StressStop Blog

My Second Day In India: The Gift Of Non-Fear

Jim Porter, M.A.L.S., President, StressStop.comThursday, January 31st, 2013

Before you leave for India, everyone tries to make you afraid of it. At my favorite Indian restaurant, I told the owner's wife I was leaving soon and she responded: "Better you than me. Be sure to bring lots of power bars (implying the food was unsafe to eat) and plenty of bug repellant (referring to the possibility of getting malaria). The mosquitoes there are bigger than I am." She's such a tiny woman, for a moment I imagined it being true.

Your pre-India prep begins with the fear-based activity of having to get lots of vaccinations. (I got five but to be super-safe I could have opted for more.) You have to take malaria pills and bring anti-diarrhea pills "just in case." If you read the CDC recommendations they will tell you to buy the highest concentration of deet spray you can find (30%) and even look for deet infused clothing and mosquito netting.

man sitting at food stand in India
People sit all day long in food stalls like this with their legs crossed, peacefully waiting for a customer.

A nurse told me before I left that "just about everyone gets sick in India." My own doctor told me that he had taken precautions and still had gotten sick. Still one more friend said that he had a friend who got so sick in India she had to stay on an extra month just to get well enough to return.

By the time you get on the plane to go you're basically just terrified.

The very FIRST thing that I heard that was even remotely reassuring was while standing in the customs line at Ahmadabad Airport. A kind looking older gentlemen who looked like a native asked me, if this was my first trip. I swear he could see the fear in my eyes and when I answered yes he said, "You are going to have a wonderful time here. India is an incredible country."

Just his reassuring quality caused me to stop, take a deep breath and relax a bit right then and there. This man was giving me the gift of non-fear.

Indian woman giving Jim a necklace of marigolds
As a tourist, everywhere you go, people are giving you these necklaces made of marigolds.

I first read about this concept in a book on mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. Nhat-Hanh is a Buddhist monk originally from Vietnam who left the country at the end of the Vietnam war. He was one of the "boat people" who left (in what turned out to be a very perilous journey) in order to escape the grip of communism. He recalls leaving Vietnam on a very crowded boat and observed: If there was a passenger who was panicking, that panic seemed to spread to the passengers around him. But if he, Ticht Naht Hahn, was able to maintain a sense of calm, this calmness would spread too. That in a nutshell is the gift of non-fear.

It's ironic that so many people would try to make you afraid of the country where the concept of "the gift of non-fear" was born. I'm always on the lookout for examples of this phenomenon in my own life. It's what Franklin Roosevelt was trying to convey when he famously said: "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." Despite Roosevelt's good intentions, I don't think you can impart non-fear by simply telling people not to be afraid. It's more complicated than that.

In order to impart this gift I think you have to have it yourself. A lot of people from all over the world come to India specifically to meet people who Do have this gift. (Steve Jobs did.) These gurus, swamis and monks and even many of the ordinary people of India are people who have basically figured this out on such a deep level they that seem to impart it without trying. The man in the airport did it. And I've met a few Tibetan monks who were able to do it too. Just being around these deeply spiritual men and women is incredibly calming. They truly know how to impart THE GIFT OF NON FEAR.

Dr. Richard Davidson of the University Of Wisconsin has spent a fair amount of time studying these Tibetan monks. Using a CT scan to map out their brains, Davidson has actually been able to measure the size of their left-prefrontal cortex which is the area of the brain responsible for happiness and contentment and found that it is markedly bigger in these monks.

A king's winter palace in Jaipur, India
A king's winter palace in Jaipur. It's filled with reflecting glass and mirrors to amplify the light from candles which would be needed more in the winter time.

One of the ways Davidson tests the monks, is to ask them to meditate while lying in the CT-scan device. This human-sized cigar shaped tube is famous for terrifying patients who have any anxiety or claustrophobia. It's a tight squeeze and so noisy in the tube that they give ear plugs to dampen some of the noise. Not only were the monks he studied able to remain calm in the tube, Davidson says the areas of the brain responsible for happiness and contentment would light up when the monks were meditating. "It's like the difference between night and day," Davidson explains.

On the second day of our trip we went to a Kite-flying Festival in Amedahbad. It's a huge event that attracts hundreds of thousands of people. The size of the venue was intimidating in itself. We were considered VIPs at the event (for the simple reason that we were from the US) and marched in sort of a parade through the throngs of people that were gathered by the gated pathways as we passed. Hundreds of soldiers guarded these pathways.

As we walked through the crowds people, mostly children rushed the fences to shake our hands. When our parade slowed to a stop, random people jumped over the barricade to pose in pictures with us. It was unreal, and for a while we felt like rock stars until one of the soldiers discouraged us from doing this because he thought it might make a problem for crowd control. At certain moments the crowd did seem to get a little frenzied.

As I looked at the soldiers stationed on the rooftops nearby, some of that irrational fear started kicking in. What if there was a terrorist attack? What I got separated from the group? So many soldiers, such huge crowds and here I was with a tiny group of Americans so far away from home. In a sense the whole world is a scary place when you look at it in a certain way. A person next to me on the tour started joking with me about how crazy it all was.

He got me laughing to the point where the laughter distracted me from the irrational fears that were starting to grow inside my own head. And as they dissipated and passed I started thinking again about the gift of non-fear.

a hotel doorman displaying the namaste greeting
Every time you walk in and out of the hotel the doorman bows to you with this gesture.

Where ever you go in India people greet you with the "Namaste" gesture. Two hands held together over the heart combined with a slight bow. It's used so commonly it could be translated as simply meaning "hello." The literal translation is: "the light inside of me recognizes the light inside of you." Our tour guide explained what may have been the original (ancient) meaning of the gesture: "When you put your hands in front of your heart like that, you are saying to the people you meet: I have nothing to hide, I'm not concealing anything - and that the other person (who is usually a stranger) has nothing to fear.

Probably the most common gesture in India and it imparts the gift of non-fear.

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