Riding the Wave of Fear



The other day while kayaking on the North Shore, I hit a particularly rough patch of surf by accident. I had been distracted with the sunset and enjoying some quiet evening reflection and drifted farther from shore than I usually go. On the way back to my launch spot, I encountered some pretty large waves, at least I considered them rather large to be taking on in an inflatable kayak, even one that was ocean rated. My heart began racing and I felt a panic attack coming. Realizing the need to remain calm under the circumstances, I did a quick mental inventory. I asked myself, “What are you really afraid of here?” I evaluated the surf and determined that I would feel confident swimming in it and I also felt confident in my ability to release myself from the kayak, should I topple, therefor my anxiety to the situation was a little exaggerated. I decided after further evaluation that the weight of the new anchor in my kayak made me feel a little less certain of my ability to steer the kayak and how evenly distributed my weight was and therefore maybe, I was afraid of toppling over. Further evaluation still, revealed that I was carrying all the cargo for me and the kids (Who were in other water craft behind me and I had successfully steered clear of the surf I was currently contending with) and I was afraid of losing the cargo. Once I recognized that losing cargo if I toppled was my actual fear, I realized my response was over inflated and disproportionate to my actual fear. Since I also knew that tackling the waves while relaxed was my best bet, I immediately relaxed and actually found enjoyment in kayak surfing, it was actually quite exhilarating and fun and I have since gone back with a lighter load with the intention of surfing some waves in the kayak!

While this story is not something you encounter everyday, I think it gives a clear example of how we can reframe our fears in every day circumstances. It becomes clear through my story above, that my anxiety was coming from the fact that my body’s fear reaction was not congruent with the actual situation. Once I realized I felt confident in my ability to swim through the waves, the fear for my life response my body was trying to let take over became inflated, it lost power over me and in doing so it left room for me to find incredible enjoyment in the situation at hand. Had I not conquered that fear, in the exact moment it was happening,  the tension response in my body would have rendered me useless in navigating the waves and I would have missed out on an exhilarating experience I intend to turn into some kind of hobby!

Ryan Holiday, in his book, The Obstacle is the Way, invites us to take a look at all of our fears with this same introspection I demonstrated in the story above.  The Obstacle is about following the yellow brick road and conquering your fears. When we practice this daily, it brings presence and focus in the Now, the only moment we actually have any control over. It also prepares us to handle skillfully the more life threatening things that may actually come our way through practice and honing in our own tendencies to judge ourselves or be overly critical in our assessment of our abilities. When we learn to ask ourselves what is the worst that can happen and is that a risk I am willing to take ? What is the best that can happen? Is that a chance I am willing to take? What am I really afraid of in this situation? Do I have any choices here?

When we quickly get caught up in life’s currents, often times we no longer have the choice to not be present. The power of choice is always in the present moment. You can continue pretending (denial) that you are caught in the wave and hope for the best, you can jump right through it and see how you come out on the other side or you can embrace it and ride it and let it take you where it may and enjoy the ride. I chose to ride the wave and the ride was well worth the fear I had to conquer!