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Ways of Seeing: An important freedom — from fear

“Everyone Deserves to be Safe.” This is what my sign said the first time we held a vigil in Middlebury to draw awareness to police brutality in America.
Just imagine if you saw a tiny baby, crying on the ground. You wouldn’t have to think about what to do, would you? You would run to that baby, pick them up and cradle them. You would do everything in your power to keep that baby safe from harm.
Every one who is reading this (as well as everyone who can read, and everyone who can’t) was once a tiny baby. We were all helpless, completely reliant on others to care for our bodily needs. If we didn’t get at least some care, we would have died. If our caregivers were consistent in meeting our physical and emotional needs, if they not only bathed and fed us but also sang to us, held us, kissed us, and soothed us, we probably internalized a sense of security and safety.
But what if that care was inconsistent? What if we did not experience warmth and love? For a lot of people, early childhood experiences lead to deeply internalized fear. When they look at the world around them, instead of seeing a delightful adventure, they see potential threats. When they see someone they don’t know, they wonder if that person could be an enemy. They see the world as a dangerous place, full of people waiting to hurt them.
It turns out that this fear is easily exploited. Conservative politicians warn against the danger posed by immigrants. Police unions lobby for harsher drug laws that criminalize communities of color. Gun manufacturers sell weapons by marketing them for “self defense.” Religious zealots have even managed to convince legislators that it is dangerous to let transgender folks use public restrooms.
Is there anything that can be done about fear? It turns out, there is. Researchers asked a group of participants in a study questions about various social issues to determine how liberal or conservative they were. They then had everyone participate in an intense imagination exercise. Half the group was asked to visualize that they were granted the superpower of being able to fly. The other half of the group was asked to imagine that their superpower was being completely safe, invulnerable to any harm.
When the entire group was then asked questions on a variety of social issues, the group of conservatives who imagined being able to fly showed the usual tendency to be resistant to social change. But the Republicans who had spent some time imagining themselves as completely safe, were now significantly more open. They were in general no more afraid of social change than Liberals.
This confirms something a lot of us have experienced directly. Prior to the gay liberation movement of the 1970s, most gay folks were closeted and bigotry and homophobia reigned supreme. Not only was gay marriage illegal, simply being gay was illegal. Most Americans didn’t see anything wrong with this state of affairs, and savagely brutalizing a gay person on the street was a common, police-sanctioned activity for many horrible men. But as more and more gay folks started coming out to their families, friends, and coworkers, Americans realized that they did know gay people. It became more difficult to demonize one’s neighbor, one’s mailman, one’s soccer coach. We still have a long way to go, but the majority of Americans no longer fear gay people.
If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing about the world, I would wish to make people unafraid. The physical sensation of being scared is to have every muscle tense, the bowels clench, and the heart pound. If we needed to run from a saber toothed tiger, this physical reaction would be extremely helpful. But if we could relax and let go of fear, we could be so much friendlier to ourselves and others. We would have an easier time following the advice of wise teachers like Jesus who counseled us to welcome the immigrant, feed the hungry, and visit the prisoner.
So in this last paragraph, let me leave you with a yoga exercise for feeling safe in the world. You can have someone read it out loud to you, so you can close your eyes and listen to the words. Lie down on the floor and notice how that feels on your back. If your back feels achy or tender, lie with your legs up on the seat of a chair. Now notice whether your chin is jutting up toward the ceiling. If it is, take a folded towel or blanket under your head, so that your forehead and chin are level. Now observe all the different areas that are in contact with the floor. The backs of your shoulders, the back of your skull, your whole back, let these areas relax down. Place your hands on your abdomen, and take a few deep, slow breaths. Feel how your belly rises and falls. When you exhale, let the breath go all the way out, and let your whole body release into the earth, with gravity. Feel how you are held by the earth, completely supported. Let go of tension, let go of judgment. Be friendly to yourself. You deserve to be here. You deserve to be safe. Rest like this for a few minutes, and then gently roll to the side and sit up. Do you feel safe?
Joanna Colwell is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher who founded and directs Otter Creek Yoga, in Middlebury’s Marble Works, and lives with her family in East Middlebury. When not practicing or teaching yoga, Joanna enjoys taking walks, cooking, serving on the board of WomenSafe, and working with the Middlebury chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. Feedback welcome at: joanna@ottercreekyoga.com

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