My journey to the summit of Mount Mitchell, near Asheville, NC, provided me with a great lesson on how to address my fears.
I hiked the Old Mitchell Trail, a 2-mile hike up to the summit and back along the same path. On the day of my hike, a dense fog covered the mountain, a steady spattering of rain fell, and the trailhead sign warned of recent bear sightings.
Remembering that “buy bear mase” was still on my to-do list, I felt ill equipped with only my wooden hiking stick. With trepidation, I began the first part of the trail - a narrow path cut through the steep cliff of a dense, decaying evergreen forest.
I began to think, “What if a bear attacks me? A bear could be just beyond my vision, hidden by the fog, ready to pounce. What if a fallen evergreen dislodges and mows me down? What if I slip on a shiny wet tree root, fall down the cliff, and become impaled by a sharp branch lying on the ground?”
Then I stopped, took a deep breath, and realized that I was letting my fears overwhelm me. I needed to extend my practice of being mindful and present beyond the comfort and safety of my home and especially to situations where I feel most uncomfortable and fearful.
I then sarcastically thought, Yeah but that was before the bears were hunting me down and my life was on the line! But then I laugh at myself a bit; in actuality, I had seen no real bears. The only bears that I had encountered were the imagined ones in my mind.
I began focusing on my breath and meditating on the following:
I am not my fears; my fears are not who I am.
My fears do not control, own, nor define me.
Let go of any fears that do not serve me.
While I still was at the ready with my wooden hiking stick, I began feeling at ease. I felt better prepared to handle a possible dangerous situation as I focused on the present moment and did not let my fears overwhelm me. My hike had changed from a miserable experience to one in which I felt empowered and at peace.
The lesson continued on my way back, as I saw fresh bear droppings along the same portion of the trail. A forest ranger assured me that I would be safe but also gave me some tips for if I encountered a bear. I decided to go back along the path, past the bear droppings and potentially a bear.
I did not let fear overwhelm me and instead remained present. Of course, when I heard a low guttural noise right behind me at one point, I slightly quickened the pace but also kept calm.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.” Amazingly, I felt more fearful when imagining bears on my way up to the summit than when I heard an actual bear on my way back.
This week, I would like to challenge us to think about what fearful thoughts hold us back? How can we transform our lives by changing how we interact with our fears? Can we redefine our relationship with fear by inquiring as to what part of fears serve us and letting go of any parts that do not serve us?