate application of that knowledge. What are the actions needed to kick up into Handstand? And how do I approach something that brings up fear? It’s usually best to approach slowly, with awareness. If we’re approaching a dog that’s unfamiliar to us, we want to be slow, and also watchful of the dog’s reactions. If we move to fast, or aren’t attentive, what may seem like friendly behavior at first may turn into a nip on the hand. Our fears are like that; if we’re not working mindfully with them, they snap at us a bit. When we’re not being conscious, breathing, and using our discrimination, they can easily get the best of us.
When we’ve laid the foundation of knowledge, wisdom, and experience, then we move more into the more subtle practices of courage, faith, and letting go. We all know that it takes courage to approach our fears and challenges in life. It’s been said that courage is not the state of being unafraid, but the willingness to proceed with what needs to be done in spite of the trepidation. If we wait until that magic day when the fear finally goes away in order to make the changes we want in life, we may be waiting all our lives. Courage, or Virya, is our inner strength – the strength to persist, even when we’d rather not.
Faith adds fuel to that inner strength of courage. It is trusting that something is taking care of us, and therefore motivating us to persevere. Something greater than us will provide what we need beyond the knowledge and skills we already have. In a yoga class, that might be faith in the teacher to help guide the students in their learning process, or that you’ve overcome other difficult poses before, you can do it this time, too.
In life, faith (Sraddha) may involve trust that the Divine is taking care of our needs, and in some way looking after our well-being. It also calls on us to trust that when things are tough, there’s going to be a light at the end of the tunnel, and often a lot of wisdom gained in the journey to get there. Faith isn’t something that just happens – it’s an active, intentional practice, just like getting on the mat and working on our downward dog pose. It doesn’t just appear – we cultivate, explore, and practice faith until it becomes strong and solid within us.
Finally, letting go – surrender and nonattachment (which Patanjali also refers to in other parts of his treatise on yoga philosophy) – is needed in the process of dealing with what feels risky, new, or scary. Doing our best is all that’s required. Whether or not the meal we cook turns out the way we want, or we kick up successfully in Handstand, we’re open to outcome.
Making a breakthrough requires that we let go of control. In “The Four-Fold Way”, Angeles Arrien asserts that “an individual who has difficulty with surprises or the unexpected has attachments, fixed perspectives, and strong need for control.” It’s interesting to note that controlling behavior actually reinforces the fears that it attempts to keep at bay. When we let go, release that control, become open to outcome, and surrender to the process, things actually become possible. It no longer matters whether you end up actually doing the pose, or taking off on a wild adventure, or not. It’s the process of exploring that becomes enriching and freeing. The willingness to step out into the wilderness is the reward in itself.
Putting it all together
When we bring these components together – knowledge and experience, wisdom, faith, courage, and letting go – we are able to take intelligent risks. Life is a risk. We’re all going to die someday, and there are many things in life that aren’t safe. Yet those things are among the most precious and significant aspects of life: giving birth, being willing to love someone, traveling to a foreign country, speaking up for what you feel is right. Willingness to take risks, from a place that is grounded in our higher intelligence and our trust in the Divine, enriches our lives.
After my good cry, I positioned myself at the wall and, in spite of my anxious mind, was determined to kick up. There I was in Handstand, always available to me if I had just let go and trusted. I didn’t have an experience of transcendence, but I did have a moment of peace and clarity. In the moment of taking that leap, with eyes open and clear, I was able to experience my own aliveness. That’s a risk worth taking.
Copyright © 2002, 2008 by Constance L. Habash