Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Lesson of 2009: The Year of Overcoming Fear (Part 1)

This is first of a series of posts looking back at 2009, and also the past decade.

There is one thing 2009 taught me: that nothing is more frightening than fear itself. Does that sound like something Tolkein would write? Or Gandalf would say? Actually, as I learned over the past year, its absolutely true.

The lesson was especially odd as I have never thought of myself as a particularly fearful person. Actually most of my friends and family worry about the exact opposite: I get an idea in my head and then proceed to implement it, often without any regard to my own safety and sanity.

That was what happened many years ago when I decided that I refused to suffer from vertigo. Actually, I am not even sure that I was ever afraid of heights. I just worried because I wanted to leap of the edge, which kind of meant that I was afraid of going to edges of balconies, mountain ledges, even tall windows.

When we lived in Manhattan, I would not stand at our gorgeous high windows for long, in case the urge to fling myself in to the endless space before me grew too strong. Which is why I took up skydiving - I figured if I threw myself out of a aeroplane enough times, eventually the urge would pass. Funnily enough, eventually it did! I still feel that tug of the void on mountaintops and skyscrapers, but having thrown myself into it, it is no longer overwhelming.

On the other hand, I have always been afraid of water, partly because of the immense power and mystery large bodies of water seem to hold. For me, the sea, lakes, rivers embody some uncontrollable fount of energy barely held in check. To take it on seems a bit foolhardy. But that is why earlier this year, I decided that if I could learn to swim well, I would be fine taking on this immense secret power.

Weirdly enough, having taken on the challenge, I have realised that I love every minute of it. I love pushing my limits - even in daily life - and swimming has just become one more arena to test myself. There have been days this past year when I have been unable to lift my arms after a session. And there have been far too many occasions where the instructor has assigned "bonus" laps when I am completely exhausted (although he does that with sly grin). He knows I will stay and battle fatigue regardless.

With each passing week, the fear of water, of the loss of control, of taking on a power far greater than myself recedes a little. In its place has developed a greater knowlege: I understand now that I need not fight the water head-on; that going along the flow yields better results. Oddly enough that is a pretty profound lesson for the rest of my life as well.

But psychological fears are harder to face and beat than physical ones, in part
because it is often so hard to identify them. 2009 opened with my past whooshing straight back into my life, bringing with it all the reminders of pain, loss and grief that I thought I had put behind me. And yes, the rational choice would have been to walk away as fast as I could, away from the those terrible memories.

But then rationality has never been my strong point. So I stayed: facing up to everything I didn't even know I was afraid of. For much of 2009, this has meant wrenching, horrible soul-searching, often accompanied by floods of memories that would often left me gasping, hyperventilating, teary-eyed. Yet somewhere in that process of facing up to the past, the fear I didn't even know I had faded, and a strength that I had never foreseen emerged in its place.

Some years ago, my mother had told me that I needed to "learn how to protect myself." I think she had probably sensed this deeply internalised fear that I had carried buried deep within. I told her then that I could not possibly do that.

For me, my over-sensitivity has always been an essential part of my ability to write. I notice everything, think of everything, feel every last bit of it. To "protect myself" meant the potential loss of this hypersensitivity. How else could I write? Wouldn't protecting myself mean shutting myself off emotionally?

But 2009 has taught me otherwise. I wasn't really being hypersensitive at all for all those years (or not at least fully and honestly). Instead, I was afraid of the emotions I had felt in the past and had found painful. Somehow, without realising, and even though I told myself that I was open and vulnerable, I had built myself a massive, inpenetrable, fortress to hide myself and my fears.

Facing the fears brought on by my past has been a very painful process in 2009. Slowly, steadily, consciously, I have lowered that internal drawbridge; ripped down the ramparts and emptied the moats. Then with even greater deliberation, I forced myself to shatter the shield, remove the armour, put away every weapon I had accumulated. And at each step, I have fought the internal panic that I was exposing myself to pain and hurt and loss all over again, and all of which I remembered all too well.

Eventually, as the autumn has grown into winter, I have learned an unforeseen lesson: that I had been afraid for so long that I had forgotten the weight of my fear. To shed my internal defences has meant letting go of the fear, of letting drop a weight that I didn't even know I carried.

More importantly, shattering my defences has not meant that I am vulnerable. Instead, for the first time, I understand what the ancient Indian texts mean by the perfect warrior: I am the weapon, the warrior, the fort! To lose fear is also to lose all interest in consequences: it is the perfect form of karmayoga: of action without desire. If fear is rooted in our desire for gain, in our need to avoid loss, then once there is no interest in either gain or loss, there is also no fear.

The past year has not been the easiest, but definitely, looking back shall count as the most memorable and rewarding. For me, 2009 shall always be the year when I let go of fear and surprisingly enough, without intent, finally learned to be me!

In contrast to 2009, I am looking forward to the new year: to what a life without fear will mean for me; how the loss of fear will change my sensitivity to the life around me; and most importantly, how that will impact my writing. Bring on 2010 - finally, after all these years of reciting it, I begin to understand my favourite verse from the Bhagwad Gita (II:27).