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Soulful Sundays: Fear

"Everything that you've ever wanted is sitting on the other side of fear." -George Addair

"Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering." -Yoda

We have reached the final chapter of our journey through the five dominant emotions of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). If you haven't read about the other four, I would suggest that you go back and take a look. This week we will discuss the Water element and its emotion, Fear.

Fear is considered by many traditions to be the root emotion, meaning that all other emotions (anger, worry, sadness, and joy) emanate from fear. In TCM this is no different. Fear is our first emotion when we are born and forms the backbone of our behavior for the rest of our lives. The newborn fears for its life because it is unable to eat, stay warm, and survive without help. And while babies quickly gain more and more function, most humans require two (sometimes three) decades before we consider them independent.

Even the highest functioning adults have a hard time thriving without others. There are incredibly few examples of completely self-sufficient humans (meaning they don't rely on other humans). We are biologically geared to be cooperative and social. We are wired to seek the comfort, protection, and support of the group and to fear isolation and rejection. This trait evolved from living in small hunter-gatherer tribes for most of our history as a species. Isolation meant a very hard existence and most likely death.

The Water element is represented by the color black and is at its peak in the deepest part of the winter. This is the metaphorical death of the year, and fittingly most deaths occur in December, January, and February. On the less macabre side, the winter is also a time of necessary rest and rejuvenation. Within this stillness grow the seeds of potential, so that when the time comes, spring is possible. Every night we experience a 'mini-death' when we go to sleep and allow our bodies and minds to repair for the next day. Just like Fire/Summer is the most Yang element, Water/Winter is the most Yin element. The two balance and complement each other perfectly. The emotion of Fire--Joy--could be called the absence of fear, but I'll talk more on that in the next post.

In TCM, the Water element encompasses the Kidney organ system. This system includes the physical kidney and adrenal glands, but also describes what the Chinese call 'Jing' or 'Essence.' A modern way of interpreting the concept of Essence is to think of it as both our genetic inheritance and our epigenetic health. Allow me to elaborate. Every cell division that your body undertakes will lead to some small fraction of change in you DNA. As we age our DNA is at the risk of becoming more and more fragile. Mutations are more likely to occur, telomeres become shorter, and there are fewer and fewer active stem cells available for biological repair. The Chinese believe that we are all born with a finite amount of Essence as children (inherited from our parents), and when we run out of it we die. However, they also believe that healthily diet and lifestyle helps preserve the Essence. This is what we would call a healthy epigenetic environment, thus reducing the decay and damage that can occur to the DNA.

In excess, fear can be immensely damaging to one's well being. It keeps us from fully living our lives and can actually lead to more accidents. A certain level of confidence in our abilities actually keeps us safe. Does being terrified when you drive a car make you a safer driver? It does exactly the opposite. You are more reactive and less capable of navigating because you are overwhelmed by fear. On the other hand, a lack of fear can lead to reckless behavior due to overconfidence. The ideal spot is somewhere between phobia and recklessness. This is where we can still have respect for fear, but act with courage.

Being courageous can look like many different things, but they all share a common theme--understanding our fears and acting despite of them. The Classical Stoics made a regular practice of inoculating themselves to fear by putting themselves in the situations that they most feared. This often meant giving up their wealth for a short period of time, or quitting a food or behavior that they feared to live without. I would encourage everyone to adopt some variation of this practice for your own mental wellbeing. Do things on a regular basis that scare you. Try on a practice called 'fear-setting' (similar to goal-setting) in which you write down all of your worst fears and then problem solve how you would overcome them if they actually happened.

The Water element is said to house the spirit called 'Zhi' or 'Will.' And while it may be a platitude, 'where there is a will, there is a way,' is quite apropos. Water is able to wear down all other elements, creating canyons out of stone. It does so not by raw force alone, but through patient consistency. Our goals in life are possible if we have enough dedication to putting one foot after the other and the will to continue when things are difficult. Your ancestors did just that and so can you. May the Force be with you.

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