Half a mile into my 8-mile run, the dawn fog reveals a row of glistening teeth ahead. As I slow, the teeth resolve into a snarl of incisors at the tip of an enraged, feral beast the size of a roided out badger.
As I freeze and contemplate my getaway, another runner breezes past us. The badger, amazingly, does not attack or react in any way.
My first and only clue that my predator is a painted acrylic lawn ornament.
I begin to move forward, eying the lifelike sculpture until well past it.
The rest of my run turns into a meditation on fear.
Fear, of course, is hardwired into us. It’s a very useful emotion, keeping us from leaping off tall buildings and fondling rabid mammals.
Our predecessors who lacked a well-developed fear response probably did not live long enough to pass on their genes.
But there’s fear and fear.
Many things can frighten us into immobility. Some are objectively dangerous. But most are like my acrylic badger: a frightening visage that can’t actually hurt us.
Some examples from my world of wellness:
- fear of not fitting in can keep us saying yes to food that we know isn’t good for us at parties and restaurants
- fear of going hungry can jolt us into jumping in line and gorging at a well-attended buffet
- fear of shame or anger can prevent us from engaging in crucial conversations with loved ones about supporting our efforts to get healthy
I’m not saying that we should feel bad for entertaining these fears. We don’t always get to choose our thoughts (in my spotty meditation career, I’ve discovered that my thoughts seem to find me, rather than the other way around).
Indeed, it would be foolish for me to suddenly shed my fear of angry, sharp-toothed creatures crossing my path in the dark. After all, the next time I may not be so lucky. I’ve been chased and bitten by my share of dogs, after all.)
What I can do, though, is be willing to feel the fear fully, examine the objective evidence, consider my options, and then act.
Let’s look at all four movements of that symphony:
1. Feel the fear fully
Fear is a signal that something might be wrong. Fear itself doesn’t hurt us. But our unwillingness to face and feel fear can paralyze us utterly. What happens, sometimes, is that we transfer our fear of the actual thing or situation onto the fear of that thing or situation.
An example: I am a wimp about cold water, and have been for as long as I can remember. I dislike swimming pools that aren’t body temperature, and I cringe at the thought of camping in a place that doesn't have hot showers.
I skip out on martial arts camps that involved lake and river combat because I don’t want to be cold.
The fear of cold water has grown in my mind far beyond the actual cold water. I watch dozens of friends’ Ice Bucket Challenge videos with sympathetic terror.
Not only am I unwilling to tolerate cold water, I’m not even willing to consider the possibility. The thought. Even imagining jumping into a cold lake is too much.
The way out for me is to allow myself to feel that fear. To see that being afraid of cold water, of discomfort, is in itself a harmless feeling. I don’t know if I can tolerate cold water yet, but I discover that I can tolerate the thought of it.
That provides the spaciousness I need to begin to move to the second movement.
2. Examine the objective evidence
When in the grip of the fear of the fear, there is no room in my mind for rational thought about the topic of cold water. Even a playful splash from a water pistol or garden hose contracts my entire being and elicits a pitiful, high-pitched yelp.
I don’t see the humor and desire for connection in what I feel as a nasty attack.
But once I accept that fear, and allow myself to feel it, to experience it fully, I am able to return to rational examination of evidence.
Extreme cold over prolonged periods of time can be deadly, I know. So my aversion to cold is rooted in an evolutionary imperative to seek a comfortable environmental temperature.
But cold water from a garden hose, or a 20-minute dip in a 64-degree lake, or a cold shower on the Appalachian Trail – these are harmless, or even – if you believe science – good for us.
3. Consider options
Now that I see that my fear of cold water is keeping me from activities and goals that I cherish, is sabotaging my relationships by interpreting play as aggression, and is standing in the way of health benefits, I can weigh these downsides against the benefits of staying away from cold water (comfort in the moment).
I decide – at the strong encouragement of my martial arts teacher – to dump a 5-gallon bucket of cold water on my head every morning.
The first day is terrifying. I fill the bucket from the garden hose and then add a tray of ice cubes. I lift and lower the bucket a dozen times, summoning and abandoning my courage over and over.
I cringe, body and spirit, as I contemplate lifting and dumping the bucket over my body.
I feel that fear fully. And I breathe deeply and slowly, telling my body that there’s no danger, no risk, no threat.
And I pour.
Without quite enough conscious relaxation.
But I pour. Chest first, then face, head, back of neck, and all the way down.
And – to the absolute amazement of some part of me – I survive.
I have broken the spell of fear.
Cold water is now a sensation. Sometimes welcome, sometimes not. But without the power to control and limit me.
In all my years working with people trying to change themselves – their mindsets, their health habits, their professional skills – I’ve never encountered resistance to change that isn’t rooted in fear.
And in every case, the fear metastasizes far beyond the object of the fear. The cold shower becomes an icy death. The peckish sensation in the stomach becomes painful, prolonged starvation. The insensitive jest from a dining companion becomes exile and loss of protection from the tribe.
In other words, our big, sophisticated 21st century brains interpret discomfort as stone-aged death threats.
And we aren’t going to debate our way out of that trap until we are willing to feel the discomfort, tolerate the fear, and embrace the question: Is this really so?
My run is a there-and-back route. At 7:10am I return to the acrylic badger in full sunshine.
This time, I don't break stride.