So I made it back to India, finally, as I always promised myself I would when I felt ready for it again. And I think I’ve learned that I’m never going to feel quite ready to face a fear. I will always have to push myself towards that oncoming train, into the dark shadows of that forest, or begrudgingly, to my desk to do those taxes. To whatever stimulus scares me.
I didn’t realize that this is what I’m doing until after I arrived in India, that it is what I’ve been doing for the past few months, possibly years. And those fears are some ugly ones. They’re the ones that fester way down deep and linger somewhere in the body, in the back or some joint, or inside an allergy or a vicious verbal attack on another person. They’re so bad that the body has to find some other way of dealing with them, until eventually the hip collapses or a relationship falls apart. So putting the Great Ones–my intangible personal fears–aside for shame’s sake, I notice that all the external fears with which I am confronted, either by my own direct hand or through random circumstance are my intangible personal fears, materialized. Fear is much easier to face when we can see it, smell it, touch it, when we know exactly what it is we’re afraid of. And Asia is always a good place to find some good fear scapegoats. There are some delightful little fear-inducing stimuli lurking here beside the Indian Ocean. Perhaps if I face those outside culprits I will simultaneously tackle the underlying insidious ones?
I mentioned house-sized spiders in a previous post but really, they’re more like a spider cross-bred with a rhinoceros–and they jump. They regularly paid my friend and I visits in Sri Lanka, showing up in the kitchen, the corner of the bedroom, and eventually the most dreadful of all places, the bathroom. They’re so hairy you could brush them and the two fangs that sprout from their heads. And they jump. Did I say that already? Some cockroaches made their way in too, but they usually got themselves all dimwitted and turned over on their backs, buzzing, panicked legs flailing, so they were easy to deal with. I don’t mind cockroaches so it was my duty to sweep them off the veranda and back into the jungle. My friend is not as bothered by spiders as I am so it was her duty to deal with those fuckers–I rightly don’t give a shit that they eat the ants, I’ll happily coexist with ants, share my rice and sugar even. I duly stood guard as she regularly chased them around our place with the broom–our weapon of defence. Most days that’s how we dealt with those silly, irrational fears, by seeking each other’s help to humanely return those creatures back to their home in the jungle. But other days those creatures resisted and persisted, like avoided fears, and we were forced to resort to methods designed to decimate those creatures to unrecognizable remnants of jungle life. For example…
One night we cornered a gigantic spider in the bathroom that insisted on hiding behind the toilet. This makes for a tricky situation in which the most necessary place to put your ass also then becomes the same one you most fear putting your ass. So we had it cornered and the odds were not in our favour. What does one do in such a situation? Engage creative, survival-of-the-fittest-inspired thought. We apologized to Buddha and then, necessarily, poured freshly boiled scalding water on the poor thing, which makes me feel like I’ve just admitted to dismembering kittens for pleasure. But there was no other way. It couldn’t escape, and I won’t describe the visual result when such a fate befalls a hand-sized spider, but it’s not pretty. Our sighs of relief could be heard through the village, though we felt bad about having taken such measures. It was a pragmatic but unsustainable act; there will always be another spider to replace that one. To be fair, we tried talking to it but it staked claim on the bathroom, not its place and therefore, an intruder (as I suppose I am in the jungle then?).
A Scorpion also joined us one evening a few feet from my feet. If fear is a sound, short, sharp minor chords struck my eardrums and I gnashed my teeth as I leapt onto my chair. You can’t fuck around with a scorpion like you can a spider or cockroach (trust a Scorpio on that one). So we stared at it and talked to it. We tried different voices. We asked it questions and offered it advice for the way home. We talked to it so much that we talked it right back into the jungle. It actually turned on its heels and took itself home. And if you’ve ever watched an acquiescent scorpion (who knew?) move, they don’t crawl, they tango.
Another usual suspect in the crowd of things to be feared in Asia is the stray dog. Some of them are in very, very poor health and so beaten down they wouldn’t know how to respond to aggression or human interaction and, expectedly so, they appear quite scared and passive. But others are outright aggressive, a different, active response to fear. I never know how seriously I should respond to aggressive dogs. Are they only warning me or do they intended to tear my tender flesh from my limbs with their sharp, rabid teeth, even without provocation? One morning as I walked along Arambol beach in Goa a dog approached me, super cute and friendly. He walked beside me for a few minutes until another dog approached, a growler with bared, flashy teeth. The two began to growl at each other whilst they circled me, NOT something I want to be in the middle of. And I know that dogs can smell fear and they’ll react accordingly; they’re street dogs in India, I might approach situations with aggression if I was a street dog in India too.
Fear has a physiological effect that we are all familiar with: tummy flutters, heart palpitations, heat coursing through the body. It’s the physical body being turned on by life, a reminder of our animal instincts in place to protect us from harm. It’s like the role of intuition in the emotional or spiritual body, the tap-tap-tap of the subconscious on the conscious self that says, “hello? we have some shady business going on here that you’re kind of just ignoring.” But what I noticed that morning is that my fear in reaction to the aggressive dog starts at my feet, and like a hot steam rising rushes up my body and explodes in my head, it makes me hot-faced and goose-bumpy and vulnerable (kind of like good sex, come to think of it). It’s a peculiar, highly uncomfortable sensation saved only for the dogs but that makes me feel alive (note: this thought does not apply to previous bracketed statement). The spiders just incite paralysis.
There are as many reactions to fear as there are things to be feared and sometimes this makes those deeper internal fears difficult to recognize, for they are often shrouded in indifference, arrogance, or disingenuous interactions with people–much less obvious than the aggressive dog on the beach or the mammoth-like spiders in the bathroom. Now, had those dogs carried a giant sign around their necks reading you will be alone for the rest of your life then okay, maybe we’re starting to get somewhere.
“If we don’t have fear we die”–words of a man I trekked with in Laos, who told me the story of his horrific motorbike accident that claimed some his basic emotions, including fear until, through conscious conditioning, his body relearned them. Interesting, consciously relearning fear as a survival mechanism, and ultimately a reminder of the beating heart and coursing blood and exploding life. We need fear and I don’t think that all fears should or even can be conquered; rather, it is our common fear response that needs reshaping. Imagine just noticing the body’s physiological response in the face of a fear stimulus, like an aggressive dog. There is a reason grounded in evolution for that fear but that sensation quickly becomes one of anxiety–the fear of our own fear. We can rationalize those responses to deal with what is in front of us, especially if we can see the symbolism in them–that perhaps they are manifestations of what’s really scaring us in the deep muddy trenches of our subconscious. Or, they’re just aggressive dogs and you run for your life if necessary.
Fear, like taxes, can’t be overcome (I think) because new fears always arise, and the same ones jump around throughout our lives like those house-sized spiders. Fear is cyclical. We don’t just face fear once and then hand it its hat and cane and bid it goodbye forever. We have to do it again and again, in different ways, in different environments, with different things that plague our dreams or slip sneakily into our morning coffee. As soon as we’ve conquered one another one emerges, the next year and the year after that, like different strains of a virus. And so we have to constantly manage them or They will come for us and They will be much more a pain in the ass than just doing our taxes like good citizens. My response to the spider in the bathroom was to seek out and destroy what is externally threatening, what scares me, instead of dealing with my response to fear towards cultivating a healthy relationship with it, learning how to manage it, instead of NOT making the spider the scapegoat and unlucky target for my deeper fears–the Great Ones, the shameful ones. Because those spiders are everywhere, along with aggressive dogs, bad people, and ultimately, taxes.