Blog: Lessons from kayaking: Finding a way to be with fear - Tara Brach

Blog: Lessons from kayaking: Finding a way to be with fear

Blog: Lessons from kayaking: Finding a way to be with fear

Most of us spend a lot of our lives tensed up in fear, or pushing against fear.

The fear might be fear of:
– something going wrong
– not being good enough
– not being loved
– losing something or someone we hold dear

What fears do you live with?

The key to being with fear is in contacting what is here now, rather than trying to push it away. Here’s a story from the river that helps us understand that.  In kayaking, you learn about what is called a keeper hole. It’s a swirl in the river that catches a boat or a body and pulls it down under the water.  You can drown because you get stuck in that swirling current and you can’t get out of it.  If you get caught in a keeper hole, the only way out is actually to dive right into the center, down as far and deep as you can, toward the bottom, because if you get to the bottom you can swim out the side of the swirl.

So you do the opposite of what your instincts tell you to do.  Your instinct, of course, is to fight your way to the surface.  But it won’t work; you’ll keep getting pulled into the hole.  No, you have to dive down into the hole.

It’s like that with fear.  Our instincts are to pull away, to ignore the fear, or to distract ourselves.  We naturally want to escape the pull, the uncomfortable sensation, of fear.  But the skillful way of dealing with fear, just like the keeper hole, is to go into the center of it.

The training in facing fear is to directly contact it…to lean right in.  This is not something to do if your fear is from trauma.  It could be too overwhelming.  If you are dealing with trauma, you might need someone to work with you on that fear.  So you might try finding a thought that brings up fear,  a mild or moderate fear, and letting yourself feel the sensation.  Breathe right into the place you feel the fear, really letting yourself experience it for a moment.  On the out breath, let the fear disperse into the vastness of space around you, or the ocean you are part of.  See and feel the fear moving out into that larger space.

When you are kayaking on the ocean, or on a large lake, you can sense yourself as part of that spaciousness.  Allow the fear to disperse into the spaciousness.  You might find that it is possible to be with the fear, rather than push it away, when you are aware of your oceanness.

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2 thoughts on “Blog: Lessons from kayaking: Finding a way to be with fear”

  1. Boswell

    I have been called a Disasterizer. By this epithet my friend was referring to my inexhaustible ability to think the worst, most of the time – I can’t seem to walk past a park full of kids without seeing children plummeting from the top of the equipment they’re on, or drive past a cyclist without picturing them crashing into the road. I don’t know what mechanism is at work here causing me to see all the tragedies that could befall the fragile humans around me but at these times fear is in full swing. I have found the Tonglen practice effective, since I don’t like to “release” my negative thoughts into the peoplesphere. Any thoughts &/or recommendations for people like me afraid to touch into the fear to release it but prefer to try to touch into it to transmute it, and unsure as to whether the transmutation is occuring… (sometimes a palpable sensation & other times not so much)

  2. Tara Brach

    Dear Boswell,

    Many people fixate on the “worse possible”…though it may seem perverse, it is a way to help us feel safe. If we’ve anticipated the worst, we can prepare, we will not be surprised (thinks the survival mind.)

    I’m glad you’ve found Tonglen helps…it is a powerful practice. The basic elements of tonglen are to full be touched by the experience (eg breathing in the fear) and then breathing out, releasing it into something larger (by offering your care, offering it into compassionate presence, into the space of awareness.) If you are truly touching into the fear, and letting it go into “something larger that ego self” that is the process of transmutting. The meaning of transmutting is that the identification with fear dissolves…you have changed your relationship with fear.

    No need to try to measure. You can trust that any moment of not resisting the fear, and not holding on to it, you are awakening from the trance that hitches your sense of being with fear.

    Hope this helps!