I used to be scared of swimming in the ocean: The way the waves crash into me and knock me off balance, and as I go deeper, the loss of control when waves lift me up off the ocean floor.
A few years ago, a friend took me to her favorite beach — a little cove below some cliffs — and managed to coax me beyond the waves’ breaking point. The ocean was soft and tame, so I agreed. We shuffled our feet to scare any stingrays until we had to kick our legs to stay above the water. Panic rose in me as I saw a wave starting to form not too far away. It must have shown on my face as she said, “Don’t worry. We’re beyond where the waves crash, so just give a little kick, and you’ll float right over it. Go with the wave. If you don’t fight it, you won’t go under.”
And I did. Now, I love not only just “floating” above the waves but swimming even farther from the shore, and I’ve even snorkeled! Interestingly, the fear heightens even now when I’m on the shore about to shuffle in. I hesitate, knowing the fear will surge in my chest when my feet stop touching the ocean floor. I remind myself to relax and notice the change in how the water feels as it starts to rise, carrying me with it as I float above the sea floor, loving the tummy-tickle feeling. I now often laugh aloud while riding the waves.
It was during one of these summer ocean dips that I was reminded of how my fear of the waves is like encountering negative emotions: the resistance as the emotion starts to rise; the peak when one feels like one has lost control; and the calm that often follows as the emotion seems to dissolve. I remind myself of this when negative emotions arise in me. I try to use the methods I learned in Emotional Rescue, a book by my teacher, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: to look directly at the emotion, to notice the thoughts arising that are causing the emotion, and to use mindfulness practice to ride the wave of emotion until it dissolves, and I can think more clearly.
I’m not perfect at it. Like going into the ocean, I still find my mind hesitating, so I try to look directly at the thoughts and emotions as they’re forming, and sometimes I only catch myself at the peak. Yet, each time gets a little bit easier. The point is to try. Try to embrace the fear and explore your hesitations. You may even find it’s fun!
As Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön said, Let your curiosity be greater than your fear.
Being Curious with Fear: an exercise
Without my friend’s coaxing, I might never have learned the joy and freedom of swimming in the ocean. Do you want to try something that scares you? Here’s how I overcame my fear. Please try this only with something you know you’ll be safe doing! I wouldn’t want you to get hurt, emotionally or physically.
- First, look at the fear. I looked at my fear and tried to understand it. My fear was of drowning. It’s a healthy fear, but I know how to swim, and I was with someone who had swum in the ocean many times, and the ocean was calm. Next, ask yourself: Is your fear rational? What can you do to ensure your safety?
- Second, feel the fear, knowing you are safe. I acknowledged that I was still going to feel the fear, that the thoughts would still be there, and that was okay. I knew I was safe.
- Third, tune into your senses. I became mindful of all my senses: sound, smell, touch, taste, and sight. This helps us to focus on the experience versus the fear.
- Fourth, relax, enjoy and repeat! The fear may still arise each time you do what scares you, but this is a wonderful opportunity to consciously work with emotions and thoughts, and focus on mindfulness to overcome them.
Other activities I have done, despite my fear, by focusing on those steps:
- Hiking to the top of a mountain by myself (my husband and kids had gone ahead after I declared myself too scared to go, then I met them at the top!)
- Dancing in public (no one cares how silly I may look, and it’s so much fun!)
- Writing these blog posts (the fear of being judged as I’m not an expert, but I hope being open and honest with my experiences helps you with your spiritual path 🙂