Waiting for the Tiger

4:27 PM

Recently, my family and I went to San Diego on vacation where we were able to enjoy a day at a wild animal park near Escondido.
We watched a hilarious bird show with a priceless cameo appearance from a warthog…saw elephants gliding around, sweetly leaning into each other like they were in love…and witnessed a tight little enclave of gorilla families, looking after each other and grooming as a clan.
And we saw tigers.
My three-year-old grandson Finn sat mesmerized, watching a tiger walk past him behind the thick glass, and at one point, we noticed a beautiful feature: a spot at the end of the walkway framing the tiger habitat that was walled by glass where we could sit and watch from underneath the tiger’s pond.
Waiting for the tiger.
I’ve always been one to appreciate a good metaphor, so this one didn’t escape me. I spent many years of my adult life waiting for the tiger; it’s a story I expect to share someday. But not today.
A common reference in psychiatry and mindfulness practice, the idea of being chased by a tiger is used to compare the fight-or-flight reflexes triggered by stress or trauma, to the chemical response of animals in the wild who get an automatic, built-in cortisol spike along with heightened senses in order to escape imminent danger.
The thing is, the antelope who escapes a tiger can be found grazing and relaxing in the fields an hour later.When and if the animal survives, it doesn't get stuck in its head, analyzing the possibility of facing another attack. Once the antelope or the zebra is safe, it relaxes and resumes its regular activities, like, I don’t know, napping, or eating lunch.
It also didn’t escape me that while I was watching for the tiger with Finn, straining to capture any movement in the tall grass that was slightly distorted by the water-under-glass, my focus was fixed. I was waiting to see something that wasn’t there while overlooking all of what was there, right in front of my eyes.
We can’t help it. When we are exposed to traumatic situations, the heightened emotional intensity of the moment muffles anything else that’s going on in our brains, like a bypass. If this exposure to trauma becomes a pattern, so does the chemically driven stress response. (PTSD)
There’s a way through if we can find it.
Ironically, the above photograph is both a reference for a mindset that leaves us us trapped in torturous fight or flight chemistry as well as a reference for a different sort of mindset, one that can offer relief, and even breakthrough.
It doesn’t escape me when I look at this picture that it captures a short, dramatic reenactment of the same decision I make every few minutes as I move through life as I now know it.
If I keep waiting for the tiger, I continue to live under the influence of destructive chemical components that drive my nervous system toward illness, anxiety and exhaustion.
If I surrender the same tired, debilitating dance steps that I’ve practiced over time, choosing instead to trust life to prepare me for whatever is ahead…
If I take my eyes off the distorted image waiting just beyond the present moment…
Then I might be able to see whatever is right in front of me.
The sweet, relatively fearless little boy sitting right in the forefront, wide-eyed with curiosity…
The slow, rocking motion of the grasses in the water behind the glass.
The proof of life in the elements of nature, vibrant with texture and ambient light…
Taking in the gifts that are exploding and expanding right in front of me in the present moment, this is the way through.

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