My four-step plan
When Rob and I were walking in bushland near our house, a tiger snake slithered across the track. I gasped, grabbed Rob’s arm like a vice and froze. In other words, I expressed common symptoms of fear. I knew that if it bit me, and I didn’t reach medical aid in time, I might have only seven hours to live. That’s not very long. It was nearly 5pm, so I’d be dead by midnight.
In that moment of sighting the snake I feared two things – the snake and my death. Within seconds I imagined its fangs puncturing my skin, total paralysis, and lying on a cold slab at the morgue. And a brief regret crossed my mind that I hadn’t written down musical preferences for my imminent funeral (Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major” for when they trundle me in, “Imagine” by John Lennon during the photos-of-my-life session , and something funny at the end but I can’t think what . . . ).
A few days later I read The Upanishads, a collection of poetic Hindu scriptures about life and death and immortality, translated by Juan Mascaró. This line jumped out at me on page 49:
Who sees all beings in his own Self, and his own Self in all beings, loses all fear.
I sat in the comfortable lounge chair and mused on the snake incident, and me losing all fear. Was this possible? But isn’t fear a good thing? Of course it is! It keeps me safe. Fear stops me stepping on snakes, going down dark alleys, drinking sump oil, and walking tightropes over canyons in high winds.
Or is not doing these things just sensible? Does fear have to be involved? Is it fear that is keeping me alive, or just commonsense? Did fear help me survive the snake incident?
It’s believed that fear is necessary for our survival. It signals our body to increase our heart rate so we can run faster from danger. It sharpens our eyesight and prepares our brain to create a strong memory of the event for future reference.
But couldn’t awareness do these things just as well without the element of fear being involved?
Fear can do damage. It can lock muscles. Overwork the heart. Fill the mind with frantic thoughts. Bring on breathlessness. Cripple the digestive system.
Awareness doesn’t do these things. Awareness is being alert, thinking clearly, and using your body for maximum benefit to you and others.
Fear makes your heart pump faster. Awareness can do the same. Or it can make your heart pump slower, which may be a better option that fear never considers.
Fear is a human habit. Its benefits are overrated. We’ve come to believe we need it to function, but we don’t. Just being fully aware is a better option.
But the author of this line about losing all fear had a deeper message than what I’ve been discussing. The implication of the quote is that all fear dissolves when I live with the awareness of the oneness of all things.
With my current conditioned human thinking, the idea that I and the snake are one seems preposterous. My cultural heritage screams inside my head that a snake represents the underworld, fallen angels, the great devil himself. But it was only a snake, slithering across the track. It was going about its business of sourcing food and water – which is what I spend most of my life doing too.
This line from The Upanishads is referring to an approach to life that is inclusive, non-divisive. It points to dropping that concept of myself as a separate entity making my way through a hostile world composed of unrelated things.
It's easy to write about the oneness of all things, and to imagine that I always operate from this state of deep awareness, but when I'm confronted by a snake it all evaporates and I become just a scared human being. It's like there are two aspects to myself, and I flick from one to the other throughout the day, depending on what is happening: oneness - me! me! - oneness - me! me! - and back to oneness again. But I won't despair. There is progress.
Next time I see a snake I’ll put this four-step plan into action.
Become fully aware of what is happening.
Try to keep fear out of my reactions.
Recall the oneness of all things (myself in all and the all in myself).
Ignore any racing thoughts that have me laid out cold before midnight.
With love, Marlane