My kids were 12 and 9 when we rented a rowboat at Burke Lake in Northern Virginia. The day was warm and sunny as I rowed us into the heart of the lake, the kids seated at opposite ends of the boat. My daughter sat sunning herself, and my son and I sat observing the sun on the water, the shoreline, and the other boats in the distance. I enjoyed the peacefulness of the day until my son started screaming and pointing at my legs and feet. Startled, I look down to see a snake slithering behind my legs on the seat where I sat.
No thought crossed my mind. Casting the oars aside, I stood and jumped overboard into the lake, yes, leaving my children in the boat with the snake. For me that was a fight or flight moment, and I chose flight. The response was automatic. I perceived the snake as an immediate threat to my well-being and
We come into this world with a deeply held survival mechanism. Even the greatest and wisest suffer from the fear of death, the fifth klesa, known as abhinivesa. Unlike raga and dvesa, which are about our relationships to what is outside of us, abhinivesa is an internal experience. TKV Desikachar describes abhinivesa in this way: “Insecurity is the inborn feeling of anxiety about what is to come.” He also maintains this klesa is the most difficult to overcome.
If we think about Desikachar’s definition of abhinivesa, we can see that worry, anxiety, phobias, panic attacks resulft from fear about what will happen. It is fear of the unknown. The fight or flight response – that biological response to assure survival – then triggers a cascade of physiological responses in the body which create further stress. Whether our worry is about having enough food, eeling we cannot change an unpleasant or dangerous situation, or believing we are about to be bitten by a poisonous snake, all are about fear with its resulting physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral effects.
In the case of the snake in the boat, my response may have saved me from snakebite. Of course, if I had simply swum away leaving my kids in the boat with the snake, I would have caused a great deal of suffering. But, I didn’t. I climbed back in the rowboat and yelled for help. We all were rescued, and the snake restored to the lake.
We suffer when we feel fear, and the greater the attachment to what may be lost, the greater the fear and suffering. But Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra does not leave us without tools. In my next blogs, I will talk about some of these tools and how we might use them to support peace of mind.