Are you scared? I unconsciously punched out a text message back to my mom. What would I be scared of? She’d just asked me to stop by a police station around the corner of my office to pick up a car accident report for a recent minor fender-bender we’d had in the city. In the scroll-worthy text she’d sent me asking to go in the first place, I could feel her own fear pulsing through the magnetic fields that connected our devices. Not knowing where she was sending her daughter, but knowing she needed the paperwork, she took a risk—one that could, in her lovingly overprotective way, cause me harm.
In an oblique way my mother’s actions represent the popular adage “feel fear and do it anyway.” The name of one of the original self-help books by Dr. Susan Jeffers, published in 1986, it’s saturated our go get’em, Puritan work ethic standards of achievement, progress, and evolution. Such is the mentality of many a wellness guru of the twenty-first century, where coaches and “mastermind” groups abound promising more authentic relationships and careers as the result of figuring out who you really are. In knowing your purpose and calling, they say, you don’t have to extinguish fear entirely. Instead, you tell fear it’s wrong and go forth with what you know is right. The journey might make you a little queasy or put your chest in a vice, but it’s worth it.
A lot of what I’ve done in life was this kind of “anyway” behavior. Not because I’ve stood boldly in the face of fear a la Cheryl Strayed and Brene Brown, literally throwing it off the side of a mountain and continuing to climb in just one boot. Fear has flattened me into a wallflower at countless social occasions, sent me to the ER after the fifth day of thinking I was having a stroke (it was a panic attack with hypoglycemia), and played in my ear a nonstop track of subliminal messaging reminding me how I’m not good/smart/tall/pretty/thin/funny/spontaneous/tough/any-desirable-adjective enough. I have, though, spent a lot of time on my yoga mat. In the practice, I discovered a feeling of freedom that was just contained enough to make me trust in its inherent safety. In the 11 square feet of my mat, my body could do amazing things without fear—I did exactly what the teacher said, and really well, so I did it more and deeper and harder and better. By nature’s will my curiosity guides me into extremes on the quest for mastery—the range of motion of my brain is as large as that of my soft tissues. And so each time I probed deeper into a pose, yearning my hypermobile joints toward the feeling of stretch, I believed myself getting closer to some ultimate knowledge—that doing the poses more right would make me more right.
But all throughout these early yoga years when figuring out who I was was top of mind and body, I never stopped to question what it was I was actually feeling to find those answers. There was the way I thought the sensation of stretch or release should feel—a sheen of rightness both effervescent and liquid. The “hurts so good” sensation that I relished in the days after practice was what I sought most often. Until two days of hurt lengthened to four or five, then ten or twelve, then all the time while sitting, then all the time period. The sensation that aligned with “doing it anyway” didn’t have the same quality as before, but I knew all I could about proper alignment and breathing that it had to be right.
In my attachment to the practice I knew the virtues of from top to bottom, I couldn’t find space for pain in my intellectual and physical vocabulary. To admit I was in pain would mean I had done something wrong—violated a principle that caused me to break. To admit I was in pain would mean my work wasn’t working, that maybe there was something else I didn’t know that would serve me better. What I didn’t know—even the fact of not knowing—was too scary to willingly feel.
Pain is an inevitable part of being human, the result of having a body with built-in flaws. But another inevitability of being human is being a daily witness to the wonderful magic of everything that does work together all on its own every second of our lives. This includes a built-in warning system. When it’s too important to think something through, we feel and act in a way that ensures our survival and best interests. Instead of simply knowing a way of being, we actually become it. Sometimes this manifests as instinct: gut reactions that are too strong to ignore and even cause physical experiences. And sometimes it manifests as pain: When the brain senses the body entering a danger zone of unknowable risk, it sends up a neurological flare that makes it so unpleasant, even impossible, to go further that you have no choice but to stop. Our brains give us too much fear to feel so that we won’t just do it anyway.
The physical pain that began to cluster in my too-open joints was just as smart as I was, it turns out. It showed off how clever it was to hijack fear with pain—and I felt that knowledge all the time. Eventually pushing through to do what I’d always done was no longer an option. Finally, the movements that I rode on my quest for sensation had given me results. But instead of dousing me in the experiential joy of right-ness, I was standing before something new. The journey I started took me into a land where I couldn’t ignore the unknowns of why I felt the way I did. I didn’t know where or who I was, and a stranger to myself I was scared.
Because even if I could see inside myself and observe the workings of my soft tissues, I wouldn’t be able to make a direct correlation between my pain, the felt sense of fear, and what I “should” physical feel or not based on knowledge. The psychology of pain is a curious and illogical field, one that reminds us of how humble our intellects are compared to the divine wisdom of the self. Oh, how easy it would be if we could know pain completely—and how dangerous it might be to upset the delicate firings of our warning systems, which alert us to that thing over there which is unknown, and perhaps the place where we’ll be able to experience not a reaction to what could be but a response to what is. Instead of being consumed by preventive sensations of fear, we can embrace the sensations of not knowing, of curiosity, wonder, and awe. In bearing witness to ourselves there is healing.
The “don’t-know mind” is a key tenet of Buddhist philosophy, which in that tradition is the answer to all conflicts. It asserts that the only thing we can know is not knowing, and once we accept that we can relax and feel safe because, not in spite, of what is. In the context of pain, not knowing causes the sensation of fear to change. Visualizing pain (or any emotion or sensation) as the object of meditation grants it that very thing—objectivity. Untethered from the emotional story of fear, pain is just another fact of being that’s as curious to examine and touch and hold and contemplate as a paper clip or a smoothly polished stone. The deeper I got into this work of mindfulness, I unearthed the contradiction at the heart of my pain. I had had no problem working my body into contortions in order to feel something physically—but that was based on an idea of what I thought feeling should be, not the feeling itself. Taken far away from what was actually happening—farther away from what I could know as stretch and release—I detached from my present form on the earth, from my here and now as a woman inside a body. Its mysteries and wonders were such a pleasure to be in the presence of, and yet fear pulled me aside at the party and convinced me it was better to stay with what I knew. Greedy for attention, it set my focus on acute, unavoidable pain. And all the while, healing was waiting for me over there.
Each time I feel a nagging pinch in my hip or shoulder, or a suspicious dull ache on the side of my left foot, my brain still responds by going into detective mode. What could be the cause of this pain? How do I stop it from progressing, if it’s not already too late? Does my feeling this yet again mean my insides are that much closer to full break down? When I dwell on this questions, to which I never ultimately have the answer, the pain is unbearable. Distracting me even from checking email or responding to the buzzes of my iPhone, my brain sends non-stop signals to my nerves that make me feel the fear of those unknownables. Those flares of almost-broken-ness that try to control a forever-elusive tomorrow.
But when I let go of being broken in the first place, I no longer need to know what did the breaking. In not knowing, there is no fear. In not knowing, there is no pain, only feeling—and isn’t that what I’ve been looking for all along?