The light from the moon filled the window and Jon lay sleeping next to me. My rational mind knew there was nothing to be afraid of, but fear gripped me. Something was wrong. I didn’t know what it was, so my mind started to roam. Looking to make sense of what I was feeling. Going through the previous day, searching for someone I offended, something I forgot to do, a mistake I made, a bill I forgot to pay.
The feeling is all too familiar and not just to me. That afternoon my friend told me that Ingmar Bergman called it The Hour of the Wolf. I know it as The Witching Hour. Waking up at 3am, sometimes in an instant terror, sometimes a slow building fear.
Often Jon’s already awake, feeling his own fear and we’ll talk each other out of it. Last night I tried to remember the Lovingkindness meditation I had learned years ago. I placed one hand on my stomach and the other on my heart and not remembering the exact words I improvised. May I be happy, may I know joy, may I know lovingkindness, May you be happy, may you know joy, may you know loving kindness.
I sometimes listen to a guided meditation when I wake up in this place of fear. But last night I thought of the interview I heard with the neurosurgeon James Doty. In it he said that when we practice compassion either through our actions or through meditation, the part of our brain that’s responsible for our fight or flight instincts shrinks. This means that the more compassionate we are the less fearful we are.
Now this has much bigger implications than quelling my fear at 3am. Because when we’re less fearful we’re more willing open our hearts. This allows us to reach out and connect more easily with other people. Which creates better understanding and more compassion and the possibility of less hate and violence.
I know this isn’t a new idea, different religions have been practicing it for thousands of years. But for me, knowing how it works scientifically and that it can be measured, helps me to understand it and not have to believe blindly.
It also gives me something to visualize, the idea that my amygdala, (the part of the brain that fear inhabits) is shrinking when I meditate on opening my heart or practice compassion, makes me want to do more of it. And it doesn’t take the mystery or faith out of it, it just makes the idea even more fascinating to me.
This is one of those things that I want to remember, but have a feeling I’ll soon forget. There are many things that are good for me that I forget in day to day living or in the height of my fears. And there are few if any things I do religiously, except for my bodily functions. So I’ll try to remember it and incorporate it organically into my life. Like drinking a glass of soy milk a day (which I’ve read is good for women my age). I don’t literally drink a glass a day, but I have it in my farina and tea. It’s a soft practice not a rigid one. A loving and compassionate practice.