Overcoming the Illusion of Fear
Almost exactly two years ago, I had a karate belt test that pushed me beyond my limits. I wrote an article called Tapping Your Reserves that captured what took place as well as the lessons I learned as a result. But reflecting back on that experience now, I realize that in the months that passed, I ended up learning more than I initially realized.
Here’s an excerpt of that article, depicting that experience:
Waiting outside the dojo adjusting my mouthpiece like a horse trying to acclimate to its first bit, I quietly prepared myself, breathing slowly and deeply. After my name was called, I was ushered into a circle of black belts standing around a plastic red padded floor until I stood face to face with my opponent – one of the toughest, most intense sensei’s I have encountered as a martial arts student. Our heads were swallowed up by the protective foam of our sparring gear, exposing only eyes, cheeks, noses and lips.
After bowing to each other, we began to spar. I threw a few of the punches I’d practiced every week in karate class and managed to get some kicks in. But for every strike I made, it seemed my sensei threw at least three more. I continued to circle, launching a few more tentative jabs here and there. The black belts surrounding us were shouting encouragement, their voices merging into chords of indistinguishable tones. And then I felt a sharp blow to my face. I instinctively curled toward my stomach and felt a burst of fluid that was not yet visible. When the blood appeared, the sparring session was stopped and a hand appeared with a wad of Kleenex in it.
As I cautiously dabbed at my nose and wiped my eyes, someone asked me if I wanted to continue. I heard myself say yes. Squinting through the sweat that was dripping from my forehead and feeling my heart beating in my face, I raised my gloved fists higher and took a few more shots. Before I knew it, I was taken to the ground. I was vaguely aware that there was at least one, maybe two other black belts in the sparring match now. As I grappled on the ground, fatigue set in. I struggled to escape the choke hold, forgetting everything I had learned and feeling like a spider’s prey wriggling and writhing to escape while the grip became tighter. And then, thankfully, that part of the test was over.
I wrote the Tapping Your Reserves article to process that experience and make the most of it. Ironically, despite the insights I gained, in the months that followed I found myself feeling far more fear about what happened than I did on the day that I got punched in the nose. The experience became exaggerated in my mind, a horribly warped version much like the image reflected by a fun house mirror. The sense of accomplishment I enjoyed after having completed the test was replaced by a fixation on what it felt like to be trapped with no recollection of how to escape. I felt the blow to my face over and over again as I replayed the events in my mind. And it was far more painful in my memory than it was in reality.
What is amusing to me is that often fear like this comes before an event – as I see in my mind’s eye all manner of things that could go wrong and then magnify it until it becomes a mental picture so horrid that I would do anything to avoid it. But this time, I was using a somewhat fictional account of an actual event to work myself into a frenzy that led me to avoid the future based on a past that was more imaginary than real. After all, when given the choice on the day of the test, I decided to jump back in and keep going after getting hit. My hesitance about the whole thing didn’t really set in until after it was over.
As my kids’ team practices and dance rehearsals began to conflict with karate classes, I was secretly a little grateful that shuttling them from school to field to court to studio prevented me from attending with the regularity I once did. God forbid I would be asked to test again – to spar again. No, not an experience I was eager to repeat. Every time anyone referenced sparring in karate class, I felt a shudder go down my spine. The idea of even putting protective gear on made me nauseous. I became overly concerned with playing safe – doing whatever I could to avoid getting hit again. But I knew at some point I would need to get over it and get back in the game.
Gradually I got tired of being scared, of holding myself back, of playing in the shadows. I was still afraid, but found myself growing more and more eager to face those fears and step into them. I began to pay careful attention in the strategy sessions that were being offered. I started to envision a different scenario than the one I was previously playing out in my head. And I even attended a special open sparring class just so that I could put myself in the experience of facing an opponent and replacing my fear with the tiniest shred of confidence I could muster.
A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to test again. I accepted. The test is this Saturday.
I’m nervous. I’d like to be a little more prepared, and I realize that no matter how much I practice, the fear will still be there. But I don’t need to give into it. I just need to stand in its presence without letting it grip and control me. And I think no matter what happens in this test – even if I get knocked out cold or do something incredibly embarrassing, I will be victorious. Because the real battle I am fighting is with myself. And it’s not just a sparring match. It is a metaphor for overcoming resistance (and the illusion it creates) that keeps me from doing what I really want to do in all areas of my life.
In the end, the pain of holding out and playing small became far greater than the physical pain I can recall from the event that provoked the fear in the first place – perhaps far greater than any fear my little mind can conjure up. Enough already. I’m ready to play.
Bring it on, baby.
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important.” ~ Ambrose Redmoon
For more on Overcoming the Illusion of Fear:
Karate image by Kriss Szkurlatowski.
Fire head image by Salvatore Vuono.