It was an early Saturday morning, with a dewy mist still hanging over the green foothills of my Los Angeles suburb when my father drove me up to the ballpark in our tan ’67 Plymouth. I really wasn’t that young, maybe 11 or 12, but when I look back to those striking moments, I feel as though I was much younger. That little trip up the hill was the first time I remember being afraid.
Yes, I felt fear many times before that particular day, although not in the same way. After all, my parents had gone through a less than amicable separation, followed by a jagged divorce. They just hacked it out, minus the attorneys and mediators of today. My mom and dad yelled at each other, each with their own conniving strategies. Mom used Biblical scripture and high-pitched tones as her weapons; Dad employed common sense and domination, fueled by a bottle in a paper sack, usually hidden under his car seat or in the freezer at home.
Yes, those were scary times, but I didn’t feel vulnerable in the same way that I did while we were driving to the ball field with just my dad and me in the car; before this, at least they were both there with me, despite their attention directed toward one another. During the ride, as I nervously dug my fingers deeper into my baseball glove, I felt incredibly alone and on my own. I couldn’t help but to fantasize that I would soon be alone and on my own in the outfield when the ball was hit my way; no mom or dad would be at my side, fighting one another, or not. My body did a good job of reinforcing how I felt between my ears and nervous stomach – butterflies – and the unpredictable sensations of heat mixed with tingling crept up my legs and arms, like monkeys up a banana tree.
“We should turn around Dad! Maybe we can go to the beach instead, and I can ride my new yellow surfboard?” No, that’s not what I said. Nothing came out of my mouth, because I didn’t want to disappoint. I could think it, but if my dad heard how I felt and what I’d rather be doing, he’d respond with some sensible retort like, “Sports will get ya into college, John!” He encouraged me in his own way, “You’re bigger than half the kids and smarter than the other half!” I suppose his encouragement might have helped, but first I needed him to hear my feelings. It was important for me to know that it was okay to be afraid and that I shouldn’t try to deny it.
How we learn to manage psychological fear when we are young will influence how we deal with what scares us later in life as well as how much stress we are able to manage from day to day. In other words, if we learn to develop a healthy ability to manage fear, we can lower our stress response. This has far-reaching effects in our lives as adults.
Reflecting on this, I am reminded of a teaching that has been shared in many forms: Beneath every negative belief, experience, or situation, there is a positive intention, lesson, or insight. I believe this wisdom can be applied to fear — physically, when we become aware of it in the body, and – emotionally when we become aware of it in the mind. As we gently remind ourselves that this allegedly negative event that causes suffering has something profoundly positive to show us, fear loses its grip on our attention. An awareness of our experience moment to moment is key to this shift, as it enables a quick redirection of our attention toward a deeper reality without suppressing the negative physical and psychological sensations.
The next time you feel the surge of that familiar, unwanted, fight-flight-freeze response try the following simple practice: Take three long, deep, and slow breaths to activate the Relaxation Response and stabilize the body. Direct your attention toward what yogic philosophy identifies as the wisdom center between the eyebrows, as though you can now see the insightful and profound lesson and positive intention of what your situation is teaching you in that moment. You may discover that being present within yourself and developing the ability to be with what is, moment-to-moment, changes everything.