At about 3 a.m. on a Sunday morning a few summers back, my wife Nina and I woke up at a high altitude campsite in Sequoia National Park to the sound of a bear snuffling around outside our tent. Nina was understandably terrified; I, for whatever reason, was completely calm as my mind engaged in an internal debate between attempting to scare him away or staying still, knowing that in either case the odds of him being interested in us were somewhat limited.
(This despite the fact that I kept thinking about the classic Gary Larson cartoon where two polar bears are enjoying a tasty igloo when one says to the other "Oh, hey! I love these things ! ...Crunchy on the outside, and chewy center!")
Which is not to say that I am in any way less prone to fear than my wife. Only ten hours earlier, I had a near panic attack climbing the stunning Moro Rock whilst Nina and the kids practically danced up to the top. As they shared a laugh at the very edge of the 300 foot cliff face, I caught my breath and rubbed my bruised ego on a small bench at the top of the rock but hidden from the edges by rock walls on either side.
Nor does it mean my children are less prone to fear than me. On that same camping trip, they recounted a discussion with friends about the possibility of the world plunging into a vast economic depression. That possibility had them scared that the planet they are due to take over stewardship of will be one filled only with war and hardship, whereas for me that scenario is simply one of a nearly infinite number of possible futures, and not even a particularly likely one given the creative potential of the human mind.
So while reflecting on a weekend that was considerably more enjoyable than I've just made it sound, I was less impressed with how different our fears were than by how they all came about in exactly the same way. Despite sharing nearly identical circumstances, we each had a unique set of personal thoughts and reacted to those thoughts as if they had a reality beyond the shelter of our own minds.
Which brings me to the point of this post:
What scares us has nothing to do with the content of our thoughts and everything to do with the fact that we are thinking them.
If it wasn't for my thinking, the climb up Moro rock would have been an opportunity for wonder, joy, and awe. If it wasn't for my wife's thinking, the presence of a bear outside our tent might have been a high point in the glorious adventure of the great outdoors or a minor blip in an otherwise peaceful night's sleep. And if it wasn't for my children's thinking, the state of the economy would be no more them than useful information about what can happen when people consistently spend beyond their means with no mechanism for recovery or restraint.
But since "not thinking" isn't a viable long-term strategy, understanding whatever we can about the nature of thought is perhaps the greatest gift we can receive in our pursuit of deeper wisdom and peace of mind. Since we know that our perception and experience of reality are made of thought and will change when new thinking arrives on the scene, we worry less about our experience of the moment and are less inclined to overreact to perceived threats in our environment. This doesn't make us reckless; it makes us sane.
And it certainly doesn't make us any less likely to feel fear or sadness or anger or heartache, in the same way that understanding gravity doesn't make it any less likely that we'll fall down from time to time.
I remember a conversation with a client who asked me what I did when the world looked scary to me. I replied "I get scared." But what my understanding of where our experience comes from does give me is perspective. And from the inside-out perspective I know this:
The one thing we don't need to fear is fear itself.
For more by Michael Neill, click here.