Last week I read, coincidentally, a book that was partly about managing extreme fear and an article that induced extreme fear.
The book was Maria Coffey’s Explorers of the Infinite: The Secret Spiritual Lives of Extreme Athletes–And What They Reveal About Near-Death Experiences, Psychic Communication, and Touching the Beyond.
It was the July pick for my Goodreads Pacific NW Literary Hikers book club (which anyone can join). In her book, Coffey discusses various attributes of extreme athletes, including how they deal with Fear.
People who climb big mountains or surf big waves or hurl themselves off cliffs in a wingsuit are often times people who rate high in the sensation-seeking category of personality tests. They may also, I learned from Ms. Coffey’s book, carry a longer version of the D4DR gene, which makes their need for thrill (and, correspondingly, for fear) a lot stronger than for people with shorter D4DRs. (Like mine.)
So they go looking for Fear. And then what? How do they handle it? True, they are voluntarily planting themselves on knife-edged ridges or hanging mid-air over ten-story-tall waterfalls or riding through the barrel of a big wave. But they still have to face Fear–if they want to survive.
Which brings me to the article I read this week. You probably know which one I’m talking about: “The Really Big One,” which was published in The New Yorker. Basically, journalist Kathryn Schulz says that those of us who live in the Seattle area (and the greater Pacific Northwest) are in for a big awakening, and soon. We are overdue for a major (read magnitude 9.0-ish) earthquake and ensuing tsunami like the one that devastated Japan a few years ago. FEMA predicts that 13,000 will die in this disaster, which is more than double the number of fatalities from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and Hurricane Katrina, combined. The odds of this happening in the next fifty years are pretty good: 1 in 3.
While some ostriches have stuck their heads in the sand even after reading this story, and a few demented sensation-seekers in Seattle are claiming they look forward to this day, this shocking story has left thousands (millions?) of Pacific Northwesterners in a greater state of fear than they were a week ago, before the article was published. Everyone knew we lived in the Ring of Fire. Everyone knew we are nestled against a row of volcanoes, most of which are either active or dormant rather than extinct.
But almost no one spent any time worrying about the possibility of a natural disaster of this magnitude, including the local and state governments which have not even implemented early warning systems to shut down public transportation systems, power plants, and so on. “FEMA calculates that, across the region, something on the order of a million buildings—more than three thousand of them schools—will collapse or be compromised in the earthquake,” Schulz writes. “So will half of all highway bridges, fifteen of the seventeen bridges spanning Portland’s two rivers, and two-thirds of railways and airports; also, one-third of all fire stations, half of all police stations, and two-thirds of all hospitals.”
I’m not sure if we should be more afraid of the natural disaster itself, or of the chaotic and post-apocalyptically decivilized state of society that will result. Whichever way you look at it, there seems to be good reason for Fear to come a’callin’ these days in our otherwise idyllic Pacific Northwest. Which brings me back to the experts, and how they handle this dark and sometimes debilitating emotion.
Here are what some of them say in Coffey’s book.
1. Embrace your fear
Kristen Ulmer, a former world champion extreme skier, says you need to embrace your fear so your fear can relax. “It’s like a child that needs to be listened to. Once it’s listened to, it calms down.”
Thanks, Kristen. For now that sounds like good advice, so we can all calmly go to Costco to stock up on bottled water and six-packs of fire extinguishers. But in the moment when the ground is opening up beneath our feet and the tsunami is rising up “like the whole ocean, elevated, overtaking land… a five-story deluge of pickup trucks and doorframes and cinder blocks and fishing boats and utility poles and everything else,” I’m not sure I’ll be able to remember to give my friend Fear a big hug.
2. Get in the zone with your fear
Kayaker Ed Lucero says that going over waterfalls sends him into a state of hyper-attention, that zone where many athletes go and that’s been described as the point where the skills and focus are woven together and all unnecessary chatter in the mind gets screened out. Another kayaker, Hans Lindemann, says he survived weeks alone on the ocean in high seas and beneath raging storms by concentrating “on nothing–becoming one with nature.” While this achievement of zone-status can be difficult, studies do show that when neuronal resources are focused on the sensory cortex, the brain is able to switch off unnecessary thought and emotion. Like Fear.
I get this; writing is frightening, too–in a different sort of way–inducing other types of fears, like rejection and failure, for starters. Or like having to reveal your inner shadow. But when I get in the writing zone, I can almost shut down all those naysayers and get some good work done. But what about when the dogs start barking and the ground starts shaking and your favorite knickknacks start flying off the shelves? Or when landline and cell service goes out, and bridges are down, and roads are either destroyed or gridlocked, and you can’t get in touch with your loved ones? I guess focus, and getting into the right zone, will be critical. You need to concentrate on what’s really important–survival. You need to worry only about whatever is within your control and let your brain screen out counterproductive thoughts and what-ifs. You can take Fear into the zone with you, but personally I think it’s important to keep reminding Fear who’s the boss. Fear gets the back seat.
3. Use Fear to find meaning
If you realize that Fear has a purpose, you will find it more manageable, according to Tenzin Palmo, an Englishwoman who became a Tibetan nun. She spent thirteen years (yes, thirteen years!) in solitude in a Himalayan cave at 13,200’ elevation. I’m not sure why she did this. But she did, and her space was so small that she had to sleep sitting upright. She was lonely, miserable, and fearful. But after her ordeal had ended, she concluded that we’re not meant to be comfortable; we’re here to learn and grow and face problems.
So yes, I would probably agree that fear serves a purpose and can help us learn. There have been a number of times in my life when the fear of losing someone dear to me has prompted me to take actions I might not otherwise have done. Fear woke me up to what was going on, and what the risks were, and what that individual meant to me. Fear allowed me to see my life without that person–a peek into an unwelcome but potential future–which then helped shape my decisions going forward.
When it comes to the anticipated earthquake, I can see that Fear has a purpose, too. It is Fear who will send us to stock up on emergency supplies and to prepare an emergency communication plan with loved ones. Fear will motivate us to bolt our water heaters and china cabinets to the wall, to keep flashlights and shoes by our beds, and to find the big wrench and the gas shut-off valve. But, again, when the earthquake happens, I’m not sure we’ll all be able to see the meaning of the disaster because of Fear. Some families of mountaineers who have been blown off ridges say they have found meaning, and some survivors of the Japanese earthquake say this too. But this is far easier said than done, so no promises from me on this one.
4. Reflect on your connectedness
Coffey’s athletes believe that Fear is also here to remind us of our connection with each other and with the natural world. Some have found it possible to communicate with those in the afterlife. Some have strengthened bonds with their living friends and family as a result of Fear. And nearly all of them have said that the fear they endured has brought them closer to the earth as a whole.
For example, many cultures have believed for centuries that it’s not wise to offend the mountain gods, and while most people in today’s modern world would brush this off as old wives’ tales, many climbers still participate in spiritual rituals before a climb. Others rely on other spiritual tools not only for survival but to find that connectedness and to cope with Fear. Slovenian mountaineer Tomaz Humor uses his third eye–the invisible eye above the brow to provide perception beyond ordinary vision–to measure the energy surrounding other people and mountains. American climber Stephen Koch practiced a form of tumo–the practice of raising your own body temperature–to fend off hypothermia and remain confident he would survive. And Tibetan runners have been able to enter into the psychic state of lung gom to walk great distances at high speed, for long periods, without rest–seemingly floating above ground, carefree.
According to Mensa dude Karl Albrecht, PhD, we all share five basic fears: extinction, mutilation, loss of autonomy, separation, and ego-death. Most of the time–at this stage of my life–my fear revolves around separation from my loved ones. And this will still be true on the day of the Big Shake, although admittedly extinction, mutilation, and loss of autonomy (particularly becoming entrapped) will rank pretty high.
I admire the extreme athletes Coffey interviewed who cling to rock walls or ride big waves, and to some degree I might even envy their assertions that they have found a profound state of peace unlike anything they can find in their regular lives. Or that, as surfer Rabbi Nachum Shifren put it, they have been able “to see God in a very different way than most human beings could imagine.”
But I think we all have our own experiences, and we don’t need to be extreme athletes to find the spiritual place we are looking for or to meet up with Fear, either. As a mother who has raised three boys, Fear has been shadowing me for the last couple of decades. Whether they were climbing trees, jumping off cliffs, or driving too fast, my kids inadvertently put me in a near-constant state of panic about their well being and, unlike them, I am not the sort of person who likes roller coasters. I do not rate very high on the thrill- and adventure-seeking component of the part of the sensation seeking personality test. I do not like Fear.
Ironically, as I was reading about all this earthquake stuff and about the ground getting ready to crack open, I came across this line in Coffey’s book.
“It is often the hardest, most challenging experiences of our lives that crack us open.”
And, thanks to her book, I’ve decided it’s time to get a little more comfortable with Fear. Spend some time together. Go for a walk in the woods and what not. That way, we’ll both be ready when and if the earthquake comes. Yes, I’ll even try to remember to give Fear a hug now and then. Take it with me into the zone. Call upon it to help me find meaning along the way. And use Fear as my mirror, to help me reflect upon my connectedness to the world.
What about you?