Some years ago, I was at a wedding in the Sierras. Guests stayed at a resort for the weekend. The groom was a well-known mountain and rock-climbing guide and offered to teach any guests the basics of rock-climbing.
I remember my lesson well. I was on a safety rope, and slowly made my way up the rock face with Doug coaching from below. I was maybe 20 feet up the rock face when I looked back down. Even though I logically knew I was safe, the adrenaline began to flow, and I envisioned falling. My brain offered a vision of my head hitting the granite below like a dropped watermelon.
“Ok,” I said. “I’m experiencing some fear right now. Should I just ignore it and keep focusing on the next move?”
Doug smiled. “No, your fear has important information to give you. You want to take in the information, but not let fear control you.”
Acting brave, I continued to climb for another ten minutes or so before I slowly made my way back to the ground. I thanked him for his patience.
I learned two lasting truths that day:
- I don’t like rock climbing. I’ve never tried it again.
- “Your fear has important information to give you. You want to take in the information without letting fear control you.”
I’ve thought of this insight often over the years. It’s come to mind as I’m dealing with unexpected family medical situations, occasional crises at work, financial decisions and even when responding to political events.
I know there are times when fear and adrenalin may save us from danger and there’s no time for thoughtful contemplation.
And I know many people live with phobias, panic attacks, and chronic anxiety – those complex issues are not solved by remembering a simple principle. (In such situations, I’ve seen impressive results from skilled practitioners using Cognitive-Behavior Therapy.)
But I continue to value the basic insight.
It reminds me of one of the five principles taught by Frank Ostateski as he applies Zen mindfulness principles to end-of-life care: “Welcome Everything, Push Away Nothing.” If we can find a still center within, we can observe thoughts and feelings as they arise in us and deal with them calmly and wisely, rather than in a state of fear.
I’m grateful for that lesson: “…your fear has important information to give you. You want to take in the information, but not let fear control you.”
And I’m also grateful I don’t have to pretend I’m calm while I’m clinging to the side of a boulder.