I am cross legged in meditation– or worse, I am in Child’s Pose, forehead to the ground, arms stretched wide in front of me, haunches curled and relaxed. The door clicks, but I wasn’t vigilant enough, and when I finally raise my head to the loud heavy boot footsteps, it’s too late. I imagine myself running to the side door, but then the shots ring, a searing in my ears, and bang! My mind explodes into a white puff of fear. The sensation trickles through my throat, my chest, down to my legs. My eyes flash open at the sickness that follows, and I steady myself again on my yoga mat.
I am safe. I shake my head and try to push the fear down again. And again.
Since 7th grade, post Columbine, this is the mental reel with which I coexist. At movie theaters, amusement parks, yoga studios, restaurants. My instinct in every new situation is to assess entrances and exits, keep my back against the wall, and forcefully push away the onslaught of involuntary thoughts of becoming the next victim of a mass shooting. It’s not dissipating with age– it’s compounding. A few factors are involved there, not all of them in my head– like the increase of mass shootings, for instance. Now, I avoid movie theaters on opening night. I’ve become disinterested in large outdoor festivals and concerts in big cities. I’ve given up on returning to formal higher education of any variety.
It’s not working. The more I insulate, the more I am afraid. In late December, I fought back in the manner of a warrior. Or, rather, in Warrior I, II & III pose.
I signed up impulsively, before I could google it, before I could change my mind– one month of unlimited yoga classes. I continued to ignore the nagging in the deepest rut of my fear-addled brain as I parked, walked up the steps, and signed in for the first time. Then, I unraveled my mat and sat down in heart of my fear– the site of the 2018 yoga studio shooting in Tallahassee. Automatically, my reel began. The click of the door. The heavy boots. The searing in my ears. Bang. The white puff of fear explodes and trickles down my body. The sickness. Eyes open. Eyes close. Then the reel begins again.
My teacher enters mid reel, welcoming the room and instructing us into Child’s Pose. I obey, forcing my reel to a halt. After several deep breaths, the reel slows, but then something new happens.
“Please continue to breathe,” she instructs. “Our final student has arrived. I will now go and lock the door.”
The room breathes a sigh of relief. A tangible calm blankets the room at the sound of the lock turning. My reel stops for the remainder of the class.
In savasana, or Corpse Pose, at the end of class, I recognize a room full of women and men with their eyes closed, bodies open, doing nothing to lift a finger and defend themselves as a wild act of bravery. On the other side of that door could be the death of us. Another angry white man armed with a weapon built for war won’t be stopped by a locked door. My reel tries to begin again, but I stop it short. The noxious fear of what could be on the other side of that door could kill me here, within. Or rather, it has already been killing me. My life has been stopped short thousands of times since April 20th of my 7th grade year by this fear. As we rose from Corpse Pose, from the dead, to the breath cycle of conscious living, I looked my reel dead in the eye.
I’m coming for you, I whispered as the room, in unison, said “Namaste.”
Do away with Learning,
And There is an end to Sorrow.
“How different is Yes from No!
How Good differs from Bad!
What others fear must surely be feared.”
And there is no end to them!
— Tao te Ching, #20 An Infant Yet to Smile
I’m not alone in my fear. Studies show that more than 40% of the United States population hold gun violence and mass shooting in the top three of their utmost, raging fear. Many of us are living in a constant state of vicarious Post Traumatic Stress. This is learned behavior, of course. We are conditioned by the onslaught of news reports, death tolls, and unruly politics that favor illusioned and ill-defined rights more than lives. The learned behavior continues with security checkpoints at airports and elementary schools, and even incorporating the locking of the door at a hot yoga class. The latter was a comfort to me. Here is a community who, since 2018, had to unlearn their sense of safety, and relearn it again. Instead of ignoring the fear, denying the problem, or even quitting the scene altogether, they allowed the massacre to become an honored part of their practice. When the door locks, the ritual nods to the lives senselessly lost, and acknowledges that we, too, could be senselessly lost in a moment. But that we are trying, with ritual, to stave off the possibility a little longer. And we are still showing up.
This was an unlearning of fear that allows the learning of living.
I took note of this darkly hopeful act, and began my own unlearning during my second class. I walked up the steps, checked in, unrolled my mat, and sat in meditation. Come at me, I whispered to my reel. Fear is a desperate dog, ready to take any opening it’s given. The door click. The loud heavy boots. But this time, before the white puff of fear, I watch myself stand. I am running toward the darkly dressed white man, I am arms wide open and screaming forward. It’s a direct tackle. I may be shot, or I am not, but the imagination has frightened my fear instead of me. I wait for the reel to begin again. It does not. I open my eyes. Class is beginning. The door was already locked.
My philosophy is that worrying means you suffer twice.
-Newt Scamander, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
I have been bolstering myself from What Has Not Yet Come to Pass for as long as I’ve been conditioned to do so. Which is to say, as long as I can remember. As a kindergartner, my reel was that of my house burning down with only me inside, spurred by the emergency window ladder that remained securely by my second-story window. Or of becoming suddenly an orphan. Or of the innumerable ways I could become unlovable.
Early last year, one year into the pandemic, I was heavy– physically and emotionally. My body just couldn’t move. I began, for the first time in my life, a more rigorous workout plan. It was hard. Not just because I hadn’t moved that way before, but because I was mentally strained following each workout. Why wasn’t I getting the post workout stress drain everyone raved about? It took a week of feeling not much better when I realized the problem.
I wasn’t allowing myself to sweat.
This seems basic. You exercise, your body sweats. But it isn’t basic for someone who has been conditioned to fear sweating, which might make you unattractive to someone, thereby rendering you unlovable. I reviewed the previous week’s workouts in my mind. I was moving in a way that would cause the least amount of sweat possible. I was stilted, strained, and suffering. For who? I was outraged.
I began looking at myself each morning in the mirror, fully naked, and saying “You see no progress because there is no such thing as progress. There is only now.” Then, before workouts, I audibly confirmed, “You are permitted to sweat, now. I give you full allowance to use your body in any way you would like.”
In this way, I unlearned my unknown fear of sweating. In this way, I found that being a human being is enough.
And also, by goddess, what a high a Barre workout can give you.
Forms a Pot.
The Emptiness within,
Makes the Pot Useful.
— Tao te Ching, #11 Non-Being
My Someone and I were soon hitting the road again, coinciding with my month of unlimited yoga ending. I’d worked myself into a sweat almost daily, returning home drenched and happy. My arms were tired, and I was keen to let my body rest. So I cancelled my Power Yoga class that night, signed up for a restful Yin Yoga, instead, and opened my supplies on the kitchen island for an afternoon of bookbinding. I was rebinding a salvaged cover, employing a technique in which I cut a new spine for the book, and fold it with the covers into a sturdy-but-thin book cloth. I had intent to send this to my creative potter friend– so I needed it to be strong enough to endure quick openings for sudden ideas. I cut the spine from the thickest book board I had, glued in the covers, and folded it. It wasn’t until I placed the handstitched text block into the cover that I realized my mistake.
In order for a book to work properly, in order for it to open wide for the give-and-take of ideas, it cannot be bolstered against the possible damages– man made and nature born– that could possibly come its way. In fact, the “stronger” the spine, the more weary the book becomes, strained against itself every time it tries to complete the simple task it was made for– to open. By worrying over the strength of my book to survive, I had made it inflexible. I’d made it easily broken. I finished the book, but included a note to Bryan–
This will be the last book I make this way.
This would be the last book I timidly tried to arm against the fear of What Has Not Yet Come to Pass. And in that way, I would make stronger, more flexible books, open to the world.
That night, during Yin Yoga, in the studio location where the 2018 shooting happened, my instructor informed me that Yin was not a form of relaxation, it’s a form of strength. By taking the muscles we use and abuse and lean into them in rest, they are becoming resilient. They are becoming flexible. Unexpectedly, my reel began. I practiced the new scenario, the tackle, but my mind took its own unexpected path. I didn’t reach the mysterious shooter in time. Instead, I spread my arms wide on my mat and fell back. I was bleeding. I wouldn’t make it. And I was completely calm. No white puff of fear. No sickness. I rested knowing that I did everything I could to remain safe, while also remaining open to the world. The reel didn’t begin again. My thoughts faded to black.
When I left that night, involuntarily carrying my keys between my fingers as I’d been taught to do in dark parking lots, I felt grateful.
It was as much as I could ask for, to be. Here.
Hi Mallory! You are really making so much progress, facing your fear and growing past it. I am proud of you!
I have been through so many active shooter drills as a school teacher. One was actually a real situation and our lockdown lasted over 6 hours. A bank near the school was robbed and a teller shot. The security cameras showed the robber leave the bank and head toward our school. We stayed huddled in the dark, listening to police helicopters overhead. Teams of policemen roamed the halls looking for the intruder. We waited for shots which, thankfully, never came. Eventually they decided he either had not entered the school or, if he had, was already gone.
I think about that day from time to time. I realize that some fear is irrational, while other fear is learned. In either case, we have to push beyond it. You are learning to do that, and I think that’s wonderful!
Wow. That is an incredibly difficult experience! My heart was racing just reading about it. That would be a difficult one to pass through, but it sounds like you’re actively doing so. And, yes, that balance of irrational and learned– I wonder if they need to be treated differently to be expelled, or if it’s the same method? Either way, thanks for reading, Bill. Looking forward to seeing you and Audrey soon.
All of the mass shootings of our youth began long after my youth was in my distant past. For some reason, I have more rage our inability to put a stop to it than fear. But, there’s a little bit of fear nonetheless. I cannot think of a better way to feed your strength and starve your fear than yoga. May it serve you well. Namaste.
Yes– the rage is real! I’ve been thinking about this since you posted. I wonder how much my learned fear is because I’ve always been beneath its jurisdiction. My whole life I’ve been taught to be afraid of this, and in a very here-and-now target area. Thanks for reading, Howard. Am I to understand that you have a yoga practice, as well?
Yes, I have a Yoga practice that started in 2014. It’s been on an extended pause since 2018, but I have every intention of resuming.