Take a close, undistracted look at this three minute video: The Bear. Seriously. Do it. Notice the nature of the feelings that arise in your body as you view it. I’m guessing, if you’re like me, you’ll feel tension in your stomach and possibly constriction in your throat. Your breathing might slow and/or stop for a time. You’ll feel tension, then relief, then tension again. And then finally relief. This short video is definitely worth watching, for several reasons.
I like to use this video during live presentations to underscore several important lessons. The first is: it’s a wonderful, dramatic illustration of The Big Brain Question. When we are undeniably certain, as children and as adults, that there are people in our nearby environment upon whom we can unquestionably count, we’re much more willing to go out and explore and take risks, both prudent and sometimes foolish.
I’ve had long periods when I’ve had such people watching my back, and periods when I haven’t. It’s easy for me to look back at the times when those people were present and see the extraordinary growth and learning that unfolded in my life, both from the risks I took which turned out well, and from those that “failed” (It’s difficult though, to consider something a failure when great learning results).
For example, I’ve written about my fear-based, internal struggle to accept a job as a maintenance man at this Stanford Think Tank after I’d earned two Master’s degrees and a Ph.D. What was all that education for if I wasn’t going to put it to “good” use? (Well, it was for learning things that I was interested in learning, that’s what. Why does it have to be for any more than that?). I ended up staying at that think tank – a sanctuary that many high-level academics describe as the place where the single best year of their lives unfolded – for TEN years! Many more than one of them were very good years for me. I wrote and published three successful non-fiction books and two suspense novels just for fun. I also met any number of interesting people I would never have met otherwise, from Steve Levitt (Freakonomics) to Alison Gopnik (The Philosopical Baby) to K. Anders Ericcson (Developing Professional Expertise). I also got to observe how academia operates at the highest levels.
I was first exposed to neurobiology research there at that Think Tank way back in 1999. For the last 14 years since then I’ve been working on a kind of self-directed, post-doctoral research fellowship. As such, I get to follow my interests wherever they may lead, beholden to no one and nothing but my own heart of hearts.
Does a Cougar Have My Leg?
I also learned that not once – before, during and after those past 14 years – actually, in almost every moment of my life – not once has the Cougar had my leg. What I mean by that is not once in all these years has a single fearful thought generated by my bully left language brain been in response to a real, in-the-moment, in my face, bona fide threat. Such thoughts do manage to trigger a neurophysiological emotional cascade of stress hormones much as my brain would if the Cougar in that movie actually did have me by the leg, but all I have to do is look down at my leg, Cougar-free, and I can exhale. And relax. And come back to the actual safety and freedom available in the present moment – the place where all of our lives, if they’re to be lived authentically – are required to consciously unfold.
I will admit that it’s a rare day that goes by when I don’t generate at least one fearful thought or two that forces me to actually look down at my leg as a necessary reminder. Overdraft notices from the bank, dwindling winter wood stores, a muscle spasm in my back – they can all emotionally hijack me in much the same way a Cougar attack might. But a lot less often, and not for very long.
And that’s a good thing. Increasing numbers of Cougar-free days can then eventually begin to allow me to look past my leg, past my own fear-based self-concerns and begin to allow me to follow my truest heart and consider increasingly answering the Big Brain Question in the affirmative for others.