I studied aikido for a couple of years. I enjoyed its kindness and simplicity. Practitioners don’t fight their opponents. They walk, dodge, hold and generally stay out of the way. I understood the philosophy as “Use your opponent’s strength against him.” I am just now learning how amateur that understanding was. When a classmate attacked, our sensei warned us not to add our strength to theirs. Don’t toss a person as his punches fly past you. As easy and satisfying as that might be. Without resistance, an attacker might fall down on his own. In my own single real world experience, my opponent just ran out of steam. Waiting for that to happen was stressful though. And scary. I did not resist my urge to push. Ideally though, our sensei said, “Your opponents will not feel you there at all.”
I struggle with fear. When I get a scary thought in my head, it is hard for me to let it go. As a kid, I learned to deal with this problem by testing it. When I was afraid of a heart attack, I did jumping jacks. When I was afraid of heights, I climbed fire escapes. When I was afraid of girls, I forced myself to ask them out. When a local bully broke into my apartment, I chased him back to his. Nothing terrible ever happened. And I learned to be very brave. It was the psychological version of ‘“Go ahead! I dare you!” I was so aggressively unafraid that, over time, only my closest friends understood how frightened I could be.
I have since learned that this technique has a name: Habituation. I used to call it courage. I think it’s safe to say that it has been saving me throughout my entire life.
As an adult, my fears are far more complex. I can’t dare Los Angeles to shatter my home with an earthquake. How do I challenge my fear of asteroids, tsunamis, nuclear war, terrorism, cancer, pandemics, random violence, brain damage, mental illness, disability, lost work, poverty, a broken family, hurt children, or plain old death? It seems dangerous and stupid to go chasing those things. But they frighten me more than bullies ever did.
So, that’s my struggle.
I am practicing a new kind of habituation now. Being. Just being with my fears. I let them circle me and scream at me… until they run out of steam. I try to notice my fears and to understand them, but I fight my urge to react. I have not mastered this skill. It is uncomfortable and inherently scary. But, the more I do it, the more possible it seems. My fears rattle me less. I find courage with every success. And my sensei’s wisdom begins to make sense. “Ideally,” I tell myself, “My fears will not feel me there at all.”
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