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The war within

In all of human history, war has been a universal way we define life and death, bravery and fear, what is ‘ours’ and what belongs to other. Our ancestors fought battles to protect and expand their territory, and these wars continue on today. Over time, as we transformed from sea beings to land dwellers, one defining feature between us and other species has been the strength of the nervous system. Because we have tremendous fight or flight capabilities, we survived and grew as a species.

We have thrived by coming together and moving concentrically around a common and compelling storyline. In times of stress and danger, we are quick to form a structure in which to mobilize; we find it invigorating to rally together. We find identity in belonging to a group and a sense of power in pointing fingers and assigning blame.

When we face anxiety in our own lives, often times we recreate this behavior internally. We fixate and box-in the things that we can seemingly control when everything else feels out of our hands. As we struggle to reign in our own lives, we are quick to offload the tension to those around us as friends, family, neighbors and random people in the street become scapegoats; obviously they are the responsible parties for all the injustice we have been dealt.

In challenging times, how often have you told yourself or been told to ‘keep it together’? To ‘contain yourself’? Not to ‘fly off the handle’? My guess is that all of us, at some point, have received this instruction. While the ‘trying to control’ may work in managing a stressful period for a little while, ultimately it does not serve anyone, and most of the time doesn’t aid in resolving the stressful situation.

When faced with the lack of control surrounding conflict, we tend to walk a tight rope between containment and explosion. The problem is that when we create tension between the two by holding things in, the whole being, both physical and emotional bears the burden of the strain. It is like putting the body and mind into a tight plastic sac that is constantly in danger of bursting. We lose the potential to breathe, move and explore freely; instead we get locked in a pattern of fear. What’s more is that we get attached to the pattern (or sac) itself. We think that if it is removed we will die. At a certain moment we realize we will die with the sac on, but finding a way to change the restricted movement to expand out again comes with its own challenges.

Moving away from the center can be a radical move; it takes courage to let the air out of the tight protective bubble that we create out of the need for self-preservation in a vulnerable time. Moving through any kind of stress or trauma can amount to waging an internal war. Recovering from this and learning how to reintegrate with the outside world can be difficult and it can take time. Ultimately though, breaking free has to do with facing our fears. Our biggest fear, or course, is the fear of death.

The Mongolian warriors didn’t wear much armor, yet they fought against those clad in head to toe iron. How did they manage their fear? How did they win all those battles without the protective shell? It is said that early in the morning, before sunrise, the Mongols participated in a group rituals which included bathing in hot springs and touching into the places in their bodies that held the fear to manually release the tension. In this way, by the time they reached the battlefield they were fearless.

What can we learn from the Mongols? Bravery comes from letting go of fear. Often we wage quiet wars within rather than taking the time to move through the places that scare us. If we shy away from fear and inward to avoid it, the fear will be right there waiting for us. Sometimes we have to hit the battlefield to resolve our past. When we do face whatever it is that prevents us from being free, we arrive in a place of integration, inside our bodies and in the world where we can be brave enough to cultivate peace.

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