The Absence of Fear

I got to ride two weeks in a row, something that hasn’t happened in ages. It’s great to have some consistency, to be able to build on successes and feel my strength returning. I also rode Jasper again, and having the same mount a few times in a row is something I’m really liking right now. There’s the riding where you’re working on yourself and not having to adjust to a new horse’s quirks each time out gives you to space to do that. Of course, I’ve always said that riding lots of different horses makes for a stronger and more versatile rider, so I’ll likely want to switch it up next time or the time after that.

I wrote last week about how the anxiety about performing well impedes performance, and that was in my thoughts again this week as well. We had a lesson in the crowded indoor arena despite the unseasonably warm weather because the flies were swarming in an apparent last hurrah before the cold wipes them out. As I walked Jasper around the busy ring, I looked out over all the other riders and horses, normally a sight which could cause at least agitation if not outright anxiety, and felt nothing but calm. I noticed that something was missing, and then quickly realized that what was missing was fear.

There are a number of external factors that would contribute to my feelings of calm in this situation on this particular day. Familiarity with some of the other riders in the ring and riding a mount that I know well and trust. Having a newfound body confidence; knowing that my muscles, stronger now than they have been in a long while, will respond to my commands when I need them. I also certainly can’t discount the flood of relief that came with my man’s return from being away; the incredibly reassuring realization that we are Home for each other and so wherever we go from here it will be all right as long as we’re together.

But there’s a kind of fear that can live inside the body no matter the external circumstances. The kind that even when you’re safe in your bed and there is objectively nothing troubling happening can still reduce you to a shaken wreck. That fear, the anxiety that has built up over time through negative experiences and the eating away of confidence that regret about so many of life’s choices brings–that fear was, for the first time in a long time, absent. It has suffused every area of my life, but I see now in its absence just how much it has affected my riding. Riding is a scary and potentially anxiety-producing activity, fraught with physical danger. It’s natural to feel some fear; it would be unsafe not to have the kind that goes hand and hand with respect for the strength and tolerance of the horses. But all the rest? The fear that I’m too old and not good enough and too out of shape and the thing that I love doing the most won’t be available to me–that is useless. The fear that I’m trapped in work and a lifestyle that has never been suited to me–unacceptable. I can’t sit around spending all my energy desiring change and simultaneously fearing even beginning to try to enact it, so that’s stopping now. These are the anxieties that Huxley wrote about getting in the way. And without them…what an incredible difference. How much space there is inside of me, how much flexibility and movement and acceptance; how much openness there is to experience and to learning.

I feel like this is a new starting point for me. In life, but particularly in riding. There was nothing in my lesson that I looked at with worry, with a feeling of “can’t”. I even thought about riding Sparkling Gal again–my riding buddy was on her after her original mount, Malcolm, turned up lame–and felt confident and game. The presence of fear in my life has been like an artery-clogging plaque, narrowing my worldview and my ability to apprehend life to such a thin, unsatisfying stream. The absence of fear leaves open the space for everything.

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Life Lessons

It has been weeks since we’ve been riding, since my riding buddy and I both had plans for the last several weekends. In the interim, however, I’ve been working on getting fit in earnest.

There are a some lessons in life that, when realized, are blatant, obvious, and so clear that I think they become underestimated, lost in plain sight. These are things that we must learn over and over and over again and then kick ourselves for all the time spent living poorly without their practice. One such lesson, which I will have to get tattooed on my forehead it is so vital to living, is that I have to be active. Ideally, I’d be engaged in a sport or a hobby, or–even better–a job that keeps me physically active. Softball and horseback riding are two such pursuits, but they are not enough. In the absence of a nonstop fun-filled sporty lifestyle, I need to make exercise a priority. And perhaps the lesson I’ve learned lately is that it needs to be one of the main priorities. It can’t be something that is done half-heartedly, as a dispirited attempt to mitigate the bodily strain caused by the sedentary life of an office worker. It needs to be something I that I really challenge myself with.

The first week or so of getting back to the gym is always hellish. It is a chore and everything feels awful. But there’s a hump to be gotten over and once I have, I actually start to feel awful if I don’t work out. Once I start really feeling the results–as I did this week during my riding lesson–I get even more motivation to keep going.

But then something always happens to interrupt the momentum. Usually for me, it’s the shortening of the days and the dropping of the temperature. Despite the clear evidence that exercising is the best thing to mitigate the worst of my Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms, those very symptoms are what usually keep me from exercising. Fatigue, depression, a physical sensation of heaviness in the limbs all eventually combine to convince me that I’m not capable of doing much of anything, let alone going to the gym.

I’m hoping that this time around, I can finally make exercising a part of my lifestyle, instead of just a habit that I form briefly between periods of inactivity. I feel like I am working out smarter than ever before, using weights to build up all the muscle I’ve lost over the years and then doing a bunch of cardio to burn off the fat. And there is a focus this time around that I’ve never really had before. The gym, with its TVs on every machine, is set up to distract people from what they are doing. The message is, “This is horrible, but you have to do it…so you can watch TV at the same time to make it more palatable.” I can’t watch the TVs. In addition to my seeming allergy to TV these days, it takes away my focus from what I am there for–to make myself stronger. If the mind wanders, I can’t think about getting the most out of what I’m doing. It’s easy to fall into a rut of just absentmindedly lifting the same amount of weight or running the same distance and speed. It takes a lot of mental energy in addition to physical energy to keep adding weight, to keep pressing that button to raise the speed on the treadmill. And that’s what keeps me engaged. Playing games with myself, negotiating with myself about my limits–“Can you do another whole minute at this speed?”

All of this paid off this week in my riding lesson. The muscle tightness that has been preventing me from being effective on the horse is not there anymore. Instead of taking almost the entire lesson to warm up, I was warm after a few minutes of flatwork, as I should be. I was able to get my heels down, able to support my horse with my leg, and able to hold my upper body steady. I realized as I was riding that I wasn’t having to try to force it. There’s enough strength in my body again to give it suppleness. And that suppleness allows me to do something that makes me even more effective than simply muscling my way through it–it allows me to relax.

I’ve been reading The Art of Seeing by Aldous Huxley and I thought about it while cantering on Jasper this week. Huxley wrote the book in 1939 after a time of near total blindness and then a years-long period of severely impaired vision, after which he was introduced to the methods of W. H. Bates. Bates wrote about a re-education in the way we approach seeing that for Huxley, as well as many others, completely transformed and improved vision malfunction. According to Huxley, one of the main problems in any art–whether it be seeing, learning an instrument, or horseback riding–is the amount of tension and anxiety brought by the performer. He speaks of something called “dynamic relaxation,” the counterpart of “passive relaxation,” or a state of complete repose and rest. Dynamic relaxation is “that state of the body and mind which is associated with normal and natural functioning.”

When my muscles are weak and I’m straining to just keep up the most basic equitation, it makes me get in my own way. Worrying about why I can’t do what I need to do and feeling the ego loss associated with not performing to the level I know how to perform at make the tension and anxiety worse. Huxley says,

“Malfunctioning and strain tend to appear whenever the conscious ‘I’ interferes with instinctively acquired habits of proper use, either by trying too hard to do well, or be feeling unduly anxious about possible mistakes. In the building up of any psycho-physical skill the conscious ‘I’ must give orders, but not too many orders–must supervise the forming of habits of proper functioning, but without fuss and in a modest, self-denying way.”

It’s all a balancing act. Being focused and invested enough to perform well, but not so much that I become anxious about not. Of course, that’s the other lesson I keep having to learn: balance. It seems like every day, in every single part of my life, it’s what I keep coming back to: find balance. Security and freedom. Pushing myself to improve without browbeating myself with perfectionism. Including my emotions in my decisions without letting them overrun my thoughts. Practicality and passion.

I wrote earlier about needing an outlet in which to throw myself wholeheartedly, about needing change and finding work that fulfills me. About wanting to feel like a strong, engaged, alive person who is able to do amazing things. Most of my focus when trying to enact that change has been on external circumstances; trying to get myself to a situation in which it will be easier to do what I want to do. But recently, I feel like I’ve been doing a ton of work internally as well; throwing myself into finding the balance in all these areas to be the person I want to be, so that I can do the things I want to do. It’s a daily struggle, but just like the working out, it feels like it’s paying off. It feels like maybe soon I’ll get over the hump and then finding balance will not be something I have to force myself to do with distractions, but something I can delight in, do naturally with strength, flexibility, suppleness and without tension or anxiety.