It is the little fears that quietly steal our lives.
The grand concerns – death, loss, the meaning of existence… these things, by and large, we can and do ignore for most of our days. Philosophers and theologians may quibble and fret over the details of such imponderables, but most of us have not the time, or lack the inclination, or perhaps are just fortunate not to be burdened by too much curiosity.
And many fears are rational, of course, and can be friends to our lives; the fear that heightens our awareness in a dark part of town, for example, or the fear of falling that we suddenly develop when standing too near a cliff’s edge on a windy day.
Fear, however, is a clever beast. It is behind fear’s reasonable façade that the real danger lies, poised like the scorpion’s tail, ever ready to sting.
How much of your day is given over to the small fears? It is more than you would at first think. They are the kind we barely notice, and yet rarely ignore. They are the fears that make each day comfortable: the fear of standing out that bends us all to conform in almost every way; the fear of being laughed at that holds us to silence when we would rather laugh out loud; the fear of rejection that causes us to avoid so many potential connections.
These fears we are used to, for they get us through the day smoothly and with as little conflict as possible. They are the fears that get us to work on time, that prevent us from challenging the opinions or methods of our superiors. They are the fears that drive us towards the so-called respectable goals we are told are worth achieving. They are the fears that make us imbibe poisons when young so that our peers will accept us.
Fear ensures we are constantly on the defensive, always responding in the present to our worst imaginings of what the future will bring if we don’t. The fear of consequences limits the actions we take. Fear becomes the actor in our lives, while we gradually join the audience, becoming passive spectators at the routine events of each of our precious days. So it is that we spend so much time pandering to our fears that our lives pass us by, until there is not even a whimper, let alone a bang, at the end.
What has all this to do with parkour?
For to practise parkour is to seek fear on a daily basis, to confront it head-on, to face it naked and alone. In parkour, you are stripped to your essence. There is no equipment to rely on, no safety harnesses or padding to protect you, no teammate to take the brunt when you are tired. It’s you, and you alone.
The only things that prevent you getting hurt or injured are your skills, your judgement, your ability – no one else’s. Now that in itself is a great realisation; but it can also be a great burden. It is you and you alone who face your fears; other people’s theories have no importance whatsoever here. You cannot understand your fears according to Freud or Jung or anyone else – they are not with you when you cat-leap or drop and roll; they are not there when you vault. At those moments there is only you.
Parkour is movement, and all movement is connected to fear. It is through a principle known as fear-reactivity that our bodies learn at a tender age what not to do, how not to move, why not to fall. We learn to avoid pain and to seek comfort, and if we experience discomfort due to a certain action our bodies actually discourage us from trying that particular action again. Simply put, fear-reactivity is our conditioned pattern of behaviour involving movement, breathing and posture. It is “a learned, conditioned reaction to stress, shock or trauma. It embeds in each one of us; no one escapes it.”
Obviously this conditioning is of the past. Our bodies are reacting in the present to the fear of that which has occurred in the past. Thus, fear is of the past. It lives in memory, and from there is projected into the future, and usually we find ourselves living in fear of one or the other – the past or the future. Now, this means that in the present moment fear does not actually exist. So to be free from fear, what we must do is live within that present moment, live fully here and now. Not easy. But parkour is a discipline that can assist us.
It is a fact that our natural physical potential and talent is far beyond what we limit ourselves to doing. It is our conditioning, mental and physical, that prevents us accessing this natural ability, and therefore it is not so much the acquisition of skills and techniques that will lead us to explore this talent but rather a stripping away of our own restraints. It is not about a regular increase, but a regular decrease. We need only to get out of our own way in order to find our potential. We need to eliminate our fears to unleash our natural ability and grace.
Both mentally and physically, the practise of parkour demands that we be fully focussed in the moment and free from old limitations; after all, its entire approach is one of freedom from boundaries. And it is in that moment of pure practice that we can begin to overcome our own fear-reactivity, through being aware of it and breaking away from its patterns.
The Moment Without Fear
It is a process. Watch yourself; observe. Notice the doubts, the hesitations, the negative patterns, and the tensions within your body as you move. Realise that those things are all choices you can do away with. Tension is a choice.
Try it now. Run a quick self-diagnostic of your body and you will likely notice that some muscles are unnecessarily tense: now choose to relax those muscles. Easy, once you are aware of where the tensions are. The trick is to encourage this awareness to surface as often as possible, and we can facilitate that by actively being aware during practice. This way we learn to choose our actions and responses rather than simply being a product of our reactions. From there comes the ability to tap your own real potential, and from that comes mastery. That is where ‘Flow’ lives.
The more you are able to bring your focus fully to where you are, to what you are doing, the less energy and thought you will give to fears born of the past and the future. All that will remain is action, complete and undiluted. This concept has many names across many cultures and philosophies – but again, someone else’s name for something is not yours. Practise it, experience it, go into it; then you will find you do not need to have a name for it.
Fear is a static thing; it does not live in movement. Imagine a jungle path at night. You walk the path warily, your mind imagining a sudden attack from a snake or a spider dropping from the canopy above; you know fear then, and it grows with every step you take. However, imagine what happens when that snake does bite out of the blue – you react instantly, your body and mind suddenly absorbed utterly in the moment in a combined effort to leap out of range of the attack: The startle-reflex. In that moment, there is no fear whatsoever. All of your being is engaged in escape, in movement. The fear existed before the attack, and it will no doubt return after the attack (if you were quick enough, of course!), but for the brief moment of the action fear did not exist.
What is fascinating is that for the much larger period of time that you were on the path, feeling afraid, the fact is that you were quite safe and not being attacked. For the brief period when you were actually in danger, the fear ceased to be. Extreme sports enthusiasts from every discipline as well as survivors of extreme situations generally attest to the same thing: at moments of great pressure and necessity, the anxious mind gets out of the way and allows our latent, seemingly superhuman, abilities to take over. We move through the fear, and it loses its power over us.
Now imagine what it would be like to expand the moment of no-fear so that it spreads into the rest of the time on the path. The resulting state is one of permanent awareness and readiness, but one that requires no effort or paranoia; indeed it is utterly removed from paranoia, which is only the complete absorption into one’s projected fears. It is a state of graceful and efficient movement, free from fear-reactivity and residual muscle tension and in harmony with thought rather than in conflict with it. This is our true nature, the one that lays hidden most of our lives until we learn to move beyond fear.
You might even find that, without fear, the walk in the dark jungle becomes an enjoyable experience.
 Scott Sonnon, Body-Flow: Freedom from Fear-Reactivity, 2003, p.14
To learn more about parkour and to join a class, workshop or community event, visit Parkour Generations.
Thanks very much for this Dan. Great article and thoughts for the mind and body. I’ve just got back from a surfing trip and this so applies to me. I found myself walking/paddling that line between joy and fear for a great deal of the time in the water. Some times I was gritting my teeth in the water, locked in fear. Other times I was fluid and flexible, one with the element. It’s a great reminder to be observant and respond by letting go of tension and (one day) fear, in a larger sense in our lives.
Great thoughts Dan! Converted in no less greater words 😉