Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Your Jittery Mind and Your Hopeful Heart

It must be about time that I took multiple gulps and put forth some of the material from "the book", currently titled Good Work! I mailed the book proposal to "the agent" this week. Two days later I expanded and read this "chapter" aloud in Nerissa's writing group. And now I am putting it on this blog. More and more I am sticking my neck out to be a "public" writer. I am doing this because writing passionately matters to me and I will not be snuffed out by fear. Which is the point of the chapter.

I look at it and my first thought is, "Way too long to read". My second thought is, "Probably pretty boring". It's not until I have identified a half dozen big and small reasons to step backwards that the voice of the heart says, "Maybe it will be helpful to someone..."

So here it is: Chapter 6: Your Jittery Mind and Your Hopeful Heart

Your heart pounds Your hands clench. Your jaw is locked shut.
Your head spins and your balance sways. Your legs buckle like
a wet banana, or worse. You are in full panic mode.

Scene 1: Are you facing a predator in a dark alley? Or an intruder at
the foot of your bed? Is a moving vehicle coming at you at 70 miles
an hour? Are you on the receiving end of a phone call that includes
the words “cancer” and “inoperable”? Or,

Scene 2: Are you preparing for that job interview? Or being introduced
to a blind date? Are you fighting rush hour traffic? Or presenting a
marketing plan to your boss?

These two scenes are night-and-day different. Can you tell?

I am intrigued by the ghosts in the closet. Psychological fear is not the same as actual danger, but it will feel that way unless you understand how fear works and how your mind reacts to it.
I hold myself personally accountable to explain this phenomenon with words that comfort, in a manner that helps and heals, from a second story balcony that exposes foolish fear for all that it is and all that it isn’t.

I know about fear as well any anyone. Its effects are particularly challenging for an optimist, which I am, and particularly restrictive for a pinpoint observer, which I also am. I can see the wild canvas of bad decisions I have made when I was afraid, as well the easier path when I venture forth with quiet trust.

So here’s something I know about fear.

First of all, it comes from the most rational of places: the mind. It’s true that your mind’s response to fear can protect you from grave harm, but it can also close you down and freeze
you shut.

Preparing for crises and creating contingency plans is useful in the concrete world of flying airplanes and repairing heart valves. But in your day-to-day life, the more you try to control events and bolster your protection against real or perceived hurts, the more fear begins to dominate how you live and what you decide. Your biological ancestors had to worry in the most basic of ways about surviving another day, another year, but when you do that, one minute after another, one day, one month after another, you step right out of the present moment.
back to the past or into the future.

The problem with moving backward or forward is that neither place is where you breathe, see, hear, smell, talk, feel, touch, or live. You exist only in this moment. It’s a tricky concept—harder even to do than understand—but this moment is really, truly all there is. If you and I were to die five minutes from now, in this room where we write and stretch, here we would be—
decent folks still stretching in this magical room.

Here’s what else I know.

Since the very beginning of time, the human mind has been hardwired to warn of impending danger. The warning comes through screeching physical alarms: rapid heartbeat, profound sweating, imaginable lightheadedness, increased adrenaline, sometimes even unnatural strength and courage.

What has changed since the very beginning of time is that most often in the 21st century, real life “dangers” are mostly psychological, not physical: the unexpected layoff, the broken heart, the fear of the dark--but get this!--your mind doesn’t know the difference. In the world of DNA hardwiring, danger is danger, and unless you understand that the difference between psychological fear and true threat, you will probably react to any of these symptoms as if you are in a fight for your life. Except you aren’t, because a blind date or a new job interview is not in the same class as facing a frothing hostile tiger or feeling a knife at your throat.

So unless you actively intervene, here’s what happens as you prepare for that blind date or job interview: your reved-up mind kicks into high gear, preparing, planning, and anticipating every step you take and every step you even think about taking. In high alert, it triggers what’s commonly called the ‘fight or flight’ response--You mobilize in an instant and you either tightly stand and defend yourself, or run like hell.

The good news is that in dire terrifying circumstances, you will try every means possible to shield yourself from harm—sometimes even through supernatural strength or courage that you didn’t know you had. But the bad news is that your mind’s focus on safety, facts, and guarantees can overreact to normal events and that can limit your possibilities and smother your movement. When it comes to the decisions of life, the very thought of moving to a new location or readying for a job interview can send you into full alert mode. From your mind’s perspective, the unknown is the enemy.

Here’s something else I know.

You’ve got to find a way to convince your mind that things are ok. This is a problem because your mind can’t hear you very well when it’s searching so quickly for facts and solutions. You experience this as racing—a mind that never stops. When the facts aren’t clear, it resists taking any steps or making making any decisions without them. It is the nature of the conscious rational mind to doubt. The problem here is that you never decide with absolute certainty when you decide with your head, because there are always at least two sides to every argument.

There are only two ways you are going to be able to overcome the strict rationality and overprotection of your mind: you either need to quiet it (meditation? physical exercise? Prayer?) or re-assure it (“It’s ok, mind, we’re going to try something new, but I promise I will check with you before making a final decision”).

If you have any doubts about any of this, Dr. Herbert Benson of the Mind and Body Institute in Boston has empirically proven that reason works better when emotions are present—you see sharper and more accurately when your emotions are engaged. The truth is you really can’t see an object or a situation clearly unless you have some emotional involvement with it.This probably contradicts what you’ve been taught since childhood, which is that reason and logic are far more trustworthy than faith or emotion or intuition.

This brings me to your Hopeful heart.

Don Juan asks,
"Does this path have heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t,
it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other
doesn’t. One makes for a joyful journey: as long as you follow it, you are
one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong;
the other weakens you." --Don Juan, as written by Carlos Castenada

Your mind wants facts and assurances. Your heart wants passion and purpose. Your mind looks at information and possibilities along a straight line. Your heart swirls and soars and glides, unencumbered in a cloudless sky.

Fear has its place, but when you let it replace the wisdom of your heart, you lose your way. The trick is to be able to bypass your mind, which worries about everything, long enough to allow the voice of your heart—your feelings, your emotions, your faith, and your intuition—to at least, at length, be heard.

Your mind asks the hard questions, for which there are no true advance answers. No liife is linear. Your mind thinks things through, objectively weighing options, measuring, calculating, estimating, anticipating.

Your heart on the other hand asks tender questions, considers feelings and relationships. Your heart asks what feels right.

Here’s a final thing I know.

Making the “right” decision is actually impossible —you can’t know with certainty that you have the information you need no matter when or what you decide. There is no one decision you will ever make in your lifetime that comes with an advance guarantee. Once you accept this fact, you can approach the decisions you make from a place that includes and soothes your jittery mind but also refuses to diminish and disregard your hopeful heart. You can proceed knowing you did your best at the time, allowing your mind and heart room to breathe. It usually takes both of them to get it right.


  1. This chapter really resonates with me right now. NFN and I had a long chat about these same ideas this morning, and it's helpful to hear her wisdom reiterated elsewhere.

  2. nicole, great to hear your feedback. i'm glad it helped.


  3. Wow.... Kj, this is great! Thank you so much for sharing!

  4. Reconciling the mind and the heart is definitely one of my struggles. This is super, KJ.

  5. thanks j, thanks a, thanks n.
    here's to tamer minds and braver