Fear: Recognizing the Underlying Gift



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.

John Sahakian is a Clinical Hypnotherapist and Counselor and sees clients daily for all stress related issues, via Skype, Facetime, Whatsapp, and in his west Los Angeles office. This article is based on the short film “Into Being,” featuring John and his son Bodhi, and was a winner at the Patagonia Short Film Festival. Please visit: http://www.johnsahakian.com

The Three-Minute Cure: A conscious stress management practice


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While negotiating the obstacles of Delhi’s traffic, including families on motorcycles, mobile street vendors, and cows meandering across the roadway, my driver, Kumar, a yoga practitioner who likened himself to a Grand Prix racer, maintained a remarkable measure of calm and peace. I was his passenger and my life was in his hands. I was taking a journey through India to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama and to visit a friend and meditation teacher in the foothills of the Himalayas. Along the way I witnessed the resilience of not only Kumar, but many others living in a land that juxtaposes a deep spirituality and sacredness with over-crowding, poverty, stifled resources, and a chaos that rivals the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange. Throughout moments of reflection during my practice, I realized how often I was holding my breath in fear when Kumar negotiated everyday obstacles. My physical reaction reminded me of the stressful challenges I faced daily back home in Los Angeles, like work deadlines, family responsibilities and LA’s traffic, but nothing could compare to what a seemingly normal, routine day was like in India.

To live without stress is impossible. However, what you or I experience as stressful may not be the same for others. Since people demonstrate different reactions for managing life’s stresses, we could draw the conclusion that how we think — our perspective — plays a role in how we process stress. This in turn affects everything from how we breathe to personal transformation, healing, and our ability to find balance.

Managing and reducing stress includes both how we approach recuperating from the demands surrounding us and how we build our own residence, mentally and emotionally in preparation for life’s unexpected challenges. In this way, how we manage stress has at least two parts. First, create an environment that gives our body and mind enough time to restore and heal. Second, condition ourselves to respond to stress in a healthier manner by cultivating a more functional and mindful perspective, adjusting our attitude.

When we intend to participate in Conscious Stress Management, simplicity is key. We don’t want to overwhelm ourselves with too many instructions or techniques. Half of the practice sets our foundation by directing the body toward a healthy, feel-good state, while the other half aims at influencing our mind in a life affirming way. The following practice can help you reduce the effects of stress and improve your attitude about whatever challenges you face along your path.

Ultimately, our breath is the barometer, telling us how we’re doing mentally, emotionally, and physically. Taking a few moments to mindfully experience your breath has powerful, stress-relieving benefits. When we interact with our breath, we can affect our state of mind, our physiology, and our body’s stress response.

Ask yourself if this moment is a good time to give The Three-Minute Cure a try?

Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath to settle. Begin to follow your breath, either at the nostrils or the belly/chest. This is your foundation. As the body becomes peaceful your mind opens to suggestion. Count 12-15 long breaths with the intention of relaxing your body.

Next, as you count another 12-15 breaths, visualize or imagine you are somewhere that you find quite pleasant, safe, and comforting, such as a beautiful beach or sitting by a warm, cozy fireplace. You can even imagine you’re with someone you love or care for. This will reinforce the Relaxation Response and align body and mind.

In the next 12-15 breaths or so, use your inner voice and remind yourself what a gift life is, and feel how thankful you are to discover and learn new things and how you have breath to breathe. You can add anything else to this list that creates happiness and joy.

Complete by saying to yourself that making the choice to see the positive side of whatever might be challenging you is the most logical and practical way toward health and well-being.

Before getting up, take a long, deep breath and thoroughly notice how you feel and what has changed.

After practicing this meditation a few times counting your breaths won’t be necessary. You’ll intuitively know just how long to stay with each segment.

The Three-Minute Cure is just one of many techniques that can elicit the Relaxation Response and better prepare us for life’s challenges. Its simple structure can reinforce the ability to be thoughtful of body and mind and to believe they are powerful tools for transformation, if used consciously. Sometimes, a state of healing and balance creates an opening so we can listen to ourselves. Since we are most suggestible to our inner voice, participating in what we say can make all the difference.

Breathe Into Your Workout…


Breathe Into Your Workout…

Naturally, breathing is an important part of working out!  And, I say “working out,” in my best Austrian accent, which is still funny for those that appreciate old Saturday Night Live episodes.  When most of us think of breath, we think of yoga, not the gym and working out.  One might believe, “Incense & Barbells” don’t mix, that mindfulness and sweating your cuss off are opposing life experiences.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Mindfulness of breath, mindfulness of action, is always beneficial to us, and can turn our life of routine into a fascinating exploration of mind, body and spirit, whether we’re in the gym, out on the bike path, or anywhere we choose to exercise.  Our breath as an object of focus is a sacred resource that can lead us toward a better understanding of ourselves and our fitness needs.  If having a better idea of where you can safely take your body while working out isn’t enough, perhaps becoming aware that focusing on your breath and other mindfulness based techniques have also been proven to increase your life span.

When it comes to conventional workouts, like running, lifting weights, spinning and even exercise classes, most of us have been taught to push our body past its edge until we’re huffing and puffing, panting like dogs, as if collapsing at the end our workout is to be applauded.  Ironically, this approach often takes us past the point of diminishing returns, physically and mentally.  If you’re in the workforce, or have other responsibilities in your life as most do, it is highly likely that the challenges of your day, week, and month are already stressing you out enough.  Published medical studies suggest that in addition to our body suffering short and long term negative effects from stress, our attitudes suffer, too.  If you haven’t discovered the benefits of yoga or other mind and body activities, such as Tai Chi, or balancing on a Slack Line, when you think about exercising you’re probably running to the gym or hitting the pavement to get your cardio on.   Our personal trainer within starts their chant, and the voice in our head encourages us to workout harder, to push to our extreme, to burn more calories, to tear our muscles down more, to go, go, and go.  But, honestly, aren’t we just adding another generous helping of stress to our already overflowing plates of stress pie?

The traditions of yoga and meditation, embraced more each day by westerners, teach that, “balance” is an important key for happiness and well-being.  Cultivating balance in the gym, on the treadmill, or when we desire to sweat could be one of the most intelligent approaches to working out we can take if we desire the benefits of what ancient traditions have suggested, and medical science is proving.  A cursory understanding of how our body responds to stress, the role our breath plays in guiding our intensity level during our workouts could be all we need to support good health and well-being.  If you’re like me and sometimes need some cardio and strength training with weights, but still want the benefits of what yoga and other more subtle practices provide mentally, then breathing into your workout is for you.

Remember to always allow a state of peacefulness to be your starting point.  Do this by taking three long breaths, then simply notice how you feel.  When we are truly at peace the parasympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system or ANS for short, is activated.  Oxygen rich blood flows to our organs, including the brain, which enables better thinking processes, optimal immune system support, and as a bonus our mood is pleasant, simply because we feel safe.  In this resting state, we are breathing through our nose without effort and the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our blood are normal and healthy.  It’s good to be us, relaxed and at ease, yet still moving toward our goals.

As you begin your workout, whether walking on a treadmill or path at the park, or curling barbells, or trying to keep up with your favorite teacher in cardio/sculpt/super fit bod class, breathe through your nose.  Try to monitor your output of energy so closely that the moment you feel as though you need to breathe through your mouth, instead of your nose, cut your intensity or energy output back so that you can maintain nose breathing.  In this way, you don’t need a fancy heart monitor, because you’ve used the practical application of mindfulness of breath to maintain your target heart rate.  It’s at that moment in your workout when you feel like you need to exhale through your mouth that your body is going into red alert, the stress response triggered, suddenly falling victim to your environment.  When the sympathetic branch of your ANS becomes activated and you push instead of backing off, you’ll burn less calories over time, because your body is going into survival mode.  Many of us are in survival mode all day long.  It is counter intuitive to believe that remaining in survival mode during our workouts is good for us.

Research shows that if you can be mindful of your breath as the indicator of how you are responding to your workout and maintain nose breathing, thus remaining relatively peaceful inside or in the “zone,” the parasympathetic branch of your ANS still activated, your body will like you a lot more and is more apt to burn calories, because it knows it’s going to get more ‘feel good’ resources from you later; no emergencies, nothing to worry about.  Incidentally, your brain likes this mindful approach as well, because the carotid artery – the brain’s lifeline for nourishment – remains open, oxygen rich blood in full supply.

Ah, sounds rather easy doesn’t it; follow your breath to a happy, healthy you.  Ironically, it’s often the simple things in life we somehow miss.  Years later we might look back and ponder,

“How did I not see that paying attention to something so vital in my life, like my breath, was so important?”

We must admit, they’ve been trying tell us with those little articles in yoga magazines, medical journals, and even the cover of Time and Newsweek, that meditation and yoga, i.e. mindfulness practices can help us counter the effects of stress, quite a while now.

But, not all of us want to become yogis, wear beads, sit cross-legged and chant.  Well, we don’t have to.   All we have to do is start a friendship with our breath.  When we came out of our mother’s belly we reached for our first breath and our breath has stayed with us ever since, loyal day and night.  Along with keeping an eye on your breath during your workouts, here’s a couple easy ways to practice being mindful to create more balance in your life day to day, which will give you support when you are working out.

The next time you have a task, such as addressing an envelope and applying the stamp, or driving to the market, or walking the dog, or even using the ATM, follow these simple steps.

  1. Take 3 long breaths to set the tone and intention for mindfulness, creating your “starting point” of peace.
  2. Settle your awareness on the flow of breath into your body and the flow of breath out of your body.
  3. Hear the sound of your breath.  Feel it move in and out.
  4. Say to yourself, “I am breathing in.  I am breathing out.”
  5. Proceed with your task for however many minutes it takes to complete the task, and maintain awareness of your breath in any manner that works.