Rituals of Transition: A Shamanic Approach to Moving Beyond Fear and Anxiety

According to clinical psychologist and yoga therapist Bo Forbes, the best tactic for overcoming fear and anxiety is to run toward them rather than away. What do we do once we catch up with our fears? As Bo explains in this article, the wisdom of tribal societies can offer a context and container for moving forward.

Have you ever attempted to fight off your fear but, no matter how hard you try, it still defeats you? Have you tried to outrun your fear and thought you’d left it in the dust, only to have it overtake you just as you’re starting a new creative project? Or have you felt so paralyzed by fear that you can’t make the smallest move forward, even toward self-care? If so, you’re not alone.

Fear is a universal human experience. Everyone has it, from the guy next door to your yoga teacher to the Dalai Lama, who wrestled with a fear of flying. We can’t expect to get rid of it; nor would we want to, because fear houses the seeds of our potential. Yet fear causes us great physical, emotional, and spiritual distress. So what’s the alternative to fighting it, fleeing from it, or letting it freeze us in place? How do we uncover its seeds and nourish them?

As a clinical psychologist, yoga teacher, and yoga therapist, I’ve dedicated much of my life’s work to helping people transform fear. I’ve treated the “worried well,” and people with moderate anxiety and depression, PTSD, and panic attacks. No matter how they manifest, fear and its lower-grade cousin, anxiety, lie at the core of our emotional struggles.

Transitions: A Shaman’s Medium

My journey toward understanding fear’s key role in our growth and healing began right after I was born. My father, a filmmaker, learned that the Seneca Indians in upstate New York were about to lose their land to an expensive, unnecessary dam constructed by the U.S. Army. My parents moved with me to the Seneca reservation, where we lived for two years while my father documented their story. My strong memories of the tribal culture and of Lena Snow, the tribe’s medicine woman, inspired me to study shamanism in high school and college. I came to learn that the most important rituals and ceremonies of indigenous cultures take place during key life transitions.

We are vulnerable to fear, anxiety, and disintegration when we’re in between stages of life, jobs, careers, or relationships, or when we’re mourning the loss of someone we love. These transitional times are all about uncertainty: We’re neither the person we used to be, nor the one we’re about to become. This lack of definition is challenging enough, but there’s more: In the hugely unstructured space of transitions, we catch a glimpse of the person we could be. The magnitude of that potential is scary. What if we don’t get there? Yet what if we do? “This is so hard!” said a client whose acute lymphocytic leukemia brought on a major life transition. “I feel like a different person, but I don’t know who I am yet. I’m tempted to revert to the ‘old’ me.”

To earn status as a tribal healer, a shaman must successfully navigate an initiation: an extremely difficult life transition that includes loss, suffering, and symbolic death, as well as rebirth into a new self. The great shaman Black Elk endured an initiation when he was 17 years old: he experienced confusing visions, illness, insomnia, and fear so intense that he ran in and out of people’s tipis at night until he was exhausted enough to sleep. It’s not hard to relate to Black Elk, as many of us work ourselves to the point of collapse as a way of managing fear and anxiety.

When I became a psychologist and yoga teacher, I saw that my clients’ and students’ life crises looked a lot like shamanic initiations. Even the transition at the end of yoga teacher training can be fraught with anxiety; one graduate confided that she’d had nightmares for several weeks prior to completing the course. “I don’t even know what I’m afraid of!” she said. Without a framework for understanding our fear, we can get “lost in transition.” Yet how do we create this framework?

Kira, a yoga therapy client, came to see me after the death of her husband. She wanted help in working through her grief at the loss of their 17-year marriage, and in finding ways to comfort their two young children. After 10 months, Kira began to regain her equilibrium: She was eating better and reconnecting with friends. The kids were sleeping in their own beds again. The concept of self-care didn’t seem so foreign to her. Then suddenly, she began to experience nighttime panic attacks. “I thought I was almost done with this grief thing!” she said in frustration. As we worked together to help her breathe through the fear and sit with it for longer stretches of time, Kira realized that underneath her fear of a life without her husband lived something deeper: a lifelong fear of being alone.

As a young adult, she’d run from this fear into a series of relationships, and had never needed to face it. In one of her final sessions she reported a breakthrough: During a home restorative practice, she breathed with the fear and felt it turn into loneliness. She stayed present with the loneliness until it morphed into aloneness, a sense of being alone with herself. Then the aloneness transformed into “a deeper sense of quiet than I’ve ever felt in my life,” she exulted. “I can’t believe that being alone can be like this!” Over time, Kira rediscovered the strength and tenacity she’d had as a young child, but was told was simply “stubbornness.” As a bonus, she reclaimed her passion for writing, and started a childcare blog.

Transforming Fear and Suffering

So how do we become shamans in our own transitions, like Kira? The first step: We learn to be present with the direct experience of fear and anxiety, even when we want to avoid it. And this step happens right inside our own bodies, where we have our own bio-available technology for transforming fear.

Fear is mediated through the two branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS): the sympathetic (fight-flight-freeze) and parasympathetic (rest-and-digest). This two-pronged system structures our emotional well-being. The more we choose the fight-flight-freeze response (nervous system overdrive), the more deeply we wire in that pattern. Eventually, overdrive becomes our default mode, and it’s harder to find balance and calm.

To navigate transitions, we need to balance the nervous system. Yet that’s easier said than done. The nervous system prefers things to stay the same, even if that means a state of fear. What’s more, we constantly subject our nervous system to multi-sensory overload. We ask it to process a barrage of technological input from smartphones and e-mail, call-forwarding and text-messaging, Facebook and Twitter. It’s hard to change this pattern, because cultural values and social pressure tell us we should accomplish more, and faster. So how do we balance our nervous system and learn to be with our fear?

In shamanic societies, the shaman uses rituals and ceremonies to transform fear and help him navigate a major transition. When he has done so, he takes a new name. He can then guide others through the fear and challenges of their own transitions.

The tools of yoga and meditation resemble the rituals of the Seneca and other indigenous societies. They ground us. They help us stay present and inhabit our bodies. They establish a safe container through which we can experience and move through fear. And they give our suffering the context of transformation so it feels as though it has a higher purpose.

We know through research that these tools work in the following ways:

  • Meditation helps us resist “narrative mode” and stay in the present, which reduces our fear
  • Even a 10-minute daily yoga practice increases stress resilience
  • Contemplative, relaxation-based practices such as Restorative Yoga reduce anxiety
  • Deep nasal breathing, especially with a longer exhale, helps slow the heart and calm anxiety

Once you’ve tried these tools and determined which resonate most with you, engage with them daily when you’re not in an active state of fear. With repeated practice, you build a “pranic well” of energy and healthy patterns from which you can draw when you feel most afraid. The next time you encounter a major transition—the loss of a loved one, a job change, a move across the country— you can turn to your “signature” yogic rituals to help manage your emotions.

Unaddressed fear and anxiety become toxic; they erode our energy sources. When we try to fight off or avoid our fear, we feed it with our own prana, or life force. When we move into it, we soften it and preserve our life force. The rituals of yoga and meditation help us stay present with challenging emotions during times of transition. Our emotions then begin to feel more transient, more a part of the natural world around us. This awareness enriches every aspect of our lives, and the fear of not reaching our potential—or reaching it—ceases to be so all-encompassing. We simply are, and that’s enough.

It’s important, even life-changing, to know that no matter how dysfunctional our relationship with fear and stress may be, we have the built-in capacity to transform it right inside our own bodies. Like “storm-chasers,” people who track severe storms in order to learn about the natural world outside us, we can become “fear chasers.” We can choose to track our fear, examine its patterns, and learn from it about the natural world insideus.

Bo Forbes, PsyD, E-RYT 500, is a clinical psychologist, yoga teacher, and integrative yoga therapist whose background includes training in biopsychology,...

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