The False Faces of Fear

As I have been preparing for this trip to the Peruvian Amazon, I have been thinking a lot about fear. Not so much the type of sudden fear that prompts us to either spring into defensive action or run and take cover, but the kind of fear that stealthily sits underneath the surface of most of our day to day lives, exerting a power so strong that it dictates much of how we move through the world, and yet so subtle that we easily disregard its existence altogether. The kind of fear born out of a life-long but cleverly hidden denial… denial of doing what would really make us happy, of saying what we really think, of being who we really are. Fear that keeps us following the crowd, following other people’s expectations and following someone else’s path, mistaking it for our own.

The fear mechanism is part of our survival instinct, which stems from the reptilian part of the brain and the root chakra part of our energetic system, both baseline elements from our embryonic stage of development. And fear is a necessity to our survival, helping us discern danger from safety, friend from foe. But somewhere along the way, basic, rational fears can develop the ability to grow and distort, taking the real object of fear and reshaping it into fantastical, unsubstantiated ideas that work their way from our mind into our body via our emotional response, where we hold them and incubate them indefinitely. This incubation in turn produces a method of operation over which we perceive no control, and we are literally guided by low-grade fear, which over time can have a monumental (and detrimental) effect on our lives, sometimes without us even noticing.

For many of us, old fears based on past experiences that are no longer an actual threat to our physical or emotional well-being continue to dictate us in some way despite our rational understanding of their current innocuousness. Likewise, many fears, I believe, are constructed solely on the foundation of stories we’ve either heard or created, past or present, conscious or subconscious, rational or irrational, and are warped by the mind to the point where you’re not really even sure where the fear started, only that it’s just… there.

For instance, why exactly, am I scared of spiders?** To my knowledge I have never actually been harmed by one in any way, and any perceived threat from that little guy minding his own business in the corner of my bathroom is clearly unsubstantiated. And yet the fear is real. Where did it come from and why is it there? And while this particular kind of fear may not present a huge or ongoing problem in your life, certain more ineffable fears might… like my particular favorites, the fear of not being good enough or the fear of being judged by others. These types of fears can be debilitating and effect every aspect of your life.

Street art. Iquitos, Peru
Street art. Iquitos, Peru

Over the last several years I have been on an ever intensifying mission of exposing the hidden depths of who I am, what I’m constructed of emotionally, psychologically and spiritually, and most notably, the origin behind that constitution as it continually effects my life. As such, ayahuasca, an Amazon-indigenous vine known for its compelling reality-check, is something I have known about and have wanted to help facilite me on my path for a very long time. But each time I’d begin to think about the possibility of experiencing it, I’d get a wave of anxiety and my mind would simply shut down the thought process. As much as I was continually drawn to this plant for all it’s documented, profound benefits, my mind was so full of fear it simply refused to let me contemplate and imagine the possibilities.

Ayahuasca is what’s classified as an entheogen, a term that means ‘to generate the divine within.’ It is a strong hallucinogen taken within the confines of a sacred ritual and with the specific intention of ‘visually’ connecting you to the Spiritual realm. It is to be taken with reverence and respect under the guidance of an experienced Shaman who is not only facilitating and helping navigate your journey safely, but assisting you in understanding it. Ayahuasca is a medicinal plant, one among thousands, that has been used for both physical healing and spiritual connectivity by the indigenous people of the Amazon for hundreds of generations.

For me, a devout believer in a higher realm and someone deeply committed to refining my connection to it, the sacred nature of this plant has clear appeal, and yet, as the control freak I am (albeit a slowly recovering one) the idea of voluntarily succumbing to such a powerful, mind-altering experience under which I have neither any control nor any idea of what exactly it will unearth for me emotionally and psychologically, is incredibly frightening.

It is my understanding (I will speak at a later date to my actual experience) that what presents itself under ayahuasca is incredibly powerful and uproots the deepest and often darkest parts of ones self in order to get to the truth and heart of what and who we really are, which in turns assists us in letting go of all that we need no longer be. And dark parts can be incredibly scary, even if you already know what they are and how they tend to manifest in your life. Confronting your demons is a difficult task no matter the avenue, and this forced confrontation is, in a nutshell, the esoteric piece of my fear.

The more practical concerns are of course, just as prevelent… Is the shaman authentic? Do they have sacred ancestral knowledge of this powerful medicine? Do they have the experiential knowledge to help guide me through the process? Has the brew been prepared safely and with good intention? Who is (or isn’t) taking care of me while I am in a different state of consciousness and are they to be trusted? These are real concerns not to be taken lightly, so it’s no wonder that despite my burning desire to move forward on my spiritual path, I have been reticent to begin this particular process.

But as I am learning to discern, not all fears are created equal. Practical fears are primarily quell-able by pursuing knowledge and reassurance via different means… in this case, vast amounts of research and talking to as many people as possible who have had the ayahuasca experience. Of more interest to me however, are my esoteric fears, and how those fears of the intangible unknown managed to grow into epic and until now, paralyzing proportions.

One day, many months ago, after realizing the ‘pull’ portion of the push/pull with ayahuasca was not going away, I decided I wanted to dig deeper into where that fear was coming from and more importantly, why I continued to just let it take control of me against my will for so long. I have not yet had the actual experience to show me there is, in fact, either something or nothing to be afraid of, and yet within the span of a couple short months I have gone from being full of stifling fear around the idea of doing this to feeling almost no fear whatsoever on the eve of partaking in my first ceremony. The change in attitude and emotion has been rather dramatic and I believe the process of inquiry itself is what starts to alter the perception of fear. Looking at something directly in the eye inherently changes the interaction that results.

Letting go and surrender are topics I broach frequently, not only in my (yoga) teaching, but in my own process. I have reached a place in my life where it has become compulsory to learn how to ‘let go’ of old thoughts, ideas and habitual ways of operating, and more importantly, the emotional states that have become attached to them, and to just surrender to things as they are, here and now… and making that shift is often difficult. Understanding where you’ve outgrown certain ideas or behaviors because not only are they no longer useful, they are the breeding ground for a stagnancy where unchecked fear prohibit further growth, becomes imperative.

Letting go of fear is very different than surrendering to it. The former enables you to sit with your fears in order to start understanding and stripping away all the built up layers of habitual thinking around the fearful object, idea or emotion, and the latter is simply giving up… giving up your power and the choice to no longer let fear continue to control you. And the difference is conscious intention around the process. It is about re-connecting to ones survival instinct but redefining the specific and current needs of your growth and survival in order to fit you and your life now, not you and your life as they used to be.

There was a moment several months ago, after researching and trying to dispel some of my practical fears, where I felt my esoteric, hard to name fears about ayahuasca starting to fade, albeit almost imperceptibly. I took that opportunity (as I tend to do in those moments) to commit myself to doing this thing that scares, knowing I still had a lot of letting go to do before coming here… because I did not want to approach this trip with trepidation, but with an open, ready, and welcoming heart.

For me, my meditation practice has been an indispensable instrument in this process of facing and letting go of fear. So much of our fear is generated within our thought process, getting us lost on endless pathways of what-ifs, where disasters lurk around every corner. I will not go into all the invaluable aspects of a meditation practice here, but will only emphasize that it has been the repeated practice of letting my mind quiet so that my heart can be heard, that has dramatically assisted the dispelling of fear for me. It is only within the space of a quieted mind that enough clarity can arrive for you to start calling out your fear on it’s fraudulent behavior.

Over the last couple of years this conscious dismantling of fear has moved from a theoretical ideology to an experiential process for me. Once I decided not believe everything I think, and started giving preference to the instinctual voice of my heart instead, a monumental shift occurred… because the intuition embedded in the heart space is the single place that will always communicate your most honest needs and desires and in turn, provide the truest path to get you there.

Or here. Deep in the Amazon.


**A side note about spiders. I chose that analogy because there are very few people I know who don’t actually freak out around them, myself included… until recently. Somewhere along the way, amidst all of my spiritual studies about the emphatic interconnectivity of all life, my irrational fear of spiders stood up and looked at me with questioning eyes, and I made a conscious, heart-felt decision to alter my perspective on them. I believe the moment came in India when I was walking through the abandoned and overgrown Beatles Ashram and I realized I was surrounded by endless, enormous webs that housed spiders larger than any I’ve ever seen in the States… and in that moment the beauty and tranquility of it all transcended my fear and forever altered my emotional relationship to them.

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