Fear…In All Its Incarnations

I ride mountain bikes with a group of guys once in while. Mountain biking in Florida is less about mountains and more about woody state parks filled with wildly curving paths that cut dangerously through trees and merciless pedals through sugar sand, leaving you panting for breath and begging for a break.

The last time I rode, I encountered the raw, unfiltered, paralyzing emotion of fear.

I had joined my group of friends at the Santos Trail System near Ocala, Florida. We were riding for about an hour when we stopped at a trailhead with the tantalizing name of “The Twister”.  My friend Devon is always pretty good about giving the newbies riding along good instructions, so he described The Twister as a set of switchbacks back and forth. He said it will seem scary, like you’re going to hit someone coming directly at you, but in reality, they’re on a completely different path.  There are lots of ups and downs, and twisty turns, but it’s best if you get up some speed through it all.

I took a deep breath, nodded and hopped on my bike to start.  Pretty soon, most of the other boys had left me in the dust, but Devon stayed with me.  The trail was terrifying from the start.  Fear caused me to approach the turns slowly, wanting to control my approach, control my speed, control every pedal of the bike.  Fear caused me to ride up to the top of a hill, and stop frantically at the very top, freaked out at the prospect of going down the other side of that same hill.  I tried to slowly control and half carry my bike down that hill, a most difficult and arduous process.

I started to gain a small amount of courage as I moved further into The Twister. As I gained courage, I gained speed. As I gained speed, I let up my death grip on control. I was able to hug the turns faster, trusting that gravitational forces and the basic laws of physics would keep me upright. As I gained confidence, I bravely approached a hill and felt the freedom and joy of flight as I rose over that hill and went down the other side.

So much of my readings these days have been about control and letting go of control.  How do you let go of control of your life so that the divine power can work through you? I struggled with those bike handlebars, under the illusion of control, and it was only when I gave up and let the speed fly that the ride happened through me.  Did I ever have control of my ride at all?

Mountain biking, however, will hand you some speed bumps, much like life.  I was flying, gathering speed, enjoying my ride…when the fear started. The ride was too fast.  The trees were too close. I was going to get hurt. I started to slip a few times, come off the pedals. I made some mistakes.  I was getting tired.  I tried to breathe, tried to call up that glorious confident flying feeling, but the fear was too strong.

All at once, I rounded a sharp corner and encountered several other bikers coming the other direction, and some extremely large roots blocking the path.  These new impassable obstacles, the rising nauseating fear in my gut, the feeling that I was completely too inexperienced to handle any of this – it was all too much for me. I jammed on the brakes hard and leapt off the bike.   I ran to the side of the woods and threw up.

I stood there for a while by the side of those woods, bent over, breathing heavily, crying. Trying to keep some semblance of my pride, I kept my back turned so Devon did not see my tears.  Using every meditative and yogi breathing trick I knew, I tried to calm my breathing, soothe my raging mind, self-talk myself into getting the confidence to mount the bike again. It was almost survival mode at that point – I was halfway into the woods at that point, with no other way out except to bike…or walk.

I took a deep breath. I rose up and picked the bike back up. With a nod to Devon, I sat back astride the bike and pushed down on the pedal.

CLANK.

Nothing.

The bike’s pedals would not turn. Somewhere in my frantic braking and leaping, I had somehow broken something on the bike.   Devon shrugged and told me he doesn’t know how to fix the bikes. He would ride ahead and get our other friend who does know how to fix bikes. They would come back for me. In the meantime, I was to walk.

I walked, alone through the woods, carrying that bike.

My confidence for riding was still shaken, so I was almost relieved to be walking. It was an exercise in meditation and mindfulness all in its own. I was wracked with negative emotions as I started the walk –the fear, anger and frustration at myself, grumpiness at how the day had turned out.   But as I walked, so much of this negativity leaked out, and I just started enjoying the walk, enjoying the quiet peaceful solitude of the woods.

Once again, it comes down to control.   You can spend your whole life planning and preparing to bike ride, and one completely unexpected obstacle can suddenly have you walking for the rest of eternity.  Rather than fight it, find the beauty in each emotional step of the journey…especially if that journey has you racked with fear.

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