Phenomenological Encounters at the Edge

I will describe below another interesting, albeit somewhat terrifying, experience psychologically that has been with me for the past 48 hrs. I am alright, just a little shaky and mostly exhausted.

I suspect, there are some potentially useful insights in these experiences for learning about fear and fearlessness. I see them as engagements or encounters with the "edge" --or, you might say, with the 'surprise' in one's life where the ontological and existential disruption of the rational and one's sense of normal identity is challenged. The first of these phenomenological inquiries I post here on theFM blog Oct. 12/17 Spontaneous Fear "Practicing" in the Unconscious. That may be a good article to read before this one. Note, all this work "practicing" fear at the edge is perhaps useful to Feariatry work.

I suggested in that first article that "fear" has more than a genetic (primal) and/or learned (conditioned) dynamic. The common rational view would be to stick with those two categories as they are empirically studied phenomena, of which psychology has well documented. As partial truth. I suggested the unconscious (via psychoanalysis) is also itself a dynamic field of fear/terror production amongst other things.

The typical rational psychologist, philosopher or thinker rarely penetrates the phenomenological depths of the fear experience--or what Kierkegaard so rightly labeled the exigencies of "fear and trembling" that go with being human in a world of 'surprises' and great emotional and felt explosions (including deep love for, and loss of, another). The mystics of all religions and beyond religions have often written about these disturbing experiences of altered states and/or some incursion of unconscious aspects into their 'normal' and/or 'spiritual' experiences. At times shaking or shattering their identities. At times, with the right conditions, the unconscious seems capable of causing one to simply lose it. 

In this blog I'll describe my fresh almost 'losing it' (at the edge) experience. Then I'll follow with some theorizing and philosophizing from a fearlessness perspective--and, keep in mind, that a philosophy of fearlessness is my long-term project of which you will want to know that it requires great vulnerability to practice, embody, live and be at times overwhelmed by because of extreme methodological procedures[1]. I'll return to that in the last part of the blog.  

The focus of my last 48 hrs is on somatic experience. But before I get to this, I want to contextualize this experience. My body was (is) 'breaking down' and that is part of a longer-term medical diagnosis recently in the past month of being told by doctors that my little symptom of "shortage of breath" at times is actually a very serious heart disease problem that finally is manifesting. I have genetically-based coronary heart disease. Most all my family members on my dad's side (males only) die of early heart disease and diabetes in their 50s or 60s and/or they get open heart surgery. My brother is a case in point. Apparently, now, I am one of those too.

It's understandable that this disease would eventually catch up to me and throw me for a loop. Again, nearly a month ago I was diagnosed and that came after many medical tests, all of which I cannot stand doing. I have a loathing (and fear) of medical systems for a lot of reasons. I don't like being out of control, and having to give up Authority to the system and establishment which has most all the power when it comes to physical illness and dysfunctions.

My doctors have told me that I am "lucky" to not have had a serious heart attack because I am "a heart attack waiting to happen." I now (apparently) have this medical (problematic) identity to live with--a medical institutional inscription based on something I cannot even see (except on an ECG or with fancy imaging technologies). This of course is a 'surprise' totally to me as I am quite a fit person who rarely goes to the doctor more than once a year for the basic medical examination. I'm a healthy self, body and somatically I love that experience of being relatively strong and fit. Of course, with age (now I'm 65) there is an increasing sense of physical vulnerability as things continue to wear out and/or at times not working so well in the body. I give all this information as context for my structuring of a self-ascribed (self-empowered narrative) to a 'normal' identity as the somatic level, or what could be called a somatocentric "self" (one of my multiple selves). 

It is amazing how the health of the body is foundational to a sense of ontological (psychological) well-being--at least, it has been for me. Now I am disabled. I take 5 medications daily or twice daily. I can never get away from my sickness by this practice. I want to resist it all. But I also live with my wife who cares about me. I have daughters and a grandson, etc. This sense of "healthy" identity is all now up in the air. So, my schedule is all thrown off--now, it is abnormal--and I have an image of myself at my end of life--and, at times I even contemplate choosing death and not having the open heart multiple bypass surgery. The tenuous of my existence, with the image of the heart with clogged arteries is with me now every moment as the medical technology showed me and doctors the disease of several arteries on my heart. I could be in the next second in pain with heart seizure because of shortage of blood to the heart muscles. I could be on the operating table which is in late January (though, I don't yet have a schedule for it) and die on the table in the institution. The post-op recovery time is horribly long and painful, from all accounts of others and what doctors are warning me. 

So, with this context of a barrage of fear-based messaging about my condition and my future--altering everything I know about myself rationally and somatically--I look fine, there is a shaking of ontological and self-identity going on now like I have not experienced ever before. So, then 48 hrs ago or so I got a cold. My wife's young friend Zoe had it when she visited us. Barbara then got it. Then I got it. Barbara had a rough time with the cold symptoms, but I really got hit by it all. Notice the sense of 'surprise' as being 'hit' that I could get this sick. I don't get colds very often, but I don't remember one like this with so much head pain and sinus swellings and weariness--the latter, all part of the drug cocktail I am on as well because of my heart condition. In particular, fear/terror (almost a subtle panic attack) came upon me during the day trying to sleep. Barbara was away working at the studio all day. I was coping with the horrible symptoms that totally dragged me down. I couldn't think or write and get work done on my computer. I tried sleeping because the night before I didn't sleep at all, maybe but a few minutes--the cold symptoms kept me awake and breathing was hard. Yet, then I started to get a fever as the old body tries to fight off the infection. I have not had a fever, with spells of hot flashes, like this for a very long time. 

I could not sleep again, and again and again. I'm exhausted. This really showed through in what I experienced as 'losing it' last night in bed, like a small child, my mind racing and disturbing thoughts, the whole set of changes of my normal routines, of lack of normal sleep and having to take all kinds of extra treatments that Barbara was giving me. I wasn't myself. And, I didn't know who I was as I laid in bed in the dark alone. Barbara was in the bathtub. I felt I was doing so many things for other people, and that included doctors. I was losing who I was, and I was panicking because of disorientation--ontological disruption and being overwhelmed by all the changes going on at the same time. Barbara and I are continually having to talk about medications, treatment, how to prepare for the operation and afterwards because it is a big burden on care-givers. I hate being a physical burden on anyone. I like being the helper not the helped. Or so it seems... these are the kinds of things that led to me having to tell Barbara "I'm scared." I rarely ever say that anytime in my life and not to my partner. 

I went through that needy feeling of dependency, of losing it (meaning, losing my full rational self-control)--of losing my mind, of the irrational and arational elements pouring over me--and, 'surprising' me to such an extent that I could go so low as to be so helpless or needing care from another to comfort me. It was very humbling. I didn't get much sleep again but I am able to write this blog. It is my therapy of trying to find some 'normalization' of what it is I like to do and who I think I am. I get to be the fearologist, the philosopher the rational person. At least, it is a semblance of such. But I think when I walk back into the dark bedroom alone today, and feel all the overwhelming changes of my identity and my body, and the threat of continually wondering is my heart going to seize in the next 5 weeks before the operation, oh, my it is not a pleasant thing to go into that dark with my vulnerable and exhausted body ... and, eventually, if I don't sleep my mind will (more or less) breakdown. I have been terrified on several occasions in my life by people having mental breakdowns (e.g., panic attacks, psychoses), including my love-ones. I know this experience well. I never thought I might be the one to go through such--though, I always knew it was possible. I feel "victimized" all around. Not that I want to feel that way. It is irrational, and arational, and it is from the unconscious and circumstances of multiple 'big' changes all at once. Fear (unconscious-based) emerges with and alongside many sources. 

So a philosophy of fearlessness, has always been a philosophy of vulnerability as true and authentic courage to live and breakdown and die--the latter, is happening all the time, but we keep that in denial and at bay and when we are young and healthy we sure don't think about it much. So, I am now both not young and not healthy. That's totally weird but it is a good chance to practice philosophy of fearlessness. I cannot rely on rational deduction or thinking to get me through. I know my body needs to heal through a lot of distress, and trauma, still... because I am convinced, as fearlessness says, that our worst fears are from old wounds that are often being triggered in the present by stressful circumstances. This painful reminder is our existential condition. Suffering exists. There is no relief. But fearlessness is also joy found in the midst of that suffering and fear/terror--even panic. I am learning from this all. I trust my experiences may help others. I have learned, as the philosophy of fearism also says, there is no need to try to escape from fear-- it is the foundation of everything. 

A philosophy of fearlessness thus would say that "fear" experience, phenomenologically, is essential to our human condition and it is a great way to grow and mature if we handle and manage fear well. Doing so by feeling in and through the depths of the vulnerable, the deconstruction of one self, the failure of one's skills, and finding many selves, and finding there is no "solid" self identity to depend on-- all these things are part n' parcel of developing what I call existential and emotional competency and humility. But such skills and meta-skills of competency to 'walk through' and 'fall through' and 'break down' are only built by dropping down into the out-of-control feelings and losing it! Even going crazy to some degree is real too. It doesn't have to be a clinical diagnosis (or identity) that psychiatry puts on it (on us) as the final meaning.

I wish in my life to follow this path and feel and experience what I do because it is this diversity of being in control and losing control that make for wisdom and compassion. I will admit, that I have been not well-balancing my skills in the domain of losing it. I've been too in control for too long. I have been the strong one for Barbara and others. I have been the leader and caregiver. And, now, I have to go through my own disability and needs to be taken care of. I have to realize I may get strong again, but not until after I have this operation and put my 'heart' and my 'life' literally in the hands of others--they are the experts, they are the powerful authorities. I have to let go. This latter quality is deeply ingrained in the mystical paths (universally) of what I call the path of fearlessness.

The rational philosophers tend to stay away from this messy interiority of life and experience, but the existentialists have been more the courageous explorers in that territory. Philosophy of fearlessness goes beyond what the existentialists have to offer, I believe, because there is a path and map of the soul's journey that goes with philosophy of fearlessness [2]. It is a developmental philosophy and requires we do our development work with credibility, with integrity, and mostly with vulnerability. How could I really trust a philosopher or philosophy that has not deeply gone into and through the fear/terror experiences of 'surprise' and losing it? 


1. The implicit argument is that 'authenticity' is the hallmark of this orientation to philosophy and psychological living experiences, and not just alone but in relationships. In my dissertation (2000-03) I totally immersed myself in studying the "culture of fear" phenomenon using an arts-based performative method called a/r/tography. The qualitative research method was also heuristic inquiry which demands one steep their entire lives in the study of their subject, which includes themselves and the co-mutual interactions going on. In the end, my dissertation was labeled by colleagues as "authentic" but was too disturbing or difficult to understand. I ended up labeling my methodology (i.e., practicing fearlessness) a "voluntary performative schizoidal praxis" (Fisher, 2008, p. 145). See Fisher, R. M. (with Quaye, S. J., and Pope, B.) (2008). "Fearless Leadership": R. Michael Fisher's story. In Four Arrows (Jacobs, D. T.) (2008). The authentic dissertation: Alternative ways of knowing, research, and representation (pp. 143-48). NY: Routledge.

2. I am referring to my map in Fisher (2010), p. 48. The traveling from stages of victim, to survivor, to warrior to lover. My wife Barbara and I have been discussing with this recent major turn of events (and life transition) that I now have to work more closely with her to find the way from my 'warrior' identity to 'lover.' It's rocking my boat. See Fisher, R. M. (2010). The world's fearlessness teachings: A critical integral approach to fear management/education. Lanham, MD: University Press of America. 

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  • Wow M. Thanks for sharing . Brave of you to write. Take it easy.

  • Thanks for sharing your experience of this. In looking back at your fear practice blog and your heart waking you up in the night. I wonder if it was your heart that was waking you up -making the loud noise to get your attention. Interesting that this current cold, which has become a teaching gift, did not allow you to breathe through your nose. In kundalini yoga breath practices I recently learned that breathing through the nose is mostly used as it calms the nervous system and keeps it from spiraling into fear so one can go more deeply into the practice. Kundalini recognizes the right nostril as holding solar emergy and the left nostril as lunar energy. When we breathe through the right nostril only we are tapping into solar and life force energy and when breathing only in through the left nostril we are relaxing and calming our selves with lunar energy.

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