The Weekly Circle #35
Welcome to the thirty-fifth episode of The Weekly Circle! A free Circles in Time newsletter released every Sunday.
This week I had a mildly terrifying encounter with mother nature.
Forget meditation. If you want to be more present, simply put yourself in a life or death scenario with a natural killing machine.
It all began with the decision to take a break from work on a Monday afternoon. As is standard procedure these days, I changed clothes, jumped into my hiking shoes and headed up into the forest above my house for a walk.
I love the forest. The towering trees. The bird sounds. The flowing streams. The fresh air. It brings me a lot of peace.
I was on one of my favourite trails that afternoon. Near the end of this trail, there is a fast-flowing stream that I sometimes stop at for a short meditation. There is something about that spot by the stream that resonates with me. Perhaps I’ve just read Siddhartha too many times.
Anyway, that Monday, I had a particularly good meditation session which left me with a smile on my face, feeling aware and very connected to my surroundings.
As a habit, I normally put my airpods in and listen to some music or a podcast for the last leg of the walk. But for some reason, I decided to put the earphones back in their pod and enjoy the sounds of the forest.
I’m glad I did.
Upon turning the final corner to walk down the last straight towards the end of the trail, I noticed some subtle movement on the path right in front of me. Suddenly, I felt my eyes widen, my mouth grasp for air, and my feet come to an urgent halt.
Only after my whole body had reacted did my conscious awareness come online, registering the moving shape as a Cape Cobra.
The Cape Cobra is one of the most poisonous snakes globally and by far the most dangerous cobra in Africa. One bite can release enough neuro-toxic venom to kill six adults, and even if you can get the anti-venom within a few hours, the neuro-toxin may have already done enough damage to your nervous system and brain to impair you severely. It’s not a snake you mess around with.
As I became aware of the cobra, I noticed my attention tunnel. There was nothing else in the world besides the snake in front of me.
I stood quietly frozen, my heart racing, watching as the cobra rose up, spreading its hood in the process. Its eyes focused and firmly fixed on me.
I noticed myself take a slow step back. I wise move with hindsight, as it seemed to be enough of a cue for the snake to drop back down to the ground, turn and slither off into the rockery to the left of the path.
That was close, I thought.
A thought that triggered a myriad of counterfactual scenarios.
What if I was running and not walking? What if I had my airpods in? Would I have been distracted and less present to my surrounding environment? It could have easily gone very differently.
These seemed like pretty normal thoughts to have given the circumstances.
As I walked through the trail gate and back down towards my house, another set of thoughts came to mind.
The thoughts arose from the realization that the fear response would likely leave me with an aversion to walking on that trail in the future. But I love that trail, I thought. I love the forest. I can’t let a rare encounter like this stop me.
I didn’t know what else to do but start smiling and chuckling to myself. Partly because I wanted to let my nervous system know that everything was alright and partly because I knew that it was such a bizarre response to the whole situation.
I didn’t stop there, though.
Chuckling to myself wasn’t enough, I thought. I needed to show myself that there was nothing to be afraid of. So the early the next morning, I pulled myself out of bed, got dressed, put on my hiking shoes and headed back to the forest to walk the same trail that the encounter had taken place on the day before.
It was still dark when I arrive at the scene of the encounter. I hadn’t felt anything out of the ordinary, but as soon as I reached that spot, I noticed my heart rate rise, my feet come to a standstill and the phone light in my hand dart frantically from right to left surveying the surrounding rocks and crevices.
I had developed a slight fear response to the particular context in which the encounter had taken place.
Upon noticing the coast was clear, I proceeded along the trail in my usual manner.
The only difference was that for the next 10 minutes, I noticed my mind engaging in some snake-like version of pareidolia. Every other tree root that I walked over took on the shape of a snake. It was as if my brain had dialled the snake-pattern recognition system way up, to the point that the overfitting was beyond delusional. I was constructing an unnecessary amount of false-positives. This probably wasn’t helped by the fact that the sun hadn’t risen yet, meaning it was still quite dark, and my visibility was poor.
Interestingly, after about 10 minutes, the snake projections began to fade. The roots were once again roots.
I have walked that trail three times since the initial encounter. I still experience a heightening of awareness at the encounter point, but the fear response has faded for the most part.
The whole experience has left me really curious to understand the role of context in memory formation and how salient emotional experiences shape our decisions and actions.
If anyone knows of any research relating to this, I’d appreciate you sharing it with me.
THE QUOTES I CIRCLED AROUND THIS WEEK
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” ~ Frank Herbert
“Men go to far greater lengths to avoid what they fear than to obtain what they desire.”
~ Dan Brown
“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” ~ Marie Curie
“Laughter is poison to fear.” ~ George R.R. Martin
SOMETHING TO PART WITH
It’s a full moon tonight! Painting: Moonstruck by Jamie Heiden.
Until next week,