Show me someone who’s never felt fear and I’ll show you someone who never truly lived a day in their life. Fear is an essential part of being human, and honestly, is an everyday experience for many of us. Most of us. Like me.
Instead of avoiding the inescapable truth of fear, the ninja chooses to face it, walk towards it and dares to even flirt with it, dance with it, learn from it and ultimately channel it. Because repressing fears only forces them to multiply, mutate and eventually become expressed unconsciously. Facing your fears consciously allows you to “put them to work”, to make them useful, to learn from them.
“Meeting our suffering gives us depth. And not meeting it bequeaths us neurosis and serious character flaws.” Abdi Assadi
In fact, if my life is any indication, fear might actually be the MOST direct path to creating the life of your dreams and radical self-transformation. From drug addiction to disc herniation, to the unexpected loss of two girlfriends at a young age, the darkest moments in my life have taught me more about reality and how to master it than any other life experiences.
Because when you can no longer change a horrible situation, you are forced to change. And that change is either an opportunity to discover your real inner strength, or to retreat further into fear, anger and sadness. And that sucks, so…
Here’s The Secret…
Your movement practice is a fundamentally unique opportunity to master your worst fears and darkest nightmares, so they don’t crush you when they inevitably appear. And yes, one way or another, some of your nightmares will come true – the question is which version of yourself will meet them? The victim that says “See, I told you so!” or the hero that rises to the occasion and says “good, let’s find out what I’m really made of?”
Keep reading to learn how to use movement to master your fears and make sure that your inner hero is ready to rise to the occasion!
Shameful to Be Fearful
Despite this simple, scary as fuck truth – that each and every moment we are in the presence of death, uncertainty and the unknown – our culture glorifies “fearlessness” and certainty. We are taught that to feel fear is a shameful weakness. But this is actually 100% backward. Courage relies precisely on our ability to face our fears, feel them and then walk through them: to use them as a guide, harness them, and dare I say it, even allow them to transform us.
In other words, without fear there is no such thing as courage.
Follow the Fear
“Follow the fear” is a quote often attributed to Del Close, the improv comedy legend. I started taking improv two year ago and it truly is a fear-based practice, since you have to let go of control and be spontaneous.
As a ninja, someone dedicated to living life with supreme skill, fear is an especially unique opportunity to develop oneself. Our fears have much to teach us about:
- what really matters in our life, and the inspiration to prioritize that.
- our weaknesses, and how to strengthen them.
- how to develop confidence.
- how to deal with uncertainty and even enjoy dancing with the unknown.
- to realize what we’re really made of.
Many people come back from near-death experiences having passed through “the gateway of fear” and see their life in a whole new light. They now know what is most important, and refuse to waste their time on anything else.
Dancing With the Lord of Death
Fear has been a huge part of my own personal life practice and movement practice for a long time. Dancing with the self-destruction was my preferred form of prayer during my teenage years, and even since then I’ve been humbled by the greatest fear of all more than my fair share of times, and each time it made me stronger in very real, dynamic, unexpected ways.
- When my girlfriend and lover Cindy – a tiny but mighty, radiant warrior of a woman, triathlete, coach and master trainer – died prematurely from a brain aneurysm at the age of 34 (while training for her first Ironman) I cried more in the month that followed than I’ve had in the rest of my life combined. Life brought me to my knees and I was forced to summon the strength to rise up, while being taught how deeply my heart could love and just how painful such depths of vulnerability could be. It made me stronger, from the inside out. And I wouldn’t be with my wife Alexandra if it weren’t for Cindy – her passing opened my heart and shattered the armor that had encased it for so long.
- When I went sky diving the first time, I experienced a “psychic death”. I was totally freaked out beforehand, I told myself I’d bail out and not get on the plane at the last minute. Somehow, I ended up on the plane, and was in full blown panic mode. I found the courage to take the leap of faith, and landed on the ground more confident and enthusiastic about life than ever.
- When I herniated a disc in my neck while snowboarding, I experienced an “ego death”. A huge part of my identity at the time was based on how I looked and my ability to workout hard – all of it got taken away in an instant, and what was left was a 25-year old who felt like he had the neck of a 100-year old cripple. I had to re-invent myself, so I chose to re-create myself as a stronger version of myself. It wasn’t easy and took years (and lots of money on physical therapy plus tons of boring stabilization exercises), but it was totally worth it. I wouldn’t have the network of amazing physical therapists and the depth of mastery over my body if it wasn’t for this injury.
- My vision quest – when I fasted alone in the desert for 4.5 days with only a tarp and a knife – seemed to be one of the most terrifying things I could imagine. But once I was on it, it felt so natural and empowering, and as the years go by it has continued to feed me in the most profound and beautiful ways – truly the greatest gift I’ve ever given myself. The little boy that entered that desert died there, and out of his ashes a humble man rose up and walked out of that desert.
- And of course my teenage drug addiction, which also brought me to my knees and taught me about the power of surrender and sacrificing the “inner victim” – the part of us that blames everyone for our own choices and life – which was the most empowering experience of my childhood.
Death, whether big or small, spiritual or material, is all around us. The only constant is change, transformation and thank heavens for that. Otherwise, we’d all be stagnant and never evolve. There is no life without death, there is no living without dying, there is no motion without conflict. Are you truly free to live your life?
“Why mourn for a cocoon, after the butterfly has flown? Death is one of the few givens in life, and yet we fear it. We immaturely deny its presence or refuse to take it into account. In life, where so few things are stable enough to serve as a true reference point, death is one of our few assurances.” Deng Ming-Da0
What Moves You?
There are three main emotions that most people are driven by in life: fear, anger and pleasure. Of course, we all find ourselves at different parts of this spectrum in different moments of our life, but many of us are predominantly driven by one of these emotions. And for me it’s always been fear. (And perhaps you too, if you’ve read this far!)
Living with a lot of fear and anxiety has been a point of shame in my life up until only a few years ago. Choosing to get married and commit to one person for the rest of my life scared me to death. Deciding to have a baby was scary, too. So was my decision to audition for American Ninja Warrior and put everything I’ve got into it.
Passing Through The Gateway of Fear
But as I look back, it’s clear that the most terrifying moments in my life preceded the most beautiful, empowering and transcendent experiences. Life’s greatest treasures were hidden behind life’s greatest fears! Fear isn’t something to be ashamed of, it’s the gateway to my higher power.
This is what is known as “shark medicine”. From a spiritual indigenous perspective, one of the things sharks have to teach humans is the ability to transcend fear. Swim with a shark and you’ll know exactly what I mean 🙂
Transforming Terror into Exhilaration
One of my yoga teachers gives an amazing metaphor for working with fear.
If an inexperienced sailor is sailing deep in the middle of the ocean and a huge storm hits, it is the absolute most terrifying experience of their life. But if that sailor is extremely skilled and experienced, then that same storm may very well be the most exhilarating and life-affirming experience of their life.
It’s the same situation, the only difference is skill. And that’s what it means to be a ninja – to dedicate yourself to living a life with supreme skill.
“This is the alchemy of dreams, the true path of the ninja – transforming your worst nightmare into your own luminous personal victory over the dark.” Heart Shark
I recently had this exact experience – of using skill to turn my worst nightmare into a dream come true. I wrote about it here in this Facebook post.
Mastering Fear Through Movement
Physical movement – exercise, fitness, working out – is the most direct and comprehensive way to develop the skills to channel your fear into fuel.
When you workout, you have to face many fears, over and over and over again:
- Emotional fears: “Will I look stupid doing this exercise?”
- Physical fears: “Will I hurt myself if I up the weight? This feels impossible, I can’t do it!”
- Experiencing body-shame and trauma: “I hate my body and the way I feel when I workout!”
And as you get stronger, you’ll become more confident, be able to take more risks and your fears will follow you – proof that there is still room to grow! Because your fear never goes away, you just get better at channeling it, harnessing it for the light. There is no light without darkness and your inner demons need compassion, not condemnation.
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” Carl Jung
I made up the term “exercise alchemy” to describe the experience of transcending one’s physical limitations and fears. It requires you to test yourself and go beyond the edges of your perceived limitations!
Struggling for years to be able to do a pullup, many people create an identity out of “I can’t do a single pull up.” They think it’s something innately wrong with themselves or their body (and sadly, their inept gym teachers or other kids made them fell less valuable for not being able to do a pullup when they were little. “Come on down to gym class and fail!”).
But then, if they really focus on it as a goal, struggle with it and persevere, one day they’ll do a pullup. And the fake identity and limitations they created will shatter, they’ll release the trauma of that horrible childhood experience and then begin to ask themselves “What else am I capable of that I didn’t realize?”
And that is what I call “exercise alchemy”. If your physical limitations are an illusion, how could anything else – mental, spiritual, society, whatever – constrain you?
Physical empowerment equals total human empowerment, that’s why I’m passionate about mentoring kids through movement, obstacle training and other ninja arts.
Follow The Fear – Up a 40-Foot Rope!
I recently led a river adventure retreat in Vermont – 3 days of rope swinging, canoeing, camping, feasting and cliff jumping.
In my inner vision, I clearly saw myself climbing this bridge and doing pullups on it. I literally saw it in my minds eye before we even got to Vermont.
And the idea scared the crap out of me.
At the same time, I knew that I could physically do it. I was strong enough for sure, all I had to do was to acknowledge the fear, feel it, follow it and channel it into action.
I made sure to “climb the route” in my mind several times. Visualization is a foundation skill of ninja training. In this video, I’m imagining climbing the route and “thinking through movement”, moving my hands in the exact way I’ll need to complete the route safely.
Then I went for it. As you’ll see, I made sure to take my time and even planned to rest on the knot half-way up the rope. I played it very conservative. And of course, beforehand, we dived with goggles to make sure there was some huge metal structure or tree just below the surface of the water. But I couldn’t be sure of the quality of the metal, would it be rusted? Sharp?
But I Thought Fear Was a Path to the Darkside…
Yup. It is. I’d never contradict Master Yoda. But if we stop at suffering, we’re screwed – we just keep re-creating the suffering and never transcend it. We never find out how strong we truly are.
“In order to end our suffering, we must enter our pain.” Robert August
If we face our fears with awareness and wisdom, we can go beyond our suffering and begin to wake up and circle back toward the safety of light, with an increased sense of self-mastery and confidence.
Darkness is inside each and every one of us. Sometimes, in order to get to the light, you have to walk through the dark first. Avoiding your fears is just a clever way of focusing on them and giving them more power, allowing them to germinate.
And pretending fear and darkness don’t exist is one of the craziest aspects of the popular self-help spiritual misinformation being advertised throughout pop culture!
“Just think positive and breathe!” Yeah. Maybe. Sometimes.
But other times you’ve got to go to the gym and kick some ass. Or go out to the woods and scream your brains out. Pretending there isn’t darkness inside of you is perhaps the most evil thing you can do to yourself (and others around you.)
In the face of such raw natural power, willful self-manipulation and self-delusion only serves to amplify the darkness, which is the exact opposite of harnessing it.
“What is dark, perhaps even evil, inside you must be expressed in a proper way too. Lust, hatred, cruelty, and resentment — these must all be carefully taken out of yourself, like finding a bomb and taking it to be detonated harmlessly.” Deng Ming-Dao
Is It Ever Wise to Be Scared?
Hell yes! Fear isn’t just useful in a metaphorical sense, it’s also very practical. If your fear prevents you from getting seriously hurt, of course you should listen to it. But if you are chronically scared and afraid of life, paralyzed by uncertainty, unwilling to ever take risks and lacking in confidence in body, mind and spirit, then that kind of fear is a huge problem. That kind of relationship to fear is an addiction.
And the best way to turn that huge problem into a catalyst is to start working out. Slowly, deliberately, consciously, you can begin to come to terms with your current lack of inner strength by working on your outer strength. Summoning your physical force, embracing obstacles and experiencing just how strong you really are is the best way to face the uncertainties of life with skill and confidence. You can’t make fear go away, but you can learn to ride the wave – and dare I say it, even enjoy it – instead of letting it crash on top of you.
May you have the courage to go the distance and penetrate the dark heart of fear and harness the dark side of the force!
As always, TrainDeep,
Photos: Julieta Cervantes