Fight, Flight and Things That Go Bump in the Night

Ashley Bell article

I wake up in the middle of the night to a noise.  That sound makes me look toward the darkness with fear, turning shadow into something sinister, spinning the tiny seed-spark of sound into a creeping vine that begins to envelop me.  I let the imagined backstory grip me, my heart beating like that of a doe on the run…

This autonomic response helped keep my distant ancestors alive when predators approached exposed camps of soft, exposed humans.  We think of the strength of our predecessors, surviving in such harsh times, but they were so vulnerable.  These days, we live under lock and key, in shelters much less susceptible to stormy weather, and we turn on ourselves.

In the wellness world, it is common to hear that the same fight or flight responses that helped us out run the sabretooth cats are jeopardizing our health and wellbeing today – triggering by every text and email alert, each politically charged or sensibility-challenging social media post.

Perhaps it’s human nature for our minds look for external stimuli to keep our fight or flight responses active, available, so that we don’t evolve away from them.  But instead of being held captive by these responses, allowing the stress to consume us – even contributing to health factors that kill us, we have the chance to point ourselves back to rest and digest.

“Things that go bump in the night” demonstrate that tendency to allow the grip of the initial fight or flight/sympathetic system response to drag us down and hold us in a state of perpetual stress.  The bump represents an external stimulus.  A stick hits a window – something simple happens beyond me, around me, and I make it about me.

We want to connect, we need to connect, and our minds want to draw lines between us and other.  My subconscious knows of my inextricable link to everything and everyone around me, but these connections defy the logic and reason the computer of my consciousness calibrates to make sense of things.  As such, I devise stories that reinforce my fears – not unlike our cultural predecessors, who sacrificed to spirits they felt controlled the things beyond their understanding.

We look back with pity and condescension at earlier humans who didn’t have the scientific explanations and answers we value today.  Yet we still put the power beyond us, servants of fear, ritualistically sacrificing ourselves to try and prevent catastrophe from coming. 

Instead of a stick hitting a window, consider the “bump” to be the action of another human being – near us, next to us, even if only proximal by way of a media outlet.  That person’s actions, words, and choices always happen in the dark of the unknown.  We can’t possible have a full understanding of what motivates and drives another.  So often we struggle to fill in the blanks – and shapes become shadow, become sinister, when thrown under the blanket of not knowing.

In some ways, it’s human nature to see unknown, unfamiliar, as a threat to our existence and/or identity.  And in the night of the unknown, familiar things cast frightening shadows.  When we awaken, we can see that there is nothing to fear.  Thinking we “know people” based looking or listening with the computer of consciousness feeds differentiation.  Knowing on a deeper level, awakening to the self that lives in other, breaks down the fear that threatens to consume us.

The bump in the night of the unknown, that external spark that triggers in internal fear response, might be someone of a different faith, or it might be someone we know and love who behaves in a way we didn’t expect.  Rather than simply accepting that we can’t understand or see the whys behind these circumstances any more than early civilizations understood what made the rains come, we let simple happenstance become a threat to our identities. 

Those of us who want to be awake often struggle the most – looking too hard and too desperately for solutions, answers, justification, resolution.  Our stories become more elaborate, our desperate need and desire to make the shadows into something tangible distorting reality – not unlike the game of telephone, where the message dissolves into nonsense because the words lack the context, the support that keeps them together.

Day cannot exist without night.  Our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work collaboratively.  So long as we are living in human form, we will be challenged to find balance between knowing with the conscious mind and knowing with a deeper, different truth that lives somewhere in the subconscious – a type of trust in what cannot be quantified.

We will always feel more evolved than the generations that came before us, while wrestling the same demons in different forms.  It’s the finite side of self, the human, tangible, aspect of life-spark that wants to live in the light alone.  But the infinite, eternal, human spirit facet that seeps out of soma and muddles the illusion of separation – this is the divine darkness of space. 

The universe is an endless frontier of night.  We grow so attached to the sweet sun that we spin around, forgetting that it – like our bodies – will be reabsorbed by that deep sea someday.  But the tiny speck of light, that flash of day that comes and slips away over and over again doesn’t diminish its power and necessity.  In the same way, we can’t let the unknown keep feeding our fear.  We must keep looking toward the light, within us and around us. 

We will always make sacrifices to powers that we don’t understand.  There will always be a question on the other side of each and every answer, just as sure as day turns to night.  We find ourselves in a cultural gloaming – where so much beauty mingles with long shadows that feel familiar yet strange and terrifying.  Where we go from here and how we get there – we must live our way into the next breath as the world turns…

Ashley Bell iReverbs a yoga teacher who began her formal training as an educator during her graduate studies at Columbia University’s Teachers College. In 2003 she moved to Charleston, SC where she completed her 200-hour yoga teacher training. She’s a believer in the power of movement and the arts to facilitate the growth of individuals and the collective conscience. She wrote this piece after waking from a bump in the night, and has left it raw and essentially unedited to honor the process of process.  She will open Reverb Charleston in the coming months, a studio that blends functional movement, yoga and the arts in ways that strive to broaden access to these practices across the typical anatomical, philosophical and socio-economic barriers.

Image used with creative commons license by Guilherme Yagui.