Tuesday 7 April 2015

Dealing with Fear

If there’s any movie which has influenced me a lot, it would be Star Wars. While there are any things I learnt from the movie, one important lesson was to ‘not give it to Fear’. There are 2 offshoots of The Force. One is love based and the other is fear based. And all emotions, feelings and actions can be traced back to either of these. So, whenever I am angry, hateful, or experiencing emotions that are not aligned with love, I ask myself, “What am I fearful of?”. Look around us and you will see that all the wars and violence stems from fear; fear of losing control, fear that others may have more than we do, etc. For a last few years, I’ve been contemplating a lot on Fear and am beginning to realize that there is nothing to fear other than fear itself! I can’t say I’m completely fearless, but I’m understanding how to overcome it and keep it at bay.

I recently met an environmentalist on one of my trips, who volunteers at the animal rescue and shelter. One thing he said impacted me a lot. Whenever he goes to clean the area/huge cage of the leopard, he said he has to keep his eyes fixed on the animal. The leopard too has its eyes fixed on him at all times. Even if for a moment he averts his gaze or turns his back on the animal, it will pounce on him and make him its next meal. I’ve seen some programs on Nat Geo and Animal Planet also talk about the same thing. Most casualties with wild animals happens when the victim has turned his/her back to the animal in a bid to run/escape.

I have a feeling that animals smell fear. Even stray dogs on the street, they will bark and look ferociously at people who exude fear. Just experiment with this, if you are scared of stray dogs. Once you hold back your fear they will leave you alone. That is also true of all other animals. I guess animals and reptiles like snakes, sense with their heightened perception that if a human has fear, he is also more likely to attack them. So in a bid to protect themselves, they go on the offensive. Recently while having a conversation with someone, we concluded that that’s how even human predators, who are even more dangerous than the beautiful animals, operate. They do not go on the offensive, but they too smell fear and prey on women who exude fear. So it’s high time that we, women and also men, understand fear and tame it.

The best way to handle fear is to look it in the eye. What that means is being aware of it without panicking. In my various experiences where there have been opportunities for fear to overwhelm me, from meeting with an accident in a bus in Manali, to being stranded in the mountains with no other woman in sight for a long time, to being alone in the forest at night with footfalls outside my room, to being fearful of people and strangers, I’ve seen I’ve been least affected when I’ve been aware of it. I guess being aware of fear itself makes it submissive.

Recently during one of my exhibitions in a restaurant, I received around 4 emails and FB messages (in the ‘other’ folder) saying how much this person (a man) liked my work and asking for my phone number, which is not mentioned in the visiting card. The FB profile showed the picture of a waiter in the restaurant. The next day, before leaving for the venue, I sensed some fear in myself. Should I be angry and just look away when this waiter shows up? Or should I pull him up and put him in his place or complain to the owner about him. The messages were not lewd or offensive but just asking for my number. When I sensed fear rising through me, I decided to be aware of it and focus on my breathing. (yes, I can be chicken hearted!!) I decided to go with the flow and react as the situation demands. The waiter did show up asking “How are you Ma’am? “. I smiled and said “Yes, I’m good. BTW, are you the one sending mails and messages?”.  I asked that with the expression of “Why would anyone do that?”.  I instantly saw his face shrivel with guilt. He said “Yes Ma’am”, and simply walked away. And in a way I was glad, I did not have to insult him but at the same time convey the message to him. Well, this incident is a very small one and nothing to compare against what some women have experienced, but it was an experiment of mine, nevertheless, on dealing with fear.

Before this incident too, while painting a wall on a street, I experienced fear when a homeless shabby looking man, walked up to see my work. I was on my guard. But when I let go off my fear and spoke to him, he turned out to be a good person.

On my trip, last year, to South Karnataka, I stayed almost in the middle of a forest, alone, with nobody to come, even if I shouted for help. There were no lights outside my room too and the only light was a dim solar lamp inside my room. One night, at around 3, in the middle of the night, I heard footfalls outside my room. I was instantly wide awake and completely alert. There was also a wind outside, blowing up dry leaves which carpeted the ground outside. This would have been a very apt scene for a horror movie. Then I heard a knock on the door. You can imagine how tense I was. That night for some reason I had left the solar lamp on, and I knew there were some gaps in the wall as it was a rustic accommodation. If there was a human predator outside, he would be able to see me, which means I shouldn’t be looking fearful. For a few moments, I tried not to move, still thinking about what to do, in case there is an attack.  I reminded myself to focus on my breath. And what I’m going to narrate now is going to sound hilarious, and yes, I too laugh hard at what I did, in hindsight. But it wasn’t so funny then! I thought of what possible object I can arm myself with. There was nothing else but the humble nail cutter with the filing knife. I got up from the bed, went to the closet and took the knife, opened the filing knife and brandished it a few times in the air, to convey the message to any person who might be outside that I can deal with what’s coming! Well, after the initial 3 intermittent knocks, there were none, although the wind was howling outside. I stayed awake the whole night, completely alert and wide awake ad extremely tired. During breakfast I told the owner about my experience. She said it may have been a wild boar scratching its head against the door!!

That was my greatest test, so far, in being aware of fear, looking it in the eye, and overcoming it. I remember, once as a child, I had dealt with fear, in a way which amazes me now. I used to have recurring nightmares, when I was about 5 or 6 years old. In the dream, a ghost/demon kind of figure would be standing at the top of the stairs and as I climbed the steps, it would engulf me. I would wake up completely terrified. When I narrated this to my mother, she taught me the Gayatri mantra. So after learning the mantra, I told the ghost, in my mind, “I’m ready to tackle you now’. And even before sleeping, it was as if I knew the ghost/demon would come and I would confront it. And yes, the following night, the same ghost/demon was standing at the top of the stairs waiting for me. I climbed up, but this time rapidly, at the same time, chanting the Gayatri mantra and I lunged at the ghost/demon in a confrontational move. After some initial discomfort/struggle, the ghost/demon just vanished into thin air. And I never had that nightmare again.

But all this is not to say that fear is bad. The feeling of fear is there to warn us, many times, against possible dangers. But the trick is to differentiate between when the body feels fear, which is an actual warning, against that which is created by the mind, which is almost always imaginary. But it always helps to be aware of fear, for in awareness lies the solution to dealing with it too.

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