[This post is unrevised, and was written several days ago between Montreal and Sydney.]
“Just so you know, it’s been a long day…” Natalie Portman says, with a nervous smile.
“It’s okay. It’ll get better, I promise,” comes the reply from Ashton Kutcher in No Strings Attached.
I think I’m becoming a better traveller. I mean, it’s about 6AM in Sydney right now, and I’m on the plane as I start writing this, so that makes my sense of time pretty fucked up. But all things considered, this was probably the ‘easiest,’ even though the longest flight, I’ve taken yet.
It’s a bit hard to put into words what’s going on in my mind right now, but I liken it to the title of a book I always intended to, but never read: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
The easiest memories for me to refer to are in terms of emotional growth several key events in my life. I remember my first kickboxing tournament– I was so nervous that I felt as if I was going to throw up. Because it was just an amateur tournament, there were no weight classes, and on top of that, no fight data on anybody there. My opponent was a head taller than me and outweighed me by a good twenty pounds. I took so many punches to the face in a 3 minute round that the white part of one of my eyes had burst blood vessels, and I spent a good 15 minutes after that semifinal match in the college bathroom topless, dousing myself with water from the sink. Dissapointment at losing was one thing, and pain was another– but I still felt the overhand knot of my intestines from the fear of fighting. Whenever I sparred, I always held back. In that match, it felt as if I was fighting a beast– I didn’t hold back, and that scared me, because even though I gave it my all, he was still hitting me back. My wrists hurt from the impact of my punches, the muscles near my shins were cramped from my legs classhing against his midsection and his legs. I felt paralyzed at the knees, even though just minutes ago, these joints has delivered what I considered bludgeoning lethality nonstop. I couldn’t lift my arms, though minutes ago they were hooking, thrusting, almost flailing with a wild instinct of their own.
It was true that by that time, I’d only been practicing martial arts for a handful of years, so my inexperiences translated into ‘light’ punches and kicks. Nonetheless, it was terrifying to be in this real world, outside of classrooms, where my ‘textbook’ commended technique wasn’t enough. And even when I had added on all the emotional fire I could muster? He just wouldn’t fall.
And when I tried my sharpest wits, heaviest clubs, and most burning desires– to throw all that all into one ball of manifested intention, to see it have only half the effect I intended, it left me feeling empty and fearful.
The fear made my blood viscous and unthinnable, while my heart refused to slow down and just kept on choking on that sludge. They say that the heart is the subconscious willpower… that is true. Because my willpower was faltering, and my body was injured, but my heart was still hammering away in the engine room, waiting for the captain’s next trick.
Well, willpower is a mental process, and the body’s phsyical ability is linked to both conscious and unconscious mental commands. Fear is something that comes from two sources– first of all, it comes from external stiumuli, that your conscious mind evaluates. If I attempt a right hook and he counters with a big right hand straight in my face, it only takes one or two of those for your better judgement to say “okay, stop doing that.” You develop fears as the result of evaluation of a situation– you decide eventually through on the spot learning that something is risky, but you can’t always proof the equations on the spot, so your brain does the calcuations for you and gives you it’s counsel in various degrees of a sensation of fear. As experience begins to tell you that a certain form of action isn’t just risky, it’s nearing impossibility, then the fear becomes more intense.
Eventually, your brain does the automatic function of assigning these relationships between action and reaction more permanently in your subconscious. Which is where the second side of fear eventually comes from– it’s your subconscious instincts, recognizing patterns around you (sometimes incorrectly) and giving you misleading information.
Fear from the subconscious is the worst kind. Unlike fear of that which is right in front of you and based on limited data, fear that is from the subconscious is based on an automatic survival mechanism that half of the time makes you want to run away. It’s extremely unproductive in terms of sticking to goals that you’ve consciously decided on.
Fear of conscious things can be worked on to a certain extent, but the really difficult stuff is the fear that is deeply rooted, that has been commited through so much repetition that we may not even be able to rationalize it any more.
We might call these subconscious fears “inner fears,” while a conscious fear of something is an “outer fear.” The two are very closesly related and it’s true that a situation may be seen as a result of both inner and outer, but let me give an example of how we might visualize the divide.
Several years ago when I was biking as my primary form of commuting, I’d gone over a year without never setting into a vehicle except maybe once every couple of weeks to get a ride to a family outing. As a result of that, my road instincts had retuned themselves to biking.
Biking in Montreal teaches you that engine sounds from behind you means cars approaching. If a car visually appears beside you suddenly, it’s no surprise, because even without turning your head (which is something you often don’t/can’t do, because that’s about when you’re going to get ‘doored’ by a parked car) you heard it coming from a few metres back. You also learn that the faster you go down hill, the more attention you have to pay to cracks and potholes in the road because your increased speed multiplies the danger of an accident. The lack of fear at a car appearing next to me because I could hear it, and the fear of potholes when going down hill, are habits that started off as conscious practical efforts. But eventually, they become programmed responses to simplify the state of consciousness– they become, simply, automatic.
I realized later on though when I moved to a home with carowners that I had developped a particular fear of riding in the back of a car. The reason being was that suddenly, cars would show up right next to me in the window, and I hadn’t heard them coming. And as we rolled down hills under just our momentum, I couldn’t see the road: I couldn’t see any potholes, and I couldn’t slow down. I found myself leaning back in my chair, the way I would on the saddle of my bike, but I nervously found myself at extreme unease.
I mean, if you were on bike, and going down a hill, speeding, and not only couldn’t you see the road but you didn’t have any steering or braking capability? Returning to being a passenger on the same roads where I was previously always in control as a cyclist, quite frankly, was terrifying.
And I didn’t understand why I was always feeling sick while in the back seat of a car, why my heart was always racing, why I always felt so tense… because by now, these practical cyclist fears were rooted in my subconscious, in my muscle memories, in my sense of instincts.
What was necessary through practice was to redefine the vehicle passenger experience as distinct from the pilot cyclist experience.
And therein lies the tyranny of fearful instincts– while they are meant to protect us, they also overcompensate at times and draw false relationships between similar events. Thus, while going downhill on a city road on a bike is similar to doing so in a car, they’re not the same thing, but my subconscious drew that conclusion anyways and was telling me that everything about this situation was wrong. But really, there’s nothing wrong about not having control as a passenger in a car.
If one leaves their evalluation of the feasability of interaction to the outside world to the whims of our survival instincts, we’ll frankly get nowhere. The subconscious simplifies all the inputs it gets from our senses– it makes snap judgements and attempts to build reflexes based solely on our ability to continue living. It doesn’t grade performance, it doesn’t understand nuances. That is why practice, for every situation, is the only way to learn to operate under the right levels of fear.
In real life, every day life, in the scheme of experience and personal growth, it thus becomes a defining quality to be able to examine our subconscious fears and distinguish between one situation and another. It’s not an easy process, but that’s what practice is– the repeated procession of a technique in order to gradually allow our subconscious to internalize the situation, the technique and the mental state that we can use to do better with that given act. The act of choosing to practice is the only rational part of this process– the rest, really, is persistence. If you think you can conquer your fear by just deciding that you think something shouldn’t be scary, you’re totally wrong.
Essentially, practice is the act of reducing fear, or at least, learning to operate under a state of fear, through reprogramming of the reflexes’ intrinsic reluctance towards the unfamiliar.
And that’s what I think of, now that I’m in Sydney. I’m scared… but it’s the okay level of scared, I think. It keeps me sharp, it keeps me appreciative of all the new things around me. Every now and then I feel like something bad is going to happen– but I have no idea what. And with fear being the only thing to fear, I guess that one day at a time, I can continue to move forward.