Fear Lessons from a Bear, Rattlesnake, & New Yorker

fear lessons

Fear is something we have all experienced at one time or another. Some people are so wrapped up in fear that they live in a constant state of paranoia. Others seem to experience very little fearful influence in their lives. What influences which side of the fear fence we are on?

I’ve always been fascinated by the subject of fear. On occasion, I’ve also been surprised by my own reaction to it. I’ve come to appreciate that there are different kinds of fear that serve different purposes and come from different sources. Some are healthy and some are not.

Should you fear a bear in the woods?

When I first moved to the forest, I knew that sooner or later I would encounter a bear. I played this scenario out in my mind and was convinced that when it happened, I would be able to put any fearful feelings out of the picture and make the most of the experience. I envisioned myself face-to-face with this bear in a state of peaceful coexistence and unspoken communication. And then, one day….

I was helping a neighbor run a fence line near a ridge on a steep hillside. We had just sat down on the uphill side of the fence for a water break. Up the hill just behind me I heard a rustling and turned around to see what it was. Suddenly, I saw this huge black face appear from out of nowhere. It looked right at me. He was close, very close, and it really caught me off guard.

Before I tell you what happened next, I invite you to stop for a minute and imagine yourself in this situation. This big bear is so close that with one leap he could be on you. How would you respond? Do you think you would be afraid?

To fear or not to fear, there was no question!

The next few seconds happened on automatic pilot. Whatever plans I had made for this encounter ceased to matter. Somehow, I had vaulted over the fence and was probably fifty feet away before I even realized I was moving. I thought: “What are you doing, this is the moment you’ve been waiting for.” I turned around to see that poor startled bear running as fast as he could in the opposite direction.

I was surprised and a little disappointed by what had just happened. Instead of some zen like moment of oneness with a wild beast, I had been transported through time and space by the power of adrenaline, and evidently, so had the bear. I wondered, was this a victory for fear? My answer would come soon enough.

Another surprise was waiting

In those days there were a lot more rattlesnakes around and I had heard the ominous sound of the timber rattler many times. I figured it was just their way of helping us respect each others space.

One day while walking through the forest I was caught in mid-step by that disruptive rattling sound. I glanced down and realized that I was about to step directly on a coiled timber rattler. Time froze and once again I was transported by the mysterious power of adrenaline to a position of safety several yards behind the danger zone.

Sometimes fear is your friend

I immediately begun to see my encounter with the bear in a different light. These two experiences had triggered a reaction that was hardwired into my genes. I know that there are those who handle poisonous snakes and commune with bears in more controlled settings, but this was not the same!

These were surprise encounters in which my genetic programming kicked into survival mode. Genetic wisdom had taken complete control of my mind and body, exactly as it was designed to do. In most cases, any attempt to override this built in safety program would result in dire consequences. Sometimes, fear is your best friend.

Not all fear is the same

During my first summer in the forest I had no plumbing. When I got tired of bathing in creeks and rivers I would go to a nearby campground and pay for a nice long hot shower. On one such trip I met two women from New York City who were camping. When they learning that I lived in the forest, one of them said that she thought I must be very brave for living that way.

Surprised, I said “let me get this straight, you live in New York City, right?” She confirmed. I assured her that they were both much braver than I was. While she saw the city as a place of security, my perception was exactly the opposite. To me, big cities represented danger and the forest represented safety. This brings us to a second kind of fear.

Perceptual fear

Perceptual fear has to do with how we anchor our experiences, real or imagined. While perceptual fear may feel like it’s hardwired into our nervous system, it is actually based on emotional choices we make consciously and subconsciously.

We all have some degree of perceptual fear and just like its instinctual counterpart, it can serve as a protection. A good example is when we stand too close to the edge of a cliff and we get butterflies in our stomach. That can be a protection.

Being emotionally based, perpetual fear can also lead us in some unhealthy directions. Things like prejudice, mob mentality, panic, paranoia, limiting beliefs, and a wide variety of phobias are closely related to this kind of fear. Perceptual fear is based in insecurity and can easily get out of control.

Stop feeding the beast

Clearly, all fears are not the same. In an emergency situation our response may be instinctive and automatic. But the destructive fears that plague people today are not beyond our control. Perceptual type fears are contagious and are often perpetuated by propaganda. Constant exposure to sensationalized bad news reports is a perfect example.

Movies, TV shows, and computer games that focus on crime and violence send powerful messages to our subconscious. Perceptual fear is on the increase and much of it is self-induced. It’s difficult to feel secure in a war zone and yet many people are choosing exposure to that same kind of negative energy. You can’t feel happy and secure on a diet of fear and violence.

Choose fearless

I invite you to take a close look at what you are feeding your mind. There is an emotional price to pay for embracing fear based entertainment in any form. No one is immune to the images, sounds, people, and thoughts they are consistently exposed to. That means that we all have the ability and the opportunity to influence our perception.

If we choose to surround ourselves with positive energy, that is what we will reflect. We tend to see ourselves reflected in the world around us. If we are fostering fear, the world will look more fearful. On the other hand, if our reality is built around positive energy, that is what our world will reflect back at us. When it comes to perception, we always have a choice. Yes, we can even choose to be perceptually fearless.

When do you feel fear the most?
Have you overcome some fear that once bothered you?
The lines are open!

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  1. Catrien Ross March 8, 2010 Reply

    Jonathan, a wonderful post, and I laughed picturing your mutual encounter with the bear. A perfect illustration of the energy pathway in our bodies which for eons has governed our “fight or flight” response, and which has brought us safely to this point so far! There are bears in the mountains here in Japan, and when people go picking mountain vegetables or mushrooms, they carry little tinkling bells to warn bears that humans are coming. I remember a Navajo man in Arizona telling me that many Native Americans learn to walk in the desert in a way that does not broadcast the frequency of fear – either for the human or for the rattlesnake, so both sense safety in each other’s presence. Your advice about stopping the stoking of our fears and choosing fearlessness instead is such an important and inspiring reminder. I enjoyed this post very much, Jonathan – thank you for your wise insights. Warm wishes to you from the mountains in Japan – Catrien Ross.

    • Jonathan March 8, 2010 Reply

      Hi Catrien, I came to realize that the element of surprise seems to kick us back to our deeper programing regardless of our intentions. I have been close to foxes and coyotes, but we saw each other from a distance and had time to ease into it. In 38 years I have seen a a Canadian lynx once, several bobcats and bears, and have yet to see a mountain lion in the wild.

      The natural world is being squeezed by human development. In the process we are losing the ability to walk among the creatures. I am glad you have wild life around you Catrein. It adds a very special flavor to life.

  2. Lana March 8, 2010 Reply

    Perceptually fearless.. Loved it! You are so right Jonathan. It is always a choice.

    • Jonathan December 3, 2012 Reply

      Hi Lana, choice is where the power comes from.

  3. Mike King March 8, 2010 Reply

    Awesome story Jonathan and perspectives learned about fears. I had an close encounter while tenting where a grizzle bear woke my wife from its breathing just a few feet outside our tent. Luckily we were able to stay calm, wait for the bear to leave and then flee to the safety of our car where we slept the rest of the night. Completely different response, similar lessons to be learned though. This is an example I have though that feeds my beliefs that there is little value in fearing something until you are faced with it as the reaction may not be as you think it was. I certainly didn’t think my wife would stay calm or that I would either, yet I’ll never forget peeking out the tent under the moonlight to see the grizzle walking away 50 feet from the tent and us making a safety break for the car.

    • Jonathan March 9, 2010 Reply

      Wow Mike, grizzle bears are fear inspiring to say the least. Maybe you have heard it said that you can outrun a bear, don’t believe it. We had a bear in our yard , laying in the sun eating a jug of fish fertilizer that he had ripped open. I walked out to the edge of the deck and said in a quiet voice: “Hey, what’s going on?” Before I could blink he had run the 100 yard dash and disappeared into the woods. He was so fast I couldn’t believe it. You did the right thing.

  4. Phil Bolton March 9, 2010 Reply

    Jonathan –

    I love your first hand experience of primal fear. In fact it shows how well equipped we are to deal with danger. I suspect there is little benefit in fighting a bear or a rattlesnake!

    I spent most of last year wrestling with fear about being an entrepreneur. I was afraid that I wasn’t good enough. One day, reviewing my blog posts and the events of the past few weeks, it dawned on me. I’d been letting fear dominate, and others were picking up on that. I removed fear from my vocabulary, chose not to submit to it any more. I’ve loved life since then and amazing things are happening.

    Thanks for a great post, Phil

    • Jonathan March 9, 2010 Reply

      Hey Phil, I’m so glad for your realization and your ability to get past the fear. Feelings like yours are very common when people are taking on new challenges that are outside of their previous experiences.

      These kind of feelings can also originate from a variety of sources. It’s unusual for someone to get past them without a little coaching. I commend you for that.

      In my book I included a number of written exercises and coaching steps to help people break these limiting beliefs. It’s not a difficult thing to do, but having the steps laid out for you really helps. Thanks so much for your comment.

  5. Nea March 9, 2010 Reply

    I really enjoyed this unique analysis of fear types. It makes so much sense. I’m not someone who has a lot of what you call perceptual fear, but I’m the first one to run if there’s a bug in the room. And I can’t even explain how I’d react in the presence of a bear or snake. Nothing zen-like about it. Let’s just say, I may have beat you getting out of that danger zone.

    • Jonathan March 9, 2010 Reply

      Nea, I could visualize you running from a bug. Made me smile. They say you don’t need to be able to outrun a bear, you just need to be fast enough to outrun the people you are with.

  6. Sid Savara March 9, 2010 Reply

    Hey Jonathan,

    I really like the distinction you make between “instinctual” and “perceptual” fear.

    It’s really given me a lot to think about. I also think though that in some cases, our perceptual fears aren’t that far removed from our instinctual, and that’s where the line blurs. For example, fear of public speaking is so common, even though (generally, heh) unwarranted. It’s so widespread, and yet I think many people who fear it haven’t had a negative experience public speaking – so why the fear?

    I don’t know the answer to it, just putting it out there. Perhaps there are other examples as well. Regardless, great food for thought – thanks :)

    • Jonathan March 9, 2010 Reply

      Hey Sid, great to have you here. I totally agree with you about there not being a distinct line between “instinctual” and “perceptual” fear.

      I think it is entirely possible that there is an overlap, and that it varies for each individual. I see a similar area of blurred lines when trying to determine whether a habit or trait is learned or genetic.

      I am so glad you brought this up. I was going to mention it in the article, but it was already way longer than I intended. Thanks for sharing your thoughts my friend. Appreciated.

  7. ZuzannaM March 9, 2010 Reply

    Hello Jonathan,

    I am not sure how I would react in a situation like yours. I am not able to run and perhaps would freeze and see what will happen next, if the bear would choose me to be his breakfast or not? I know how to be brave when there is an emergency with patients in a hospital, but Wild life, NO! I know that if a person is totally in peace with the entire surroundings and with the entire Universe, creating absolute peace and harmony with Nature, can conquer the greatest fear. Thank you for the great post!

    • Jonathan March 9, 2010 Reply

      Hi Zuzanna, as my experience shows, we never know exactly how we will respond when an unexpected situation catches us off guard. In some cases, freezing may be the best possible reaction. Read Mike’s comment for an example of that.

      I also believe that being at total peace with our surroundings should eliminate all fear. I honestly thought that’s where I was. But my own reaction taught me that there are deeper programs attached to our survival instinct that can take control and override everything else.

  8. Steve March 9, 2010 Reply

    I love the beauty of adrenaline, and how it transported you through time and space without much thought. Who needs a transporter: Beam me up, Scotty!! :)

    Seriously, though, it’s a helpful take on fear and perception. Given that it can take some time facing the fear to overcome the fear, it helps to balance perception with experience.

    • Jonathan March 9, 2010 Reply

      Well said Steve, even our primal fears can be quieted with repeated exposures. It’s those surprise encounters that will get you acting in ways you never expected. That’s when we switch over to auto-response mode.

  9. Steven Aitchison March 9, 2010 Reply

    Jonathan, you made my night reading this. I laughed at the picture of you running from the bear (I saw you as a Jerry Lewis type character running from the bear and the bear running in the opposite direction :) ) Not really a funny situation to be in at the time I would imagine.

    I loved the message in the post as well and I totally agree with you that TV, media, video games etc have all enhanced our perceptual fear.

    Jonathan, your writing and your wisdom grows with every post you write, I am envious of your ability and grateful for your friendship.

    • Jonathan March 9, 2010 Reply

      Hi Steve, your description got me laughing as well. The interesting thing about this experience is that I never felt afraid. There was no conscious feeling of fear at all. I was just 50 feet away and wasn’t even sure how I got there. That adrenaline is some amazing stuff.

      I’m humbled by your kind words, more than you could know. Thanks for being a friend, it means a lot.

    • Robin Easton March 12, 2010 Reply

      I am laughing my face off over Steven’s comment here. I laughed out loud. FANTASTIC imagery!! Now I feel as if I REALLY have seen Jonathan running like Jerry Lewis!!! :)

      Aaahhh, you gotta love it!

      • Jonathan March 12, 2010 Reply

        Hi Robin, well I’m really not sure how Jerry Lewis runs but I’m laughing anyway. You never know what you will do (or how silly you’ll look doing it) under the influence of adrenalin.

  10. John March 10, 2010 Reply

    Fear is tough to understand at times, especially when it is your own fear. It often just doesn’t make any sense.

    My most powerful fears–and the most unreasonable–are never life threatening. I am pretty much at ease and calm in nature, including in grizzly territory. In dangerous situations I become grounded and alert.

    But I can lose that calm understanding, acceptance, and readiness, when confronted with certain inner challenges, such as walking my path with both feet, or owning my strengths and acting on them.

    On the positive side of fear, I have found the greatest joy and success when I have released a persistent fear and moved through and past it. New worlds open up on the other side of fear.

    Life is truly amazing. Even its darkness holds treasures for those willing to explore the depths.

    Thanks Jonathan,

    • Jonathan March 10, 2010 Reply

      Good points John, I hear people comment about harboring a degree of fear when it comes to facing those inner challenges more than any others.

      I love what you said: “I have found the greatest joy and success when I have released a persistent fear and moved through and past it. New worlds open up on the other side of fear.” So often fear is a door.

  11. Zeenat March 11, 2010 Reply

    HI Jonathan,
    I so so so loved this post and the topic is just phenomenal! Cause we all at some point in our lives have been through and faced some kind of fear.
    Our choice to be fearful or not makes or breaks us for the future for sure. If it makes us we become stronger individuals for it..and positive thinking is a miraculous healer.
    If however we chose to let the fear consume us..we live a life full of fear, never taking chances and cultivating emotional and psychological issues will hinder our very existence.
    Our choice to be perceptually fearless will indeed be a great achievement!
    Thank you fro writing about this….And Steven is in a zone with his funny comment :) I laughed while reading it..and could imagine it..;)
    Much Love,

    • Jonathan December 3, 2012 Reply

      Hi Zeenat, when people are facing their inner fears, I think there is a tendency to feel like they are the only one with that challenge. In reality, I think this is probably one of the most common challenges facing all people.

      I like to think of fear as a door to greater personal growth. Of course, it’s only a door if we go through it. Otherwise it’s a wall.

  12. Robin Easton March 12, 2010 Reply

    Dear Jonathan,

    I’ve wanted to get here sooner, but am just swamped with work. However, I just LOVE this article – read it twice over the last few days. One of the best I’ve read on fear. So many thoughts here but since I have a meeting in about 10 mins I will pick one of the thoughts I had.

    I so relate to this: “If we choose to surround ourselves with positive energy, that is what we will reflect. We tend to see ourselves reflected in the world around us. If we are fostering fear, the world will look more fearful. On the other hand, if our reality is built around positive energy, that is what our world will reflect back at us.”

    Like you, I don’t watch TV, read Newspapers, news, etc. I think that not only do we reflect to the world what we CHOOSE to take in, and not only do we more often than not have that reflected back to us, BUT (and for the sake of sounding “flaky”) we also seem to draw a whole host of like beings to us. Example: for me, I choose the positive, life-filling, proactive, non-judgmental, totally moving into the world from a powerful “this is who I am and I am in LOVE with Life” place. I think this not only does all that you mention above, but it seems to bring like-minded people (such as yourself) into my life, both online and off, and this surrounds me with even more strength and — if you will — a protective energy.

    Now I know this sounds a bit “whoo whoo”, but I think in many ways it really does protect me from any negativity out there. Because it make me FEEL stronger and more powerful to have that reflection you speak of above. So I move into the world from a strong place of knowing who I am and what I’m about.

    I think when we move through the world from a place of fear, victim-hood, feeling weak, and so on, we are more easily preyed upon by social predators. It’s just like in the wild; if a predator senses fear or weakness in their prey they correlate that with an easier meal (in society: an easier “target”). I think it’s animal instinct to do so, even in the human animal.

    I just loved the stories here, fabulous and so relate to it all. And the honoring of fear, and yet the look at different types of fear and what we DO have control over. Beautiful and so grounded in your “wild wisdom”. Very good my friend. So rewarding seeing this part of you coming through. It comes out SO SO powerfully. I hope we get to see more. Hugs, Robin. :)

    • Jonathan March 12, 2010 Reply

      I completely agree Robin, we are people magnets. Whatever our dominate energy is, that energy will attract others. Fear is something that animals can smell, I am sure that we sense it on some level. I remember walking in the hills with a friend. A big mean dog came running toward us and I just kept looking him in the eyes. He ran right past me and bit the other person. Predators can sense fear. I have very few encounters with people who’s energy is predominately negative. They go around me and bite the next guy.

      So glade you liked this. Thanks for being here.

  13. Stephen March 13, 2010 Reply

    Hi Jonathan, I loved the snake and bear stories. Our amygdala will cause us to start moving before we are even consciously aware we have seen something. I believe you are right on with the perceptual fear stuff. Stop feeding the beast indeed!

  14. DaveUrsillo March 31, 2010 Reply

    I think the distinction you imply is one that should be stated more outright and often, that there is a difference between the raw, natural emotion of fear as a consequence to circumstances of our lives (like bumping into a bear in the woods!!) and falling victim to fear within the confines of our minds, related to our thought-processes, beliefs, and decisions we make every day.

    While the same emotion, truly, there is a difference. As humans we all experience fear, as we do happiness and sadness. But to choose to embrace the perception of fearlessness — as you mention — is one that unduly benefits someone as one pursues his or her lifegoals.

    Good piece.

  15. Sandra December 3, 2012 Reply

    This is a fascinating exploration of fear, Jonathan. I appreciate how perceptual fear is on the rise given all that we hear in the media. I no longer own a t.v. so that problem is solved for me to a great degree! This is sage advice and can really help us cut down on free-floating anxiety.

  16. Ken Wert December 9, 2012 Reply

    Jonathan, you keep hitting home runs!

    There’s a social commentator I enjoy who calls television news a proctologist’s view of the world. It’s so true and you eloquently and wisely remind us that we can’t keep looking at the anal cavity of life and not start to stink a bit. Our minds are sponges that soak up the environment. If we are choosing entertainment that creates an artificial environment of fear and danger and violence, we can’t but be affected by it.

    Thanks for the insight, reminder and very wise words. I hope this is spread liberally and absorbed deeply. It’s a message that needs to be heard.

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