A few weeks ago, I was planning a hike and noted that the trail map mentioned a place called “Devil’s Oven,” a little way off the main trail. Upon further investigation, I learned that “Devil’s Oven” was a cave. As I set out on the trail, I made a mental note to check it out. I didn’t want to miss this attraction!
My experience with nature is that it has endless lessons to teach, and this hiking experience was no exception. As I headed down the trail, I allowed my awareness to rest on this sensory experience— noticing the sights, sounds, smells, and feeling the texture of rocks, tree bark, and dirt. It wasn’t long before I came upon the sign indicating the way to “Devil’s Oven.”
After taking a few steps down that trail, I stopped and observed a steep climb up. “Hmmm, where is this going?” I wondered. “It looks kind of steep.” While other hikers may have climbed up without hesitation, I have a heart-stopping fear of heights and of falling. Situations like this can easily stop me in my tracks. It’s that point where the voices of fear come rushing in to talk me out of doing something I really want to do, so I will be “safe.”
However, what I’ve learned is that these points, the moments when fear will try to talk me into staying on the “safe” path, can be life changing. Walking straight into the places that scare me – the voices of fear screaming all the way – has become a way of life for me. And so, with curiosity about the cave and my mission to reach it, I began to climb.
The further I climbed, the steeper the trail became. I started to question my decision to see the cave. I stopped and looked back. My mind and heart started racing. “I can’t do this!” I thought. “What goes up must come down, and I am going to fall. I need to climb back down now!” This voice of fear flared up and I felt the prickly heat of anxiety rise in my body. “No…I can do this,” another part of me said (I call it my inner coach voice). “Take a few deep breaths and one step at a time…Okay, I can do this,” I thought as I began climbing again, finding footholds and branches to support me along the way. The entire time I was imagining myself rolling back down, head over heels.
As the climb became even steeper, I stopped again. I could barely look back. I felt so far up, and I was frozen in fear. “I.CAN’T.DO.THIS!” My fear screamed, “Slide back down. EXIT NOW!” My heart was pounding. “My dear girl,” inner coach voice said, “are you going to live your entire life letting fear keep you from the things that you want?” And with that question, reaching the top became a quest.
To face my fears has been my life long journey. And so, I continued to climb. As I looked up, I noticed that there was a rock cliff not far away but on the steepest part of the trail. “I have come this far. I have come so far. Am I going to give up on this now?” I asked myself. With that question in mind, I climbed those last few steps and reached the cliff. A few more steps up the rock and there it was. A small, dark break in the cliff. Devil’s Oven! I stood there for a few moments, aware of the pumping of adrenaline, the pounding of my heart, the sweat trickling down my back, and the feeling of accomplishment, of pushing through fear and achieving the goal.
Really, the cave became secondary at that point. It became about facing and pushing through the fear and walking into the places that scare me even with heart pounding and hands trembling. It’s recognizing that those experiences are usually not as scary as we anticipate, and that the other side is so much better than staying on the “safe” trail, wondering what it would have been like to take that chance.
But now here I was, and the journey was only half over. I still had to climb down. I sat on some nearby rocks to take a drink and to gather the courage to begin my descent. I again questioned my decision to climb up as I looked down at the steepness of the trail. Looking around, I suddenly noticed another trail – one that twisted around next to the rock that formed one side of the cave. Curious, I gathered up my belongings and began to follow that trail. It appeared quite level as far as I could see. I didn’t know where it led but decided that it was better than climbing down the steeper trail. A few minutes later, I laughed out loud when I realized that this trail lead directly to an upper trail – no climbing down necessary!
As I relayed this story to a friend, I realized that it is really a metaphor for life. We fight and argue with ourselves. We allow fear to talk us out of doing things so that we feel “safe.” We choose the easy path, the place where we are most comfortable, instead of pushing beyond our comfort zone. We ruminate about how hard something might be, how scary it is, and what disaster might happen if we continue to walk toward the place that scares us. But we never really know, do we?
How many times have you had that experience? You imagine that an event, a job, a person, or something will be a certain way. You foresee every disaster or gloom and doom that might happen. And yet when the event does happen, it is nothing like you imagined it would be. Once you get there, perhaps, there is a trail off to the side that makes it much easier than your fears predicted. Yeah, hundreds of times, right? Me, too!
Hiking is a great example. I’ve often been afraid of continuing down a scary or unknown part of a trail. Voices scream to turn around. I’ve also had this experience when looking at a “shadow” part of myself, something that I am ashamed of or embarrassed about. When I bring it out into the open, it is never as bad as I imagined it to be. I have repeatedly had to face that part of me that wants to exit, stop, get out! What I’ve found is that most of the time the story I am telling myself about the fear is worse than the fear itself.
Fear is an emotion as well as a feeling in the body. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, sometimes very uncomfortable, but nonetheless it is a feeling that when paid attention to can often dissipate rather quickly. But it’s the story about the fear that keeps it hanging on, paralyzing us from progress, sometimes for a lifetime.
So, what is your fear keeping you from? When fear rises up, do you give in and stay where you are safe or comfortable, or do you face it head on? Are you willing to go into the places that repeatedly scare you to live the life that you want? Think back to a time when you faced your fear and did something in spite of it. What strategies could you use from that experience to help you now? What is one thing you are willing to do this week to begin to explore your fear? Here are a few suggestions:
Pay attention to what is “said” in your head when fear or anxiety arises. Meditation is a great way to increase your awareness and makes it easier to hear what is “said.”
Notice what fear feels like in your body. Is it prickly heat, cold, numb? Where do you feel it?
Do one thing that scares you this week. Try a new hiking spot, have an important conversation with someone, travel someplace new alone, go without makeup for a day. What is stopping you?
(If you like to journal, these questions can make great writing prompts!)
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