Turning Anxiety into Awareness
Once, when I was doing research in the South American rainforest, the shaman I was with suggested that I spend a night alone at the sandy shore of a tributary of the Amazon River. His one instruction was not to build a fire, because it would keep the animals away and prevent me from being fully immersed in the experience of the rainforest in the darkness.
That night, I experienced the jungle as a terrifying music box. Sound carried for miles. After sunset, the melody of the evening songbirds was replaced by the grunts of the howler monkeys. Soon, it became pitch black. The canopy of the forest blocked out the stars, and there was no moon. I could not even see my hand in front of my face.
I began to hear branches snapping nearby. I was convinced a jaguar was closing in on me and would make me its evening meal. I could feel my heart pounding, my palms sweating, and my body tensing itself to run blindly into the night. I tried to turn on my flashlight, but the batteries were gone. The old Indian had taken them! A frozen eternity went by as I listened to the rustling of branches drawing nearer.
Then I reached into my pocket for the pack of matches I always carried with me. My hands shook so badly that I could not strike the light. I thought I could smell the creature that was stalking me, until I realized it was the smell of my own fear. Finally, as the head of the matchstick burst into flame, I saw a startled and terrified tree monkey staring at me from a few feet away.
I spent the entire night imagining every horrible way to die in the jungle, and whenever I dozed off, I was awakened by dreams of giant snakes. The following morning, when my mentor came for me, I was angry and exhausted, and accused him of irresponsibly putting me in harm's way. He looked at me with a smile and said, "The most annoying creatures here are the bugs."

The next time I went out alone into the rainforest at night, I allowed myself to experience anxiety in every cell of my body, to completely immerse myself in it. I noticed as my palms began to sweat and my heart to pound. I kept the attention on my body instead of imagining what might be out there. I was surprised that after a while, instead of being consumed by my despair, a part of my awareness was able to separate from it and witness my experience.

I felt myself becoming calm. Images from my childhood appeared in my mind, reminding me of the past times I had experienced fear, and I bathed these images with the feeling of safety that I felt. At last a deep peace settled within me, and I could enjoy the symphony of the rainforest.

The shaman knows that his true demons are within. When his emotions take hold of him, he enters a state of awareness in which he experiences raw, pure emotion, then allows it to detach from his story.
By separating the emotion from the story, he transforms the destructive forces that, left unchecked, would eat away at him. His courage and strength grow, tempering him like steel until one day he's able to say, "If I could live through that, I can live through anything."

Alberto Villoldo, Ph.D. 

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