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Fear not, said the forest

My dog pulling me to go up a steep, icy, hill
Fearless leader

Yesterday I gave a talk at our public library under the auspices of the Democracy Forum, a loose knit collaboration of local citizens who hope to educate and support civic participation in our political process. They offer talks free to the public on a monthly basis, and generally these have been given by a couple of local historians and sociologists deeply steeped in the socio-political history of the Americas and Europe. Their motto is Civil Rights for All and periodically throughout the year they hang their banner in various public spaces, across main street, over our local food coop, etc. It’s not uncommon for a few songs to be sung along with a guitar or two.

Although the group doesn’t have a website, they recently began collaborating with the Brattleboro Community Television station to record the talks and get them posted on youtube. You can see the February talk by my friend Nick Biddle, discussing the long history of drug dealing facilitated by the CIA in order to raise funds for clandestine operations around the world, or check out the January presentation by local legendary educator, Tim Kipp, addressing the history of voter exclusion and suppression in the US.

When I was approached by the forum to offer a talk, I realized it was a great opportunity to bring together the work I’ve been doing on facilitating decision-making, wholeheartedness, and my concerns about what is going on in or world with respect to the climate crisis and the divisive socio-political context that is producing paralysis that we can no longer afford. I constructed a presentation that focused on two factors that I believe contribute to non-participation in civic action, namely the limited emotional repertoire that we associate with activism and the stunted personal identity many of us hold that leaves us seeing ourselves as powerless and disconnected from worldly issues.

I will, no doubt, discuss various aspects of the talk in upcoming blog posts, but for today I am drawn to share my thoughts regarding a question that was asked at the end of the talk. A participant asked about addressing fear, specifically the kind of fear that arises when we think of the enormity of the problems we are faced with and the power of the vested interests in maintaining the course we are on at the expense of our collective future. That fear can be an extremely effective deterrent to taking action, and it deserves a book-length exploration for the complexity involved in unraveling it for each one of us.

My immediate reaction was not surprising to me, I drew on my general understanding of dealing with difficult emotions and shared my perspective that the first thing to do is to validate the appropriate nature of feeling fear, to recognize that yes, frightened, is exactly how we should feel when we consider the extinction of an environment that can support human life on earth. That fear, if held and acknowledged, need not paralyze us, but can motivate us to take action. The concerns is that our aversion to fear will result in us chasing the fear away through unproductive activities like distraction or through numbing our senses. Or the fear will be so consuming that we cannot think clearly and creatively.

Remaining calm and centered in the presence of our fears is more easily said than done, I get it. Most of us, have to train ourselves to do so. Meditation is a great tool for this kind of training. It’s baked-in to the meditation process. As we commit ourselves to sitting still and staying present with whatever arises in our hearts and minds, we inevitably encounter strong emotions. I’ve been flabbergasted at times with how powerful my emotions can be while sitting quietly in the safety of my living room!

Learning to allow emotions to arise, and then, to inevitably pass, builds our capacity to stay present when they pop up in our daily lives. The goal of meditation is not to build the capacity to “ignore” our emotions, but rather to allow us to discern which ones need to be acted on, and in what fashion. It puts us in the driver’s seat, allows us to get the message that we need to act, but then rather than being driven by the emotion itself, we bring in our wisdom to help guide us to where we need to go.

The wisdom I’m speaking of can be a mysterious thing. As I was walking home after the talk, the question of fear was foremost in my reflections, even though there were many intriguing questions and comments that emerged from the group discussion. Somewhat suddenly, I realized why that particular question was feeling so salient - just prior to giving the talk, feeling that I was prepared, and had taken care of various details of my day, I was antsy about the hour I had left before I needed to be a the library. Perfect time to go for a walk in the woods! I hadn’t been to my favorite set of wooded trails in a while actually, so off I went with my four-legged friend Tess.

As is my custom, I greeted the woods upon our arrival, feeling grateful that I had such easy access to the life sustaining ecosystem a few blocks from my home. I felt particularly fortunate that I’d followed my intuition to go into the forest just as I prepared to give a talk aimed at helping people overcome barriers to civic action to avert our impending climate crisis. Duh! I asked the forest, out loud, to provide me guidance in giving me my talk, to help me remain humble, and most importantly to be able to listen to my audience, even beyond what they were saying verbally, but to hear what they were feeling in their hearts so that I could be as effective as possible in helping them help “us”.

I kid you not, I had no sooner verbalized this request than Tess decided to lead us up a steep embankment covered in ice. I didn’t have my cleats on, standard walking gear this time of year in Vermont, so I paused to reflect on the situation. I felt a rush of fear come up, what if I slip just now and sprang my ankle or break my wrist? What a disaster just before my talk! I thought it best to turn and return home to the safety of my apartment. And then, clear as a bell, I got a “message”. It came like this, “No, don’t turn back! You are exactly here in order to bring your attention to the fear that may arise as you give your talk, the fear of speaking poorly, the fear of offending or disappointing the audience, the fear of being an imposter, the fear of helping them find their motivation to engage. Keep going, be careful of where you place your feet, be mindful of where you are in the moment, but keep going!”

I was filed with gratitude and we carried on up the hill and back down and around, carefully navigating the snow and ice, amazed at how putting oneself in a state of openness can allow wisdom to emerge from deep within the mystery.

What did surprise me then, was that I did not recall this experience as I was responding to the question about fear. Perhaps that was a missed opportunity of mine. Perhaps I had not digested that lesson fully enough to share it. Perhaps it is because I did not take that experience as a lesson in overcoming fear as much as I took it as a lesson in opening up to the mysterious relationship we have with nature and how our wisdom can emerge in the context of being in tune with that relationship. That message was for me, from me, to me, in that moment. I have absolutely no doubt that it came to me precisely because I put myself into a state of mind and body that was receptive to receiving.

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