Dancing with fear: learning to live vulnerably
In general human beings do not seem to be very enthusiastic about vulnerability. We repeatedly avoid it in our daily life and I would go on to say that we tend to view vulnerability in a negative light. To be vulnerable seems to correlate with being weak, and leaves us feeling like we are not in control of our own life and the things around us.
But over time I have come to understand that the act of living vulnerably is actually very powerful and working to live vulnerably makes a person stronger because they are more open to and prepared for whatever comes their way.
The ideas I am going to share came from my own process to understand the boxed-in way we attempt to define and relate to society and the faults I see in this approach, and developed through my own search to understand why I struggle to live vulnerably and how to overcome this struggle. I personally have found that art, and specifically dance, is a good way to explore and learn what it means to live with less barriers and how this openness translates to strength and security.
One of the biggest road blocks to living vulnerably is fear, and better understanding it can help us overcome it.
From my observations, as human beings we generally prefer organization and clarity and we dislike uncertainty and the unknown. This need for clarity comes primarily from the emotional response of fear and its strong influence on the way we choose to live our life. However, the more I look at things in this world the more I come to realize that life and society are in fact the exact opposite of simple and clearly defined, and no matter how hard we try, we cannot really control them.
In realizing this I have also come to see that what fear leads us to believe—that the unknown, the new and/or the different are something to be afraid of—may not be as true as we thought, and instead of protecting us it could in fact be keeping us from new opportunities and the possibility of gaining knowledge.
I will not deny that the psychology behind an emotion or an emotional response is very complicated and I will state that I am not an expert. But, better understanding the psychology behind fear has also helped me have more say over the influence fear has in my life.
Through my research I have come to understand fear to be a strange emotion that is extremely powerful. Fear has a strong presence and influence in one's life, however it also can be a shallow emotion that does not always have a good argument to back its case for why we should be afraid of certain things when evaluated more in detail. The emotional response of fear is believed to be primarily, although not completely, centered in a part of the brain called the amygdala. This part of the brain, and therefore fear itself, reacts to our senses—such as the information we gain through eyes, ears, touch, etc.
But as soon as this information enters the brain it diverges, taking two different paths to the amygdala. One path goes directly to the amygdala while the other first passes through the higher cortex (another part of our brain) before making its way to the amygdala. Each process determines its own conclusions about the information collected.
The information that goes straight to the amygdala determines whether we should feel fear based on a quick comparison between the recently received information with memories from similar experiences in the past—and this is dependent on whether we concluded these prior experiences to be good or bad. The second circuit, that goes through the higher cortex, does a more in-depth analysis of the information it received before sending its conclusions to the amygdala.
Due to these two different processes, there are a few challenges we face when trying to over-come our fears:
First, the process of fear that passes through the higher cortex before going to the amygdala is much slower than the process of fear that goes straights to the amygdala.
Second, the neural connection from the higher cortex to the amygdala is less well developed than that from the amygdala to the higher cortex.
What this means is that the amygdala and its quick conclusions about fear has a greater influence on the higher cortex rather than the other way around, and therefore the quick reactionary fear often has a stronger, or quicker, influence on our decisions than the fear that comes from a rationalized analysis.
In relation to our evolutionary past this made sense as we needed to respond to things quickly as a means of survival. The problem is that things we once considered dangerous and something to be afraid of, such as the unknown, are not necessarily something we need to be afraid of nowadays.
Fortunately, this does not mean that anything we fear is now a lost cause, but it is just a (possibly slow) process of re-programming our brain about what we should or should not identify as something to be afraid of.
Knowing that our initial reaction of fear may not be the most rationalized response, while working to live a more vulnerable life I have come to understand that its not always best to follow my initial fearful reaction. Rather it can be beneficial to question your initial response and make a more rational opinion about whether it is actually something to fear or not.
In doing so you begin to realize things you were once afraid of are not so scary anymore and you begin to re-program your initial fear response with new memories; thereby, gaining new information that your amygdala can draw on when making its quick, reactionary fear-responses in the future.
Now I know there is much more psychological research done about fear that I have not touched on here and that I still do not know. I also recognize that there is an immense array of information that is yet to be discovered about fear by the psychology world. But, I have personally found this simple explanation to be helpful while working to over-come the fears that arise when going after goals and dreams in life that may be out of my “safety-zone”.
Cliché as it may sound, I think it’s important to remember what Nelson Mandela said, "Courage is not the absence of fear but the triumph over it", or as Seth Godin puts it so nicely below, fear is not something we should run from but it is something we should dance with!
“We dance with resistance; we do not make it go away. You cannot make the voice go away. You cannot make the fear go away because it’s built in. What you can do is when it shows up you say welcome. I’m glad you’re here. Let’s dance about this.” -Seth Godin
In choosing to dance with the fear rather than run from it we are already choosing to live a life outside of the quote-on-quote "safety-zone" or the pre-defined equation that our society teaches us to live by. The pre-defined equation that will supposedly lead to a good, secure life. And this is important because the pre-determined structure we are taught to live by is not really as stable and secure as we may think.
We are attracted to to the security of this ‘pre-defined’ life because of our innate tendency towards organization and clarity, and by creating this ‘equation’ to live by we supposedly can avoid failure and keep things in order or moving in the right direction.
However, looking at the world around us I think it is quite easy to see that the world is not clear and straightforward. It is a constantly changing entity and the minute you may feel you have come to understand it, it has changed all over again.
Therefore, one simple equation doesn’t work for everything and the stability we hope to gain from it can be broken when we least expect it.
So you may ask, where does this bring me with vulnerability?
… if we as human beings don’t seem to like uncertainty and unknown because we fear the dangers or the problems that MIGHT arise, then what we “like” is the exact opposite of vulnerability.
The definition of vulnerability is:
“Exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.”
For me, the key words in this definition is not “being attacked or harmed”, but the “susceptible to the possibility of…”. Two words that scream unknown and uncertainty!
Being vulnerable doesn’t mean placing yourself directly in front of harm…
but it does mean opening yourself up to all possibilities, and when you open yourself up to the possibility of receiving the good you are also opening yourself up to the possibility of receiving the bad.
For many, this choice of entering the unknown is not even an option because they believe they will not be able to confront or overcome what MIGHT come their way.
I will not deny that it is much more comfortable and that it feels safer to stay in the known. But it also means missing out on possibly really cool things that are yet to be discovered in uncharted territory, and unfortunately there is no way to encounter these new things without taking the risky first-step into the unfamiliar terrain.
Perhaps you have heard this idea before, but I must repeat it:
We as humans greatly under-estimate and under-believe in ourselves and what we are capable of confronting and overcoming. This is something I've encountered many times in dance through which I have learned a great deal about facing the new and unknown.
As humans, our bodies are capable of much more than we believe. Children are a great example of this. If we, adults, see children playing we are often nervous they are going to hurt themselves due to their “lack of” awareness and their “carelessness”. That said, children also seem to always catch themselves right before something really bad happens.
Our brains as human beings are much deeper and more complex than our conscious, logical mind can imagine or explain. And our body can react to such situations much quicker than our conscious brain can even process. Yet we struggle to trust in this.
In dance and movement there are many things that our body cannot learn if we do not allow our mind to put full trust in our body.
Normally, our body is more capable than our conscious mind believes it to be, but our mind can also be the biggest obstacle when trying to explore and achieve something new. In dance, by choosing to trust our body—both its reactions and its judgments—we begin to enter into situations and explore things we otherwise would not have thought to be possible. It is when we enter this state that we—our bodies and our mind—begin to gain new information and knowledge. And the same is true for other things in life.
But there are two important things to remember in this process, both stated by Steve Paxton's about Contact Improvisation (a dance technique):
"What can be learned by catching a hurdling body? The importance of timing. That there is such a thing as correct preparation. That understanding the technique with the mind is different than understanding it with the body.”
(Through this video of Contact Improvisation in the beginning stages of their exploration of a unknown movement/dance theory and the questions that came with it)
First, choosing to step into the unknown is different than choosing to jump straight into the middle of it. One is an intelligent choice to begin opening yourself up to new things and the other is jumping straight into the deep-end without first learning how to swim. What Steve Paxton stated about Contact Improvisation, "that there is such a thing as correct preparation”, also applies to most things in life.
Which leads me to the second point about opening up to vulnerability: the choice to learn to be vulnerable is a process and there are no short-cuts. Furthermore, one not only has to learn and understand the concept but also how to enact it.
Just as when learning to do Contact Improvisation you cannot decide one day to jump on the back of another person and trust that both your bodies will respond intelligently if you have not done the necessary preparation, you also cannot assume that one day you will live vulnerably and it will be a natural action without any consequences. True trust takes time to build up and parallels with awareness.
Unfortunately, this world is not always nice and does not always have our best interests in mind. It's the reason we tend to shy away from vulnerability in the first place—because through generations we have learned that being vulnerable emotionally, economically, or theoretically can be just as dangerous as being physically vulnerable.
Therefore, it is true that one does have to take the precautions when they decide to open themselves up and live more vulnerably. They need to gain confidence in themselves and the steps they are choosing to take forward, learn how to listen, read, and react to the people around them, and learn how to catch themselves when they see they are beginning to fall.
By jumping straight into the unknown without taking the first steps, one is then jumping straight into a possibly dangerous situation because their body and brain has not had time to develop the knowledge to manage it as well as it is capable.
But, as one of my professors once told me, “trust [also] is not as far away from any of us. We make this deal about it and finding it, but really it’s already there within us, we just have to work at accessing it.”
By giving oneself the grace to step into the unknown at a steady pace, they gain tools to be able to manage all types of situations and trust in themselves, and that's when true learning and discovery can begin.