A few weeks ago, my family and I were visiting some friends near the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. I got up early that morning and decided to go for a nice run through the wood paths while everyone was still asleep. I set off through the cool morning, glad to be running on pine needles instead of concrete. About ten minutes into my run, just as I was turning onto an old dirt road, suddenly from behind a clump of trees two large dogs came charging at me, barking and howling.
My first instinct was to well, run, faster! To flee. I took a few strides at a significantly heightened speed down the path, but glancing back it was clear that this approach wouldn't last. So I spun around breathing heavily to fight. The larger of the dogs was almost upon me and I started to yell and charged towards them waving my arms and trying to appear threatening.
Just as the first dog got close to me, he slowed down, picked up a stick and brought it over to me. He was a yellow lab mix who didn't want to fight, he wanted to play. The other dog, another mixed lab breed of some sort, was also dancing around me, jumping up on me and slobbering me with wet licks.
I threw the stick and played around with both dogs for about 10-15 minutes until my heart rate had returned to normal and I could finally start to jog off and the dogs trotted back in the other direction.
Fight or Flight. Our survival has depended on a hair-trigger primitive response that shortcuts past our visual or verbal cortex directly to our amygdala. This means that our first instinctive reaction is not based on a full view or sense of what is actually occurring. This short burst of information strips out a great deal of meaning, but is much faster and starts the fight or flight mode of response.
I sensed large dogs charging at me and my instinct of self-preservation forced me to choose to want to fight as the appropriate response. Physically, I never really made a choice. Blood flow was suddenly increased, my eyes went wide open to be hyper-aware of my surroundings, movement directly in front of me slowed down, etc. These were instinctive physical responses we've all experienced when we felt fear and needed to respond.
These choices are hardwired into us as at a primitive level that has served our species pretty well when we need to make instantaneous decisions that could determine our survival. But they also are very limiting. Between those two extremes of Fight or Flight, there is a more advanced response of Freedom.
Freedom to engage. Freedom to be aware of our thoughts and feelings each moment. Freedom to choose how we will respond to a situation. Freedom to accept more information. Freedom to accept that we will never have all of the facts. Freedom to play with the dogs and not fight them.
We have to work at this Freedom. It is not our instinctive first response. Sometimes we may need to choose Fight or Flight, those may be the appropriate responses. But I think the majority of the time we can choose Freedom. We can choose to override our primitive brain and engage in a higher process.
This Freedom seeking requires training. Meditation can provide us with the tools to help train our minds to find Freedom. We can train the mind to find the space needed to pause and choose how we will respond. We can train the mind to find the space to play with the dogs.