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February 15, 2011

Facing Down Fear

Jody Jaffe sneaked in a cuddle with Elvis as she treated her fear at the Miraval Spa in Tucson, Ariz. Photo courtesy of Jody Jaffe.

Fear and I have been intimate enemies for a long time, thanks to an overprotective mother who though each day would bring catastrophe. Despite, or because of, her anxious approach to mothering, she wound up with one child who jumps horses and the other who flies planes.

So I’ve spent a lot of time (and money) examining fear. I especially like what the author Joseph Conrad has to say about it: “How does one kill fear, I wonder? How do you shoot a spectre through the heart, lash off its spectral head, take it by the spectral throat?”

Conrad brilliantly attacks the nature of fear with that visceral image of swinging a sword through a ghost. The futility. The wasted energy. The frustration. And most of all, the elusive, haunting fright. Who among us hasn’t lifted that sword?

Even George Morris, it seems, has gone to battle. I watched his recent Horsemastership Training Session and was surprised when he called himself a “nervous rider.” What’s George Morris got to be nervous about? He literally wrote the book: Hunter Seat Equitation.

But he said it several times because he was trying to drive home his point: that he’d found the weapon to slay the beast. The beast, of course, was nerves, the geeky spawn of fear. The weapon: a plan. Always have a plan, he drilled his young riders, and go over it. Then go over it again. And again, and again.

It was Morris’s voice—“Have a plan. Have a plan”—I kept hearing in my head as I dueled my fear at the Miraval Spa in Tuscon, Ariz, last month. I realize the words “spa” and “fear” don’t normally appear in the same sentence unless you talking about the bill. But Miraval offers an array of activities—a ropes course, rock climbing, mountain biking, shamanic healing—to examine and attack fear in a safe way. It’s like having training wheels; much the same as jumping with cavaletti poles to set the distances.

This past summer, I lawn-darted from one of my horses, which not only wiped out a day from my life, but turned me into an even more nervous rider. So nervous that for the first time I considered giving up riding. For about 20 seconds. Addictions, along with noses and eyeballs, grow with age. That means, much to my family’s dismay, there’s not much hope of a horse-free future for me. But I had to do something about the jitters.

So I spent a week at Miraval doing things like trying to climb to the top of a 35-foot telephone pole to reach a tightrope in the sky I was supposed to walk across, scaling a fake rock wall, screaming like a banshee as I swung down from that aforementioned telephone pole, balancing my energies with Chi Gong movements; inhaling burning sage to purify my sacred space; meeting with Dr. Tim, the half-Jewish Medicine Man who rebooted my brain via a complicated ritual of acupuncture, massage, drumming, feather whomping and guttural chanting, and finally……...picking out a horse’s hoof.

The Equine Experience

Picking out a horse’s hoof? To conquer fear? Huh? That’s like one of those SAT questions where you have to choose the word that doesn’t fit the sequence.

Leave it to a clever therapist to find a way to charge money (and a lot of it) to get people to groom his horses. It’s part of Miraval’s signature Equine Experience, a class that purports to “offer you an opportunity to practice living life in the moment.”

My husband, John Muncie, was writing about the Equine Experience for the Los Angeles Times. Seeing as I’ve been picking out horses’ feet for the past 40 years, it seemed like a colossal waste of time for me to take that class, especially when I could be Zumba Dancing or Chi Gonging instead. But John wanted a horsewoman’s perspective on “The Experience.”

In spa talk, its purpose is “to notice personal patterns that may be holding you back from the life you want to live.” In real talk, it’s not much different than the theory behind therapeutic riding: Getting a 1200-pound animal to do your bidding is empowering. And the truth is—despite my skepticism—it works.

“I did it! I did it!” Keely Cawley said, jumping up like a first grader who had mastered the alphabet. Cawley, a 30-something mother of two from Dallas, had just gotten Tuffy, a comatose pinto, to lift his leg so she could clean his hoof. Tuffy, oblivious to her joy, continued to stand like a statue as she jumped around.

Cawley’s enthusiasm expanded exponentially after she got Elvis, a sweet chestnut gelding who nuzzled anyone who got close, to walk, trot and halt in the round pen. Elvis then came over and nuzzled her, while her husband Bill, a commercial real estate developer, looked happily at the canoodling duo. Just getting close to a horse is a big deal for Keely, explained Bill, because she’d had a bad riding experience as a teenager when a horse threw and trampled her.

Fake It Until You Make It

Keely, elated when she came out of the round pen, confessed that she’d been terrified when she first walked in. But she, like George Morris, had a plan; one that she’d developed when she was a runway model. “I was terrified of walking down the runway,” she said. “But someone told me to ‘fake it ‘til you make it,’ and before I knew it, I was doing it, walking down the runway. Then that gave me the confidence so I didn’t have to fake it.”

I practically saw the light bulb flash in my mind and used that tool the next day when I climbed the rock wall. I’m afraid of heights, and I’d already chickened out on the telephone pole the day before. I’d only got halfway up before my legs started shaking violently, which is not an uncommon occurrence at Miraval. They even have a name for the shaky legs—Elvis-ing.

George and Keely’s words were fixed tight in my mind as I started to climb the wall. I had a plan: I was going to fake it until I made it. Up I went and scared I got. I clung to the wall, took a deep breath, shouted down Elvis’s hold on my legs and pretended I was a champion rock climber. And up I went again.

I wish I could say I had the same ephiphany Keely had when she was walking down the runway—that she was no longer scared. But that would be a lie. I faked it as far I could go and still didn’t get to the top. But I had a plan. Do it again and fake it harder. And the second time, about halfway up the wall, I wasn’t scared anymore. I’d faked it until I made it and climbed the rest with confidence.

So thank you Keely Cawley for that mantra. I’d planned to use it the next time I rode. I was going to pretend I was one of George’s junior riding machines, faking it until I made it.

But to my extreme pleasure, I haven’t needed it yet. Since I returned, I’ve jumped, ridden in the fields, and even gotten on my laid-up mare, who hadn’t been worked in a year. All with no physical or emotional Elvis-ing. Pre Miraval, I’d have been swinging that sword big time.

Resetting The Brain

For this I can thank Miraval’s resident Medicine Man, Dr. Tim Frank and his “Spirit Flight,” a 100-minute amalgam of Native American, Tibetan Buddhist, and Chinese rituals, with a little Hebrew thrown in for good measure. I hadn’t planned to do it because it’s expensive (more than $400 with tax), but I kept hearing how “transformational” it was. And I did go to Miraval to be transformed.

Spirit Flight is part massage, part acupuncture, part drumming, part prayer, part spinal manipulation, part shamanic healing, and the list goes on. Dr. Tim, as he’s known, started healing work as a boy at the knee of his mother, a spiritual and intuitive healer. Then he went on to study with his god-father, a Native American medicine man, then got a degree in psychology, then went to massage school, then went to Naturopathic medical school. So he’s got a lot of tricks up his sleeve.

I don’t know how he did it—he says he doesn’t know how he does it—but somehow he rearranged my brain wiring to quell my fear. He didn’t turn me into a reckless fool; i.e., I did sedate my laid-up mare before I rode her. But he did something to stop my limbic brain from seizing control and sending me into a panic. Now when I ride, I can evaluate the situation for what it is—as in, I’m on the safest horse ever to walk the earth (thank you Diane Wade and Peter Foley)—rather than pull up the fear from my accident in August, and all the preceding riding accidents.

“So if your fear is a 2, it stays a 2,” Dr. Tim explained to me on the phone the other day, “rather than escalate to a 7 or 8. I can’t change what occurred in your life. I can help change your reactivity to it.”

During my Spirit Flight, he told me I’d feel different when I left. Being a skeptical journalist, I didn’t believe him. Then I ran into a spa buddy about to go next. She asked how it was.

“I had a lot of fear….” I started to say, then stopped abruptly. I realized I was talking about fear in the past tense. That was my first clue something had shifted. The next night we flew into Washington Dulles during the middle of the snowstorm that tangled D.C. in the worst traffic jam since 911. It was a total whiteout from the plane windows, like we were flying through thick cotton. The man in back of me was talking too loudly about all the perilous flying he’d done, and how this was about the worst. I’m a white knuckle flier who doesn’t get on a plane without a bottle of Ativan. But I wasn’t scared. In zero visibility, the last plane allowed to land. Not. Scared. At. All.

Take that you ugly spectre of fear.

Jody Jaffe is the author of "Horse of a Different Killer," "Chestnut Mare, Beware," and "In Colt Blood," which have been featured in People Magazine and translated into German, Japanese and Czech. She is also the co-author of the novels, "Thief of Words," and "Shenandoah Summer." She is a journalist who was on a team at the Charlotte Observer that won the Pulitzer Prize. Her articles have been published in many major newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Washingtonian and Practical Horseman. In addition, she teaches journalism at Hollins University. She lives on a farm in Lexington, Va., with her husband, John Muncie, and their eight horses. She attempts to ride hunters with her trainer, the ever-patient, Gordon Reistrup.

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