In 1979, I ventured off to Alaska for 10 days for an adventure with my dear friend and college roommate Debbie. For the last few days of our trip, we reserved a National Forest Service cabin on the Kenai Peninsula, requiring a ten-mile hike through dense forest after parking our car.
Chatting with various hikers and shop proprietors when we arrived to Alaska, Debbie and I were asked if we had a gun to protect ourselves from grizzly bears. We had the proverbial “bear bells,” but no, we told them. We didn’t have a gun. We wouldn’t have known what kind of gun to buy or how to use it, and it had never been an issue before.
Pulling into the parking lot next to the trailhead, a feeling of terror washed over me. I hadn’t slept much the previous night. My body was constricted with the most all-consuming fear I had ever experienced. What were we thinking? What foolishness! Certainly Debbie and I would be mauled and left for dead by grizzlies, never to emerge from the forest. We didn’t have a gun!
Ours was the only vehicle in the parking lot until a small red sedan pulled in shortly after we arrived. A tall, handsome, blonde young man emerged, carrying an enormous rifle over his shoulder. Things seemed to be taking a turn for the better! As it turned out, he was a medical student from South Dakota doing an orthopedic surgery rotation in Anchorage. He heard about the cabin from friends and was hoping to do some hiking and spend a couple nights there. We practically fell all over ourselves, inviting him to hike with us and stay at the cabin. We concluded that this would be no sacrifice, considering his good looks and - perhaps more importantly - his weapon.
We made it to the cabin unscathed, our minds and bodies at ease after a beautiful hike. The most recent entry in the cabin’s guestbook stated, “Grizzly on the roof last night. All around the cabin today.” Debbie and I did not venture far from the cabin for the next two days.
Fear can be paralyzing and consuming. In this case, grizzly bears and their unpredictable nature created overwhelming fear. Once we knew protection was available and could be skillfully used, the fear subsided. We felt safe, almost blissfully so. Our entire experience was transformed by the serendipitous appearance of a (well-armed) stranger.
In day-to-day life, many of our fears are not related to dangers as life-threatening as grizzly bears. Old wounds, trauma, stressful life circumstances, and dealing with the unknown can cause fear and anxiety. When we feel stressed or anxious, our sympathetic nervous system takes off, spinning out of our control and awareness. The organ we call our brain, as evolved and miraculous as it is, initiates the same physiological response whether we are facing a grizzly bear or taking an exam.
I am grateful for my sympathetic nervous system in case I have to run away from a bear. My heart rate increases, my muscles receive increased blood and oxygen, my gut feels tight as blood is diverted away from the digestive system, and my pupils dilate so that I can see better. However, I am not so delighted with these changes when I sit to take an exam!
Some of us live in an almost perpetual state of stress and anxiety, which wreaks havoc on our bodies and souls. How do we find calm and ease, and know that we can return to these states when necessary?
What is safety? For me, safety is a state of knowing and feeling fundamental okay-ness.
Awareness is crucial - awareness of thoughts, emotions, body sensations, and triggers that separate us from safety and perpetuate stress. Awareness comes from continuous practice, and meditation and mindfulness practices are excellent for increasing awareness and honing an ability to respond, rather than habitually reacting.
It has taken many centuries for our brains to evolve. Now we can help our brains (“Thank you very much, brain, but this is NOT a grizzly bear I am facing”) to create S P A C E around our fears and reactivity. Over time, with consistent practice, our delightfully plastic brain can actually change.
Daniel Siegel (psychiatrist, author, and Director of the Mindsight Institute) uses the acronym COAL to describe the qualities of mindfulness: Curiosity, Openness, Acceptance, and Love. In The Mindful Brain, he discusses the promotion of neuroplasticity by mindful awareness practices. “When we focus our attention in specific ways, we are activating the brain’s circuitry,” Siegel says. “Mental activities, such as purposefully paying attention to the present moment, actually stimulate the brain to become active in specific ways that then promote growth in those regions. It is this growth, these neuroplastic changes created by the focus of our own minds, that help us see the link between the practice of mindful awareness and the creation of well-being.”
Safety is a place of being mindfully attuned to our own state of being, to our inner world, with compassion. With intention, using meditation and mindfulness practices, we can learn to become increasingly aware of our thoughts, body sensations, habits and reactions. There are no quick fixes, and no weapons or knights in shining armor can give us the gift of safety. These practices, along with other modalities and therapies (including yoga, psychotherapy, body work, and exercise) require time and repetition, day after day.
Safety is an inside job.
Martha Tyler, BSN, LMT is a registered nurse and licensed massage therapist. Her background includes a Master’s Degree in public health, and teacher certification in Integral Hatha Yoga. Martha serves on the Board of Chrysalis Institute. She loves to run in grizzly-free areas.