Month: June 2014

Facing fear — or not

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

― Frank Herbert, “Dune”

As much as I would have loved to be a Bene Gesserit Witch, I don’t think I have chops — mostly because I have the shakes, so to speak.

Many times during my yoga practice, I will assign myself a challenge pose. Often, these are the ones in which I face the greatest mental blocks: forward-leaning arm balances (Crow and derivative) and total inversions, such as Handstand. Oddly enough, I used to be able to perform Headstand against the wall quite easily, but had to stop because it is one of the sole aggravators of my thoracic outlet syndrome, aside from weird sleeping positions. (I finally learned that the small disclaimer noting that you should avoid Headstand if it’s medically contraindicated actually does pertain to me.)

This morning, yet again I tried Handstand. Or rather, I tried to try: I put my hands down at the wall, walked my feet up into a short Downward-facing Dog and kicked up — halfheartedly. It was pathetic how little I kicked up. It’s not because of a lack of strength — I am strong enough and then some to kick up into a Handstand — but because of fear. The animal part of my brain doesn’t want  to do Handstand — ever. It’s somehow fine with half-handstand (an L-shape with my feet against the wall), but the full inversion? A whole lot of nope.

Yoga books aren’t a help here. They shrug at the problem: “It’s just fear. Fear isn’t real. Just do it.”

Which is a whole lot of bullshit.

Fear is real. It’s one of our greatest primal urges; it shapes our mammal nature. The rustling of the grass may be a tiger. Falling on your head may hurt you.

True fear is paralyzing. It’s one of the most real phenomena you’ll ever face.

I understand my animal mind. When I was five years old, I fell down the cellar stairs — and have had barophobia (the fear of falling) ever since. This was compounded during an after-school gymnastics class when I was 10 or 11 years old, during which I repeatedly fell on my head and, in one case, was nearly torn apart during a flip on the rings — because the adolescent spotters never told me when to let go. It was as if the Three Stooges combined into one human being, shrunk down to the size of a pre-teen girl, and joined middle school gymnastics. I was that bad.

To this day, I grip the rail when walking down the stairs. Skipping across rocks over a stream? Shaking fear. Rock scrambles when hiking? the same — even when elderly hikers are literally passing me with canes. I challenge myself to work past this. Singing, for example, seems to work when hiking or crossing the rocks on the stream; it takes me out of fear mode. I had a mantra going in my head during the rock scramble up Porter and Cascade in the Adirondacks — and made it, after three tries. Fear is the mind-killer.

Oddly, my fears seem to be entirely physical in origin: falling, blood and strange dogs (the latter from years of being chased and nearly bit as a runner). Public speaking? No problem! Making an ass out of myself in public? Got it! I have no fear of humiliation, of the judgment of others — or of intellectual challenges. I recently switched careers and, while that was a strange prospect, I wasn’t afraid.

But the fear of public speaking is real and debilitating, even if I don’t share it. It’s just different: inward focused rather than outer. My fears do not stem from myself, but from the world around me. I know and trust myself, and my capabilities. I just don’t trust the floor to not break my toes if I come down too fast in Handstand.

I’m not sure what to do about Handstand, exactly, or how to get over this block. Inversions and forward-leaning arm balances are the roadrunner to my coyote, and the floor is the giant anvil marked “Acme” that’s coming right toward me.

And so, in my half-ass way, I try. I try to try. I walk across the rocks in the stream. Every now and then I try Crow and put all my weight in my hands, although a toe still remains on the floor — for safe-keeping.

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Poetry, music and some pretty old tunes

This morning, I was listening to one of my favorite albums: Layne Redmond’s “Invoking Aphrodite,” which is inspired and built upon ancient musical traditions. Redmond, who died last year, was a master of the frame drum — one of the oldest instruments in the world, depicted in ancient tomb art, pottery and more.

“Invoking Aphrodite” is devotional music at its best, combining truly ancient texts — poems from Sappho, the Seikilos epitaph, Mesomedes’ “Hymn to the Muse” — with modern composition. The music is based on ancient traditions, when those are known; the music for “Hymn to the Muse,” for example, was preserved through an ancient notation system and dates back to the second century of the common era. You can hear a rendition of this song below:

Interestingly, Mesomedes was a freed slave from Crete. Several other musical compositions were preserved, including the “Hymn to Nemesis”:

In the ancient world, poetry was married to music. Bards — whatever you wished to call them — recited epic histories to the harp, the lyre, the kantele, the kora and a host of other simple stringed instruments. The words were not spoken, but tunefully chanted or sung in simple melodies, which in themselves served as mnemonic devices. At some point, the two became uncoupled — likely due to increased literacy, the printing press and the publishing industry. Despite this divorce, I find it fascinating when I realize that, say, the Homeric hymns all had melodies to them, and likely many other ancient texts, such as the Kalevala.

Ancient music, however, didn’t need to be simple. Listen to this rendition of a Hurrian melody — which would have accompanied a hymn — from 1400 BCE:

The Hurrians, in case you are curious, are believed to be the ancestors of some of the peoples of the Caucasus, at least in terms of language.

I admit, however, that I intended to write this entry on the Seikilos epitaph, believed to be the oldest complete musical composition anywhere in the world. It was inscribed on a funerary monument, possibly dedicated to a woman named Euterpe, in the second century CE. Here is a rendition:

It’s written in the Phrygian mode and sounds, at least to my ears, a bit chirpy. Redmond’s rendition is more haunting; you can hear a selection here.

The words are variously translated, but I prefer Redmond’s version:

I am an image in stone.

I was put here by Seikilos

Where I will remain forever,

A symbol of deathless remembrance.

As long as you live, shine, be radiant!  

Let nothing grieve you beyond measure.

For your life is only too short 

And time will call for you.

Redmond’s version, with its haunting drone and violin, brings tears to my eyes. In a way, it is a testament to her life; she died at the relatively young age of 61 from cancer. She did shine and shared her gifts with the world — and time called for her, too soon.

I don’t have a pinky-full of Layne Redmond’s talent, but the musical traditions she brought to the world inspire me. I have tried to do my own quirky version of them with my own project, Kwannon.