“After you die, you’ll wake up in a dark place. Out of the darkness, a terrifying monster will suddenly appear. The monster will represent all the worst fears you’ve ever had. For each person, the monster will be different, since we all have different fears and vulnerabilities.
When the monster appears, you’ll have two choices: You can try to get away, or you can surrender. If you try to get away, you will escape – but just barely – and soon you’ll be lost in the dark again.
Out of the darkness, a second monster will emerge. This one will be almost as terrifying as the first, but not quite, and you’ll be faced with the same choice: surrender or flee. If you try to escape, you’ll succeed, but you’ll soon find yourself in the dark again. Every time you escape, another terrifying monster will appear. Each monster will be slightly less terrifying than the one before, and if you run, you’ll always just barely manage to get away.
According to the legend, the number of monsters you’ll have to confront depends on the number of days in the month when you die. If you die in January, there will be a total of thirty-one monsters, because there are thirty-one days in January. If you run away from all of the monsters, you’ll be reincarnated as something very lowly, like a worm. If you surrender to one of the monsters, you’ll be reincarnated at a higher level. The scarier the monster you surrender to, the greater your status in your next life will be.
In the event that you surrendered to the first and most terrifying monster, two things would happen. First, you’d discover that the monster was not real. You’d realize that it was just an illusion and that you never had anything to fear in the first place. You’d see that the monster had no teeth. This would be an incredible triumph. The discovery might also seem incredibly funny, and you’d probably start laughing because you’d realize that your fears had been the result of a gigantic cosmic joke that had persisted throughout all of your previous reincarnations.
Second, you wouldn’t have to go through the life-death cycle anymore. Instead of being reincarnated, you’d be transported to a higher plane of existence, such as Nirvana.”
That is a legend from the Tibetan Book of the Dead as written by David D. Burns in his book, “When Panic Attacks.”
This is such a powerful story when it comes to dealing with anxiety! How often do we ruminate, swimming in our fears, running away from taking action because we’re scared of it? Then, when we’ve finally plucked up the courage to act and we do what we’ve been fearful of, we find that it wasn’t as bad as we expected it to be. Sometimes, our experiences can even be positive because we can find satisfaction in knowing that we faced and conquered one of our fears.
Another example from my own life. For my first thirty-five years, I was a very picky eater. I used to joke that my four food groups were pizza, cheeseburgers, chicken fingers and spaghetti. I was not adventurous at all when it came to eating. I had severe anxiety about trying new food.
Then I got interested in all of the cooking shows I was seeing on television. Top Chef and Gordon Ramsay were some of my first inspirations. I started to read about food. I stayed up late at night looking at other people’s food on the internet. As I learned about these chefs and this food, I realized how creative, thoughtful and fun food could be.
So I made a reservation. I was going to try some real food. I was going to eat two-star-Michelin food. I kept imagining how good this was going to be, how confident I would be in what I was eating, how sophisticated I would be.
We drove to New York the day of the reservation. We spent much of the day in a museum on Central Park, looking at mummies, armor and art. As the highly anticipated dinner hour approached, my wife and I changed clothes in the car in the museum parking garage, me into my suit and tie and her into her finest black dress. Such an elegant start to the night, I thought, feeling a bit uncomfortable about things.
It took only fifteen minutes to find the right street, and then there it was on our right – Restaurant Daniel. I drove around the corner to find a parking garage. I was getting fidgety and sweaty. We passed a parking garage. I kept driving. Now my hands were sweating and my breathing was getting shallow. I can’t do this, I thought. I’m going to embarrass myself. I can’t do this! I kept driving around that Upper East Side block six or seven times before my wife convinced me to finally park the damn car.
I was nearly in tears as I put my jacket on and we walked down the street to the restaurant. My wife tried to calm me and took the lead as we walked through the revolving doors into the restaurant’s plush interior. My discomfort didn’t diminish as our French-accented captain (what did he say?) pulled out my chair, explained the menu (what is some of this stuff?), offered us wine (Chateau who?). I was out of my depths.
Then the amuse bouche was presented – a tray with three small plates and three different preparations of (ack!) cauliflower. Hot (ugh!), cold (eww!), different colors (no!). The moment of truth was upon me. With the tiny silver spoon, I tasted the first little bit of yellow puree. I didn’t die. I checked, and yes, I was still breathing. I took another taste. This is actually not bad! I might enjoy this!
I slowly calmed down as the dinner progressed and enjoyed myself. So much so, that now, seven years later, my wife has to keep one hand on my wallet at all times to keep me from taking her to yet another in an increasingly long line of fine establishments.
I can poke fun at myself now, but that evening was terrifying for me. It has, however, been a valuable example to me of what I can do with my anxiety when I confront my fears. Running away provides only temporary relief. Walking into fear and facing that monster shows us the truth. And the truth is, we are stronger than we give ourselves credit for. And that monster called anxiety, well, the monster has no teeth.
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