Facing Fear

It’s been too long since my last post, but this year of the Rabbit will see many more posts to be sure! Speaking of rabbits, this reminds me of an experience I had this past summer, in which I encountered the meaning of “prey animal” personally.

We are moving from year of the Tiger to year of the Rabbit. Last summer I encountered a Cougar in the wild, and it was such a powerful experience that I pondered its significance for the rest of the year.  I realized when we meet these powerful animals we must examine not only what they mean in themselves, but also what it means to be part of their life, to be prey animals such as rabbits or pheasants.  What role do both the hunter and the hunted play in our lives?

When I went out for a walk that July morning, I remember thinking to myself, “This is my last day completely alone in the woods, so I must really engage in my environment with an open mind and learn everything that I can as it’s offered. I think I’ll play in the river!” And then for some reason I asked, “Can you teach me about fear?” And then stepped out of the cabin to the bright summer morning.

This was during a short break in classes, just before summer term of my 3rd year at OCOM. I was already considering that in the fall I would be an intern, and would need the courage and confidence to treat patients by myself for the first time in my life. To have responsibility for the best possible health care I can give, and to receive the honor of their trust as a health provider. These thoughts swirled through my head and I felt that I was ready for a challenge. I have been challenged many times in nature, so I had full confidence that something would come up.

I spent the whole morning wandering through the hills, investigating cliffs and caves, walking along a river, pushing through dense stands of willows near berry patches, and saw no unusual signs. Just a purely peaceful day. I took a nap by the river, observed beaver and hawk and grouse, but all seemed harmonious and relaxed, just a bright summer day.  The earth breathed deep and slowly in its abundance.  I made my way back to the cabin and made dinner. As I ate, I remembered I had to make plans for meeting my mother in two days. I jumped out of my seat and threw my canteen and cell phone into a pack, grabbed my walking stick and strolled quickly a mile up  to the ridge above our cabin. The land line was down, so I could only communicate by cell phone in certain ridges and peaks of the valley.

Shadows slowly lengthened and I happily chattered away on my phone after I reached the grassy ridge, making plans and watching the sun set across the plains, the mountains to my back. Suddenly I realized that I was texting silently, seated hunched on a rock, and the evening breeze had finally died. I felt a moment of complete stillness, then glanced up.

I almost felt rather than watched a silky mountain lion flow over the ridge above me, about 15 yards away. Its tawny coat blended into the tall straw-colored grass, and it didn’t even glance at me as it seated itself facing the prairie. It voiced several “myawps” which I viewed in profile- it had very sharp and well-defined teeth. I imagined that I could see its whiskers even, in my hyper-focused fear.

After this puzzling and shocking (to me) display, I snapped back to my own body and realized that my hands were shaking. All the colors and placement of my belongings were extremely vivid in the gentle evening light; my bright red dress, my black phone, my red metal water bottle and orange scarf. Making the decision to stand up was a tough one; I was still in denial that the giant cat was in front of me; I knew that if I stood up it would focus its attention on me.

So I gathered my phone and put it in the bag with the metal water bottle, then put the bag over the back of my neck. I put the scarf over my head, stood up and raised my hiking stick over my head slowly, saying hi to lion and making some calm intonations (or at least they sounded calm to me when I felt like squealing like a stuck pig).  I glanced up and the lion was sitting on its haunches, turned towards me and staring inquisitively. I wrenched my eyes away from it and continued down the rocky slope, humming and singing Russian folk songs. I glanced back again and realized I had disappeared beneath a hummock in the ridge, so I angled to reappear, and the lion was crouched down, staring at me. I kept walking away, down the ridge, with slow firm yet large steps… I looked back one last time and it had disappeared. I looked down the valley, realizing that I had a mile walk home, from the golden ridge to the dark treeline and through a thick forest.

After I made the internal realization that I had no choice but to keep going, I started to feel not only adrenaline but exhileration. The darkening light, the golden valley, the details of shadows around stones and slopes all began to burn into my consciousness. As I gained a view of my cabin, I felt physically the concept of home, deep in my core, with all of the stereotypical associated ideas of hope, comfort, promise of rest, welcoming, warming, and nourishing. I could palpably sense the barrier between home and wilderness, which we no longer feel in cities.

Of course once I stepped inside, I paced around the room and then realized that I should inform a neighboring dude ranch that cougars were present in the valley, which I hadn’t seen in my 28 years of exploring the summer woods of the valley. So off I went again, probably more to relieve my own stress and make contact with a human for comfort as well as to feel that I was performing a duty for my community.

After another hour of walking and talking, I returned to the cabin and waited outside, since a photographer had headed up to the same area for an evening photo shoot. I wanted to make sure that the photographer returned, and I was curious to see if they had seen or heard anything.

I had a glass of wine, enjoying the muted sounds of the evening.  Maybe I wanted to dull my hyper-awareness, or maybe it naturally decreased, but the evening settled around me like a blanket. The photographer stopped by and hadn’t seen or heard anything. So I went inside, made a fire, and fell asleep.

It was interesting to think that when I interacted directly with the cougar, I immediately attempted to reflect it; I felt that in order to survive I needed to be confident, supple, relaxed, and in charge. I needed to feel fully alive and joyous; to project positive, healthy energy; to announce that I am not injured, weak, depressed, or in any way compromised. Rather than defensive, I became completely neutral and within my own body. Yet when I returned home, I felt more like the prey animal; the rabbit scampering back to its den, checking on its family, creating the most safe environment possible and reveling in its coziness.

The predator is not seen as it hunts; the prey is not seen until it is hunted. I met the predator in a place of vulnerability; I saw it and stripped some of its mystery away, which is probably why it didn’t attack (it was not hungry, I surprised it, it was being non-confrontational since it was new to the territory, who knows). The moment I couldn’t see it any longer, I attempted to hold onto the image of myself as another cougar, gliding back home easily through the evening, relaxed into the idea of my own power.

It seemed that the gift of fear had created a corresponding stronger sensation of who I was and how truly healthy and confident I am. At the same time it put me into my body in a way that I could feel its strengths and limitations very clearly, and I had to surrender to the idea that I could not defend myself realistically against a surprise-attack by a cougar.  This clear definition of boundaries and limits allowed me a greater sense of freedom and relaxation than I had ever felt walking through the woods. This feeling of harmony with the world opened up to me as a result not only of feeling the exhileration and power of the cougar, but the respect and diligence of the rabbit.


I found this idea reflected in the Yi Jing. I like that the hexagram is water, repeated: water is the basis of life, and it is the element of the Kidney, which controls fear versus courage/willpower. Back to the river!

The Hexagram (29)

K’an / The Abysmal (Water)
This hexagram consists of a doubling of the trigram K’an. It is one of the eight hexagrams in which doubling occurs. The trigram K’an means a plunging in. A yang line has plunged in between two yin lines and is closed in by them like water in a ravine. The trigram K’an is also the middle son. The Receptive has obtained the middle line of the Creative, and thus K’an develops. As an image it represents water, the water that comes from above and is in motion on earth in streams and rivers, giving rise to all life on earth.

In man’s world K’an represents the heart, the soul locked up within the body, the principle of light inclosed in the dark–that is, reason. The name of the hexagram, because the trigram is doubled, has the additional meaning, “repetition of danger. ” Thus the hexagram is intended to designate an objective situation to which one must become accustomed, not a subjective attitude. For danger due to a subjective attitude means either foolhardiness or guile. Hence too a ravine is used to symbolize danger; it is a situation in which a man is in the same pass as the water in a ravine, and, like the water, he can escape if he behaves correctly.

The Judgment

The Abysmal repeated.
If you are sincere, you have success in your heart,
And whatever you do succeeds.
Through repetition of danger we grow accustomed to it. Water sets the example for the right conduct under such circumstances. It flows on and on, and merely fills up all the places through which it flows; it does not shrink from any dangerous spot nor from any plunge, and nothing can make it lose its own essential nature. It remains true to itself under all conditions. Thus likewise, if one is sincere when confronted with difficulties, the heart can penetrate the meaning of the situation. And once we have gained inner mastery of a problem, it will come about naturally that the action we take will succeed. In danger all that counts is really carrying out all that has to be done–thoroughness–and going forward, in order not to perish through tarrying in the danger.


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