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The reptile brain

Fear occurs when you feel to be in danger. It is a emotional response to a perceived threat and serves to keep you alive. The most primitive part of the human
brain has been labelled as the 'reptile brain'.
It is believed to be responsible for the
fight-or-flight reflex. The fight-or-flight reflex causes the muscles to contract in order to protect the body from harm.


The psoas muscle deep within the body is linked to fear. It seeks to curl the body into a ball when danger occurs.
Tai chi aims to lengthen the psoas and train the student to remain calm when a crisis occurs.

Danger is real, fear is not

We respond to certain threats in a healthy manner and this keeps us alive. Dark streets at night, gangs of youths and hostile animals should create a fight-or-flight response and this is good.
Talking with your boss should not produce fear. People imbue everyday situations as being more serious than they are and their bodies become filled with chemicals intended for survival.


The worst fear faced by most people is cultural. The pressure to conform is reinforced at many different levels of society. Being individual is not widely encouraged.
Society is controlled by business, so the prevailing psychological trends of culture tend to be financial in origin.
If you are unorthodox, others will fear you because your behaviour does not meet with their expectations.

Fear is the only instinct with the power to immobilise.
It is no surprise then that the psoas plays an important role in this reflex;
the psoas is perhaps where the reflex gets its power to literally stop a person in their tracks.

(Liz Koch)


Unless people are willing to be different, there cannot be change. Change is caused by ending the past.
The great leaps of change that have affected our world have come about by people who were willing to try something new, knowing that it would not meet with initial approval, if any.


Being afraid of what others may think is often a hindrance. Providing you are sensitive to others and avoid harming anyone by your actions, what is the problem?
People are slow to change and reluctant to let go of the familiar, but some things need to change. Courage is not about fighting people, it is about doing what is right.
With pure heart and clear conscience your action should be a demonstration of your integrity. Doing what is right is an important part of Taoism and tai chi.

Gaining balance

Taoism and tai chi put fear in balance. Not every situation requires fear. When fear does occur, it is important to realise why and let it dissipate or use it (if appropriate).
The key to handling fear is composure: the ability to maintain emotional calm despite the proximity of danger. A quiet mind is essential.

Living with fear

Consider a frog... It sits and waits. A fly comes near and the frog does nothing. It sits and waits. Then, without warning - the frog suddenly acts - it's tongue launches out and snatches the fly.
The frog settles imperceptibly and rests; calm yet alert.

Learn from animals

Anticipation and anxiety only hinder action... Animals act when they need to, rest when they can. When threatened, they move because necessity demands it.
Fear is narrowed to a simple question: do I need to do anything? Before the thought is formed, the answer comes of itself.

Facing your fear

Tai chi represents a commitment to face conflict with humour and good grace. Standing alone in the face of hostility or adversity requires courage. Other people may not support you or even understand.


It is important to recognise that danger is real, but fear is not. Fear is a biochemical reaction caused by our imagination extrapolating a negative outcome. Change how you see things.
Immerse yourself in the here and now.

If the essence of the person is weak and fearful, he may put on a gentle act, but the reality he manifests is hard. A person compensates for internal weakness by becoming aggressive and defensive.
 A transformation is required, one that cannot occur when a person sees tai chi as an empty dance or a shoving match.
 (Wolfe Lowenthal)

A convincing front

Some people are so accustomed to acting tough that they forget that it is a front. They posture and strut in a parody of masculinity.
This is an elaborate disguise designed to hide their inner fears and uncertainties. It does not mean that the person is physically weak or martially inept.
It means that they are frightened and hide behind an image.

Admitting your vulnerability

A well-adjusted person is honest with themselves and other people - they are not afraid to say that they don't know or that they have doubts. Nobody is perfect.
We all make mistakes. We are all vulnerable. We all fall ill. We all feel pain. We all experience fear. And we will all die. This is what it means to be human.
The glory of the human spirit lies in our capacity to admit our fears and proceed regardless. We call this 'courage'.

Being composed

The human body has primitive biological responses to violent situations. These are useful to some extent but can also hamper our available range of options.
Recognise that danger is real, whilst fear is not.


Students with Sifu Waller are trained to keep their nervous systems grounded and their emotions under control.
With a calm mind, settled emotions and a relaxed, balanced body - you have the opportunity to choose. Rather than curl in a protective ball, you can deal with adverse situations differently.
The beginning of change lies with humour.

Accepting the unknown

Once you are willing to drop your front and admit your fears and your vulnerability, you can make progress. Taoism helps us to face the unknown and realise that almost everything in existence is unknown.
When you can see the magnitude of reality, you feel humbled and small, insignificant. You feel comfortable dropping your defences and just being yourself.

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Page created 18 April 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023