This past week, I went on my first summer vacation in almost a decade. . .kicking and screaming all the way. The truth is, I only took the time off work because I tricked myself into it — having prepaid for a non-refundable hotel reservation that was going to expire on July 30. At the time I purchased it, I thought to myself, “This will make me take a vacation.” But in the weeks leading up to the trip, I bitched and moaned about the lousy timing to anyone who would listen, forgetting that I was the person who had created this inescapable dilemma for myself.
In the end, my ruse worked! I went on vacation and had an amazing time!
However, even with my newfound daily practice of joy, it was striking to me how mightily I struggled to give myself permission not to work for a week (and I didn’t even really last the whole stretch). But once my friends and I were on the road, for the most part I did unplug. And when I did, there was joy. . .waiting for me with open arms.
But peering over joy’s shoulder throughout the trip was my lifelong nemesis, antihero, villain — that pesky old devil called fear.
Whenever I do something kind for myself, whenever something good happens, whenever I let go of all the shoulds, fear tries to rear its ugly head. Of course, fear is clever, disguising itself in a variety of costumes — some covered in dollar signs, others loaded down with rules and regulations, those manifesting as bodily aches and pains, or popping up in the always tempting invitation to self-loathing. And then there’s fear that hums along as the leitmotif to so many of our lives. . .that nagging ontological doubt about the meaning of it all and where we possibly fit in.
It always takes me a while to get below its many disguises to recognize that it’s always the same thing — plain old fear.
That’s why this daily practice of joy has become so important to me — because it is a reclaiming of what for me (and I believe for all of us) came before fear. We all were born with it — the joy that was, is, and always will be innate in each us, no matter how hard we try to kill it off; no matter how much pain, sorrow, doubt, grief, loathing, anger, or fear under which it may seem to be buried. It’s always there, even when we can’t feel or imagine it. Because joy, I’ve come to understand, really is just a pure and life-affirming expression of the antidote to fear. The joy in each of us is proof that before fear came Love, and Love has never gone anywhere. So, for me, practicing joy is reclaiming the Love with which I was born, and which has always remained inside me. Practicing joy is saying yes to life and love, instead of the fearful no I gradually learned. And, as every spiritual path shows us — Love will always, always trump and triumph over fear.
In one of my favorite poems, one of my favorite poets, Kabir, writes, “Inside ‘love’ there is more joy than we know of.” We’ve all felt that extraordinary joy that comes when we open our hearts to love! So, in another of my joy equations — if love contains more joy than we know of, then practicing joy reconnects us to the power of love that is innate in us all. Love as our birthright.
Still, I am always surprised by the appearance of fear on my vacations. My logical mind thinks that surely fear wants a vacation as well. How silly! Of course, the reason I feel and see fear so clearly when I take time off is because I spend my normal working days busying out those terrorizing voices that clamor for attention, or trying to work myself to a place of exhaustion so that I won’t hear them. It’s taken me years to see that that’s what all this workaholism has been about. . .trying to shut out the fear that seeks to scare me into submission.
On the two summer vacations I have taken in the past decade, I set the intention of taking a kind of spiritual retreat. Both trips took me into nature. Being in nature is not only one of my greatest joys, but also feels as much like “church” than any sacred edifice I have visited. On both trips I experienced such extraordinary beauty, and the gift of sharing it with people whose hearts in stirred as much as it did my own. On both trips, I struggled mightily to face down what I have come to call the “habit of fear”.
That phrase came to me eight years ago, as the small boat containing 20 people (passengers and crew) with which I had shared an extraordinary week exploring untamed Alaska pulled into Sitka harbor. After a week of hiking on uninhabited islands covered in mosses that sprang under my feet, seeing Grizzly bears and their cubs, eagles and whales, kayaking under the midnight sun, photographing wildflowers in lush green meadows, fear came in like a battering ram — almost knocking me over with its power.
It had been a rough stretch in my life, and pulling into that harbor signified that my idyllic “escape” was coming to a close. Not only that, but some of the “progress” I had hoped to make in my spiritual work felt unaccomplished. Fear had my ear and was nastily making its case. That’s when I heard it: “Don’t be impressed. Fear is just a habit. A habit that can and will be broken."
If you’ve been reading these blogs, you know how much I love definitions. The definition of habit that resonates most for me is this: An acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary. The key word in that sentence is acquired. If joy is innate, and Love is our birthright, then fear is a latecomer to this dance of life, and it can be ushered right back out of the room. Love not fear is our birthright.
Marianne Williamson reminds us: “Love is what we are born with. Fear is what we learn. The spiritual journey is the unlearning of fear and prejudices and the acceptance of love back into our hearts. Love is the essential reality and our purpose on earth. To be consciously aware of it, to experience love in ourselves and others."
To unlearn fear, we have to let ourselves be guided by Love. That is why practicing joy, kindness, service, compassion, and the myriad other manifestations of Love is the most important thing we can do with our lives.
This past week, I had quite a few opportunities to witness the healing that comes when we face our fears. Two stand out.
One day we decided to go ziplining. The first time I went ziplining a decade ago, I remember feeling so much trepidation on the lift ride to the top. Waiting for the gate to open, I was shaking to me core. And then suddenly I found myself flying through the air, and all I felt was joy and exhilaration.
For my fiftieth birthday, I went to Costa Rica, where I did a 21-line zipline course over the rainforest. The hardest part was climbing up tall towers to get to each line. My legs shook as I faced down a fear of heights. But the same thing happened. The moment I found myself floating above the clouds, above the trees, whooshing through the atmosphere, all I felt was pure joy.
So, on this trip, as I watched my traveling companions take stock of their own fears of our coming adventure, I was struck by the fact that I felt nothing — neither great joy or great fear. I felt almost empty of feeling, which left me able to support and encourage them. Even on the platform high above the trees before the last zipline, I was struck by the fact that fear was not even trying to raise its ugly head. It knew it couldn’t. It had no purchase, because I was there in and with Love. And then, about ten seconds after we released our lines and started to fly, I felt it! Something I had not felt since childhood. I felt the desire to push the envelope. I pulled down on the lever that made me go faster and I felt myself grinning like an eight-year-old as I flew through the air. I wanted to yell, “Faster! Faster! Make it go faster!” In retrospect, I wish I had. It was the joy of childhood — that utterly fearless love of fun — a kind of joy I thought long gone. But no. . .there it was, no longer masked or dampened by the habit of fear. And Wow! Did it feel fun!
On our drive home, my best friend and I went for one last mountain hike. Pamela decided to head down about fifteen minutes before I did. I went to the top, where I took a few minutes to stand still in this beautiful rocky enclave and count my blessings. I was filled with gratitude for our trip. As I came down the mountain, I was praying — feeling gratitude for everything. . .the rocks, the sky, the clouds, the trees. And then I heard Pamela’s voice floating up the hill. I thought she said, “Victoria. You look like a strong bird.” Since one of her nicknames for me is Big Bird, I thought, “Well, that’s a strange thing to say, but OK. Whatever.” But she kept calling up to me, and suddenly I heard the fear in her voice. I realized that she was telling me that she had taken a wrong turn.
My whole life I have been blessed with a wonderful sense of direction. My mother could leave the same hotel room every day and turn the wrong way to get to the elevators every single time. And by the time I was five, my dad asked me to be the navigator on all of our family road trips.
“Stay where you are,” I called down. “I’ll come get you."
I started to run. At first I flew down the hill, feeling just as I did on the zip line. Free, joyful, fluid, full of life. But every few minutes or so, Pamela would call up to me — and whenever I heard the fear in her voice, I unconsciously took it on. I picked up my pace and began to rush. And without fail, each time I did that, I fell. But here’s the funny part, when I fell, I felt nothing, except that I was being told to come back into myself and keep my own pace. The second time I fell, I remembered something that happened to me when I was learning to snowboard in my late 30s.
I signed up for a group lesson which turned out to be me and five boys under seven. I had always heard that snowboarding had a quick learning curve. It did — if you were under seven. Those boys got it within the first lesson. But all I did was fall, and a couple of times I fell so hard that I finally understood why cartoon characters saw stars! My head went black with sparkling lights as all 5’11” of me crashed down onto the hardpacked snow. A few weeks later, I decided to try again, this time with a private lesson. On my first run, I felt equally discouraged, as I fell again and again.
On the next lift ride up, I complained about falling to my 19-year-old instructor. He turned to me, and quietly gave me a piece of wisdom I have never forgotten.
“Duuuude,” he drawled. “You have to get over the idea that falling is bad."
I looked at him and burst out laughing — a laugh of pure joy and utter relief as I instantly remembered the joy of being a kid and falling. . .when falling meant adventure, meant freedom, meant fearlessness. I knew he had taught me something that would be a spiritual mantra for life.
As I ran down the hill to “rescue” Pamela, three times it happened. I heard the fear in her voice and I fell. And three times I felt neither fear nor pain, but rather a quiet voice reminding me to stay in the Love and not the fear. I resumed running, returning to the gratitude I had felt at the top of the hill, and all I felt was joy!
When I reached Pamela, the relief on her face was palpable. The “This is Bear Country” sign at the bottom of the trail had brought on horrible visions of protecting her beloved dog Louie, while recent stories of people getting hopelessly lost in the wilderness compounded it into terror. I felt like an Archangel when I saw her, bringing the assurance of an easy hike down to safety.
But when I took the lead, she saw my legs, which were scraped and bruised and bleeding. She felt terrible. I turned to her with a huge grin on my face and told her my snowboarding story. I told her that when I had responded to fear with fear, I fell. But that the falling itself brought neither fear nor pain, but rather the reminder to stay in Love.
When I was a little kid, if I got scraped up, I remember feeling proud, because those skinned knees were proof that I was truly as fearless as I felt. I was alive, and having the adventures I read about in books. If I knew anything, I knew that I didn’t want to become the kind of adult that let fear prevent her from living life to the fullest.
For years, I have hated my adult fears, been ashamed of them. Buried them under work so I wouldn’t have to feel or face them. Recognizing fear as a habit was a big first step. But practicing joy has been the next great shift. As joy reconnects me with the person I have always been, reconnects me with the Love that eradicates fear, reconnects me with kindness and compassion for others and myself, reconnects me to this beautiful planet on which we all live, there is less and less place for fear. Does that mean I feel fear less? No. Fear is like that obnoxious car salesman who follows you off the lot offering you every deal on the planet. Fear is like the commercials on TV — the volume is always louder than the regular programming. Fear is the ultimate science fiction villain, a shapeshifter morphing itself into any form that will allow it to infiltrate our lives.
But just as darkness disappears when we turn on a light, fear fades when we practice the joy that connects us to Love. Or as the Dalai Lama, one of the greatest practitioners of lovingkindness ever to have lived reminds us: "The more you are motivated by love, the more fearless and free your actions will be."
No matter how loud fear clamors or how many times I appear to fall, I am so grateful for all the ways in which this daily practice of joy has reconnected me with my birthright of Love. And I am equally grateful for all of you who are joining me on this joy-filled journey of Yes! Let's help each other never let our fear of falling or failing keep us from flying on the wings of Love!