Fear: Awareness’s Own Obstacle Course

Fear much? Man, I do. Gaṇeśa serves up delicious obstacles that I might challenge for one reason or another, and this time wouldn’t you know it, an entire course of them. A real obstacle course.

I don’t know when it happened, but standing on a rooftop one day in Manali, a small town at about 2700m in the Himalaya, my friend Peter and I were just playing around when Peter decided to jump the space over the ally separating our apartment from the one adjacent. It wasn’t a huge hurdle like you see the extreme sports nuts do. It couldn’t have been more that a few feet and Peter jumped it with ease, hardly needing a running start. I froze in place, the idea of jumping itself immediately bringing me up short.

I inched towards the ledge and looked down. Then I looked across at Peter’s smiling face and his beckoning gestures. I just nodded my head, Peter jumped back across; we sat and had tea. That was the beginning of the realization that I was deathly afraid of heights. Or afraid of something. Death, maybe? Pain of injury? Was it my already failing knees that had me worried?

That was almost 15 years ago, and since then I’ve engaged myself in a number of challenges that I might face down that fear. Just the drive up to 6300m had me shaking inside, but walking out and overlooking the precipice of the cliff we played on that day made me proud of myself – almost giddy.

Why is it then when visiting the forest adventure land with my wife several years later, the thought of standing on a ledge not 6 feet off the ground filled me with terror, and actually standing up there hooked up by harness to a zip line made me freeze and cling to a tree for dear life? Sure surprised my wife who’d never seen that kind of fear and couldn’t for the life of her imagine what’d gotten into me. But the fear was real, and totally irrational. For all intents and purposes, I was safe, if I could simply master the vertigo and put one foot in front of the other. I couldn’t.

I’m stumped to look for a cause, or a meaning or a reason. And honestly, I haven’t done much to overcome the obstacle since that day in the forest. When the roofers invited me up onto my own roof to check their work after a typhoon several years ago, with only a little hesitance I mounted the ladder and took myself up to the ledge. Upon noticing the precariousness of the ladder’s position, however, I thought it would be quite ordeal trying to bring myself back down and silently begged off. Inwardly I was only slightly less embarrassed by my weakness in front of them than I had been in front of my wife.

Fast forward to yesterday. I’m 52, my body might be in a little better condition than it was back then. I’ve been taking care of myself. My centeredness might be a little more established than it was back then, after all, the practice of mindfulness is consistent. And yet, I haven’t really addressed this fear of heights head on. So when my little girl told me that she wants to try the adult-level obstacle course at the Pleasure Forest Amusement Park, such excitement in her face, so ready to take on her next feat, how on earth could I say no? I dearly hoped there would be some height requirement, or something, that would remove the responsibility from me, because I would not be letting her go the course alone. So I committed.

And when we got to the place I was hit on the head by a veritable hammer of the gods. Rising above the ground maybe 50 ft was the scariest looking rope-way thingie that’s hard to describe, so I’ve attached pictures, and what looked to be an 8yr old trying her best to inch her way across the wire bridge. No.Fucking.Way, I thought, as my own daughter tugged gleefully on my arm begging me to take her up. I couldn’t. I caved. I totally let her down. And she cried as we walked away.

I told her the truth. I was scared. But she thought I was scared for her, not for myself; that’s where the tears were coming from. She thought I’d had no faith in her. I was really surprised at how understanding she was when I explained to her that this was all about me, even though she didn’t really understand what I was afraid of, she got that daddy was seriously scared, and it had nothing to do with her. She was also conciliated to know that mom would happily take her through the course the other day. Chickenshit dad was totally bummed. Man, what model I’m showing to my daughter. I hated myself in that moment, only slightly consoling myself for at least modeling decent communication and forthrightness about my own feelings. Totally not enough at this moment on this day in this place. I felt like a heel.

And then we saw it. Jai Ganesha! The park had opened up a new section, a new obstacle course divided into lower levels of extreme, I guess for beginners? This course, too, was itself divided into levels of beginner to advanced, and as I looked at it, honestly, even the beginner’s level was to me chillingly scary, but it was something I might be able to attempt. For so many reasons absolutely had to attempt, for myself, for her. Of course she wanted to go straight to the advanced course, but kindly demurred and went with me to the beginner’s. Oh.My.God! Thank god there were kids crying in terror on that thing and it wasn’t just me trembling like an I-don’t-have-the-explicative.

A 2-minute orientation to the harness, the line, the link and the fact that we couldn’t go back once we started forward. The mechanics of the contraption simply wouldn’t allow it. And good thing! What a push! Jai Ganesha.

Daughter went first. And she needed a bit of support due to the harness-line-pully-link connection being too high above her on the cable for her to reach and manually adjust when it didn’t slide easily behind her; I had to be on watch to support. But really, from the very first obstacle, it was her supporting me. Even on her way across, “don’t look down daddy. Look straight” And I made it. First obstacle overcome. She was so excited – for both of us. As we stood on the 6-inch ledge of the first stopover between obstacles, our lines tangled with each other, daughter not knowing how to disentangle, doing everything wrong; I had to have my wits about me. Not a moment to be lost in my fright. Not a moment to cling to the pillar. Center Point. Look out at the experience from Center Point.

Six more obstacles, each more precarious and challenging than the last. Each one overcome gleefully by the both of us, daughter shouting her commitment to go on to the intermediate and advanced courses next. Daddy doing his very best just to get through this one.

Well, to my daughter’s deep, albeit fleeting disappointment, we didn’t go to the next courses, but rather to Chinese food (after the roller coasters). I felt a little proud of myself for having accomplished the beginner’s course. No, I felt really proud of myself. I felt like I had just stepped over a huge hurdle and praised my daughter no end for her own strength and joy and the support she gave me (and the other kids) throughout. I also committed to taking myself to the forest that my wife and I had visited back in the day and perhaps engaging in a bit of training. I think with a bit of experience, with the development of some faith, in my body and the tools that support me on the course – I’ve never let go and felt directly that the harness and cord might support me after all – perhaps I might train myself up to the next level and not only get a better grip on this crippling fear, but also make myself into more of the model I want to be for her, too.

Baby steps. Adult-sized baby steps.

We Love Gaṇeśa. We often invoke him before our magical practices, our readings, and healing operations. He is known as the Remover of Obstacles, but did you know that he is the one often responsible for laying obstacles before you as well, subtly encouraging you, empowering you to overcome them!


The real sādhanā of Gaṇeśa is found in being invited to step onto that grace-filled path on which there are no obstacles. The ‘Remover of Obstacles’, from a Tantrik-Yoga perspective, becomes the ‘Remover of Obstacle-ness’, the gateway into experience of that Reality where divisions blur and I swim free at Center Point.

Reality is obstacle-ridden only when it is resisted, when we chop it up with our minds or identify with a story persuading us things should be different than they are.

Gaṇeśa doesn’t grant what I imagine is good for me, but removes the limiting self that labels anything “good”, or “bad”, at all, while granting the courage and the power needed to let go of the ego-mind’s habitual armored stance against Reality. My armor is the obstacle. I have choices.

Until I remove this armor, and surrender myself to my own innocence and freedom of choice, I’m perpetually off-center, as if being knocked around by events, evaluating and fault-finding everywhere, endlessly strategizing on how to appease that insatiable need for comfort, instead of intentionally creating the way myself.

At a certain point I step off that grinding wheel. I surrender. I admit defeat, or recognize the small self identified with this body-mind is fighting a losing battle against obstacles thrown up by its own imagination.

Gaṇeśa invites me not to avoid or conquer obstacles but to find the golden-thread of graceful blessing in all experiences, feelings and events,

“A fellow mystic writes on our Dark Nights of the Soul—“Whatever horrors may afflict the soul, whatever abominations may excite the loathing of the heart, whatever terrors may assail the mind, the answer is the same at every stage: “How splendid is the Adventure!”” The “Bringer of Good Fortune” doesn’t (merely!) help us get candy and winning lotto numbers, but leads me to the Realm of Truth where nothing can any longer be “unfortunate.”

We step on to the path, embrace the practices, and shift our habitual focus of attention such that what is being removed are not obstacles but the obstacle-finding mind.

The vision of Gaṇeśa doesn’t grant me a new or different reality or a “better” feelings or experiences, but the wider, more embracing vision of the Whole, the Pattern as it really is.

Invocation of Gaṇeśa from the Tantrāloka**

tad-devatā-vibhava-bhāvi-mahāmarīci-cakreśvarāyita-nija-sthitir eka eva devī-suto gaṇapatiḥ sphurad-indu-kāntiḥ samyak samucchalayatān mama saṃvid-abdhim || 1.6 ||

There is only one whose natural state is to become the Lord of the Circle of the Great Rays that manifest the radiant power of those divinities (mentioned in the preceding verses): Gaṇapati, the son of the Goddess! May he, with the splendour of the radiant moon, cause the ocean of my awareness to rise to completeness (samyak).

*A very liberal paraphrasing of a longer piece by John McGough

**Translated by Christopher Wallis