Casting Out Fear Of The Unpredictable

Jim Ballard
©2000 All Rights Reserved

The free mind is the fruit of an austere law: it has to be
reconquered day by day. It subsists in a state of war
and belongs only to those who fight for it. —Van Wyck Brooks

Experience is not what happens to us; it's what we do with what happens to us. So in order to get better at handling constant change and unpredictability without confusion and fear, we need ways to alter our experience of it.

Years ago I trained teachers in an activity called the Magic Circle, a classroom curriculum designed to build communication and self-awareness. Each task in the program gave kids a chance to share stories from their experience that illustrated a certain part of human development.

In demonstrations I conducted with students of various ages, I often gave the task: "A time I was afraid, but I did it anyway." Little kids talked about eating lima beans or touching spiders. A pre-teen told of babysitting at a neighbors and having to investigate a noise in the basement. High schoolers' scary tales were mostly about dating and relating. In those circle times we all learned a lesson:


A great Native American chief was pronouncing a warning of the dire times that were to come from the whitefaces' encroachments on his tribe's hunting grounds. He paused, clasped his hands together, and suddenly smiled.

"This could be a good time!" he exclaimed. "The elders say, 'There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift, there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart and will suffer greatly.'

Know that the river has its destination. Let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep your eyes open, and your head above the water."

That chief's words ring like a resounding bell today. Like those tribespeople of old, we find ourselves caught in the vast, swift river of inexorable change. The tendency is to be anxious and afraid, yet holding on to the shore (clinging to old ways of thinking) will destroy us.

Paradoxically, we're counseled to do just the opposite--push off into the middle of the stream of change, where the current is strongest. Not knowing where the river is carrying us, we're to trust in its destination.

It's a little like when you learn to ski. Facing down a mountain, the tendency is to hang back, but skiing works counter-intuitively--only when you put your weight over the ski tips and "fall" can you experience control.

So let's take this apart. The old sage's advice included four key behaviors:

Letting go of the shore;
pushing off into the middle of the river;
keeping the eyes open; and
keeping the head above water

1. Let go.
Letting go may seem like the very opposite of doing something, but it can be a bear sometimes. I was in a ropes course in the California mountains and was relishing all the exercises--until we got to the Rappelling Station. I'd seen people doing this before and was anxious to try it. Dangling by a rope, pushing off the rocks and dropping, swinging in to the face, pushing off and dropping again--what could be easier?

When it was my turn and I was all harnessed in, I went to the edge of the sheer cliff, leaned out over it backwards and looked down between my legs at the treetops hundreds of feet below. The instructor said, "Let go." I nodded my head in agreement, knowing it was safe to do so. But my hands were frozen around the safety rope. It took a real effort of will to let go; when I did, it was exhilarating.

2. Push off.
Same deal: that first step is a lulu. Exercise faith and do the first push. Once you enter the current follow the rule of top whitewater kayakers: don't fight the flow; cooperate with it. These paddlers don't waste energy; they know the only time they dip the paddle is to right the boat or keep it headed downstream. The rest of the time they relax and enjoy the ride!

When you're in the trough of a wave and boat ends are in the water, it's useless to paddle: you can't make any lateral movement. Wait until you're on the crest-- the boat ends are out, so a slight dip of the paddle gives the boat the required directional correction.

It's so in life. When we're in the trough--mired in change, can't see where we're going, feeling anxious--we can exhaust ourselves by lots of flailing about in worry, trying different schemes, etc. and make no difference. Waiting is hard, but necessary. Relax, take stock, organize, get little things done. Then when the crest comes, you can see where you're going, and make a real difference.

3. Keep your eyes open.
Cooperating with change involves a whole new way of observing things. Instead of being set back by surprises, lean into them. Look for them expectantly and when one comes, carefully assess its value--look past the danger to the opportunities it offers. Between the waves of change lies the hidden window; when you see it flash, act trustfully and decisively.

The following quote from The Dhammapada, traditional Zen work translated by E. Easwaran, makes it clear that seeing without prejudice is the key to participating skillfully in a world of change.

The Great Way knows no impediments;
It does not pick and choose.
When you abandon attachment and aversion
You see it plainly;
Make a thousandth of an inch distinction,
Heaven and earth spring apart.
If you want it to appear before your eyes,
Cherish neither "for" nor "against."
To compare what you like with what you dislike,
That is the disease of the mind.
Then you pass over the hidden meaning;
Peace of mind is needlessly troubled.

Wake up to the fact that merely by looking through your habits and preferences, you may be hiding precious hidden meanings from yourself. Pause and look again. With eyes unjaded and unsophisticated, you'll glimpse whole new treasures.

4. Keep your head up.
Changeful times call for an attitude of "ferocious optimism." This is not just the old positive-thinking approach, making the best of a bad situation, chin up and all that. Rather it's an implicit belief that all things work together for your good--including (maybe especially) the hard things.


Look back at an event which you experienced as a disaster at the time. Think: "If that hadn't happened, I would not be/do/have _____ today." Fill in the blank with somebody you met, a new skill or trait you acquired, a new direction you took, a job or career you began as a result of that episode. Then, crank the time-window forward to the present. Meet setbacks by "looking back at them from the future," imagining what gifts they'll bring in time.

James Ballard is a management consultant, leadership trainer, motivational speaker, consulting partner with the Ken Blanchard Companies, and author of What's the Rush?. He founded Maudala Press, a direct-mail educational publishing firm, and wrote a series of children's books and books for teachers on humanistic education. Mr. Ballard has also helped create a number of widely-used Blanchard Training and Development models including "Managing the Journey", "Leadership Training for Supervisors", "Quality-Driven Leadership", and "Everyone's a Coach".

Category: Work-Life, Balance
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