14th May 2020

Culture / Featured / Hilary Gallo

The Fear Hacker : Why “Making Like a Horse” May Be The Answer to Our Fears

30 10 mins 0

HHilary Gallo, our resident fear-hacker, helps us understand and overcome negative thoughts by establishing where our fears exists. Hilary explains two types of consciousness which determine our thoughts; horizontal and vertical awareness. He explains how we can harness the power of positive thinking by being present.

Own your fear. Don’t allow it to own you.

Hilary Gallo

It was 11.30 pm and I was on my bicycle pedalling up a winding country lane. We’d left the pub some twenty minutes ago as a group and though we were now spread out, it was becoming obvious that we’d missed a turning somewhere. This quiet high-sided lane was scenic but not the direct route home. It was cold, I was tired and what I wanted more than anything was my bed. All I could see was the hill ahead of me: we were in the middle of nowhere. Tired legs, at this time of night, after a warm pub-break was not where I wanted to be. Misery was setting in.

I’ll always remember my decision at this point. I took a deep breath and, as I exhaled, I pushed down the mounting sea of my dark thoughts and pushed hard on the pedal. As I pushed, the bike sped up, moving homewards faster. As I slowly accelerated up the slope, slalom riding the pedals, I moved past the rider ahead of me. As I did that, I said something to him that I’m sure was a surprise. In the kiss of confidence that came from my relative speed and not from the uncertainty and ache I really felt, I offered my fellow rider, the cryptic “Make like a horse!” as I disappeared up the hill and into the night.

The gift (but also the challenge) that humans have is our imagination.

Hilary Gallo

The gift (but also the challenge) that humans have is our imagination. It’s a challenge because the same part of us that can imagine how we might construct a rocket to fly to the faraway moon or how we might bake a cake to stage a birthday surprise for our beleaguered friend, is also capable of doing the opposite inside our own heads. That night, in that lane, it was these fears playing in my mind. If I let them, they would have reduced me to fetid inaction. Giving in to them, I was miserable, but as soon as I brought my mind to what was happening here and now and what I could do in this moment, I was saved.

At the moment, in this Covid-19 crisis, we all face the danger of slipping into fear overdrive. What might happen if I get it? Will my family be alright? Where are we going to get food from? Unlike clear and present danger, fear doesn’t have to exist as an actual thing. As the fears mount, we start to panic and as we see others doing the same, our anxiety mounts. As soon as we sense scarcity of the goods we fear not having, the desire to have more grows. Fear multiplies in this space.

Fear can multiply exponentially because fear doesn’t have to obey the normal laws of things. It can expand as quickly it wants to. It can do that because it is a creature of pure mind. It operates in the imagination. The human mind doesn’t have to stay in the fettered world of here and now. The mind is in the “what if” possibility of wherever. Fear only has to exist in our wild thoughts. It is all about what could happen in the future and it doesn’t have to be real. It’s not worried about evidence or probability. That means it has access to an unlimited reservoir of bad stuff.

We can start to challenge this though. If you want to try a little test, try writing your fear or fears down. It helps to write them out to make them more real. When you’ve done this, ask yourself where those fears exist. Ask yourself where they exist in time and what evidence you have for them really happening. If they are based on something that happened in the past, ask yourself whether you want the past to be a guarantor of your future. Interrogate your fear. Fear hates us to do this. Fear would rather be vague and inchoate because it knows it has when we are in awe of a ghostly presence. It knows that as soon as we face up to the ghost and ask it questions we start to see the flesh of what it really is. Like that, it is not half so intimidating.

This is where the horse comes in. The horse has a heightened sense of what’s going on in the here and now. Our graceful friend has however, very little sense if any of how long the wait queue might be on Ocado’s website. If it isn’t here now, in the field, it doesn’t exist. The horse is all now and no future. The horse doesn’t think about how far she is from home. She’s happy to stop and eat the grass but she’s just as happy to move. The horse just puts one foot in front of the other and gets on with getting there.

An easy way to think about this difference is with a model of two very different forms of awareness. The first is horizontal awareness. This is your mind’s awareness of past and future. This awareness stretches out horizontally. It moves into what has happened to you in the past and projects into the future. The thing with horizontal awareness is that it is all story. It is narrative that we all create. Even what we know of the past is not an accurate video replay. Over time we cut bits and change bits. As we project into the future this process is even more unhelpful. How can we ever know what might happen next? The truth is, we don’t. Life might even be rather boring if we did.

The other form of awareness is vertical awareness. This is your direct sensory information, about what is happening now. Our vertical awareness is what we open up when we meditate. We say “no thank you” to the horizontal flights of fancy and focus on the breath, the body and the sounds around us. We anchor ourselves in the richness of what is happening around us right now. What we realise when we do this is that the world is full of things to be savoured and enjoyed if only we could stop to notice them. If we fully tune in to what is going on – both the stuff we judge as nice and that we judge as bad – then the stuff we hold in our horizontal awareness has no air to live in. Without us giving our crazy mind flitting worries energy, they can’t survive.

Essentially what we are doing is to ask ourselves – “What’s the problem, now?” This is what I did that night on the cycle ride. Once I did this and thought about it, I realised there was no problem. I was worried about how far I was away from home and how I’d get back but once I shut that off and asked myself whether I had a problem now I realised I didn’t. Every answer to every problem crucially depends on where I choose to put my attention.

So, when you are next feeling afraid, anxious or maybe even a little bit down, you can spend a bit of time interrogating those feelings and making fear your friend. Own your fear. Don’t allow it to own you. Don’t spend too long in that horizontal “what if” space. It can be good for a bit of planning, but not much else.

To feel truly better, make like a horse and do. Shut off the horizontal chatter and open up your vertical awareness. Focus on what is. You’ll feel a lot better for it.

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Hilary Gallo

Hilary Gallo is a lawyer, coach, negotiation expert, sometimes jewellery designer and the author of Fear Hack and The Power of Soft. As Hilary puts it ‘my focus is on enabling people. What binds my work together is a belief in our power from within’.

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