I started out my day today with thoughts equal parts terror and relief. And I’ll tell you why. Come, journey back with me to the predawn hours of the day. 😉
It was still dark out, 4:30 in the morning and I’d been awake for about half an hour. At 4am my cat Nalu had jumped onto the bed with rain puddle-wet paws, purring. I got up and dried him off with his towel hanging from a hook on the wall. I made sure he had food, and then crawled back into bed, nestling down under the warm blankets. A few moments later Nalu joined me, curling up at my feet.
It would have been a happy and peaceful moment to drift back into dreamland, but instead I lay there struggling to fall asleep. I felt really nervous about a situation I’d be faced with later in the day. A talk I’d have to have with someone. It was about something that could be really good and exciting for me, yet the excitement was getting overshadowed by my anxiety over broaching the subject with this person.
I’m laying there with my mind reeling, when I suddenly hear this dull, light thunk on my blankets. I pause. What was that? It sounded like something landing on the bed… Near my pillow. But Nalu was laying down at my feet. Had he moved? I didn’t think he’d make a noise like that. I definitely heard a thunk.
I lifted my head slightly, wondering if the sound was worth investigating.
Vaguely in my mind came a thought almost too alarming to allow to fully form. Could it be a—? Oh no no no no—!
I didn’t fully think the thought in that moment, as it was too bone chilling. But I’ll give you this for context: I live in Hawaii, where there are lost of bugs, big bugs, including giant spiders and cockroaches. I personally have no qualms with these creatures. The giant spiders are alarmingly giant but otherwise harmless to humans. I rather like them. Cockroaches used to be the one bug that gave me the heebie jeebies, but living in Hawaii, I got quite used to seeing them around everywhere.
That was not what was on my bed.
I reached over to the bedside table and grabbed the handheld light sitting there. It’s this odd little blue stick I got at my office job, that some promotional products company had sent to us hoping we might buy them. It has a two-setting feature, a regular light and a flashing light. It also has two magnets on it, which my coworker and I could only assume was for attaching the stick on the back of a bike, or maybe a car. (When else would you need to attach a light to a metal surface where you didn’t have any other lighting option? The fridge? A pole?)
I clicked the “on” button twice to get to the solid light, and shifted my body around to shine the blue stick behind my right shoulder, as I was laying on my stomach. Pretty sure the sound had come from my right. I turned to look.
Barely a foot away, and level with my shoulder, right there near my pillow on top the blankets: A giant, biting, poisonous, island centipede.
Without hesitation I sprung into action, using one end of the light stick to flick the centipede off the bed. Whoa, that was clo—OH MY GOD S*** IT’S STILL THERE! OMFG!!!
In my panic I accidentally pressed the power button, turning off the light. I clicked it again and the flashing beam lit up my horror movie moment like a rave gone wrong.
The centipede had only been brushed slightly away, toward the edge of the bed. It was half obscured in the folds of the blankets, and quickly beginning to crawl back toward me. I fixed the light setting, and then flicked the stick at the centipede again; once, twice—I considered how pissed it was probably getting, being smacked repeatedly by my stupid blue stick—I tried to keep my eyes on which end of its flailing body was the head—and then I saw it finally, mercifully, fling off the bed, landing with another thunk onto the wood beam against the wall, where it quickly disappeared into the crack between beam and wall which, I hoped and prayed, lead it outside.
Whew!! Ok. It’s gone? For sure? Yikes. Freaking yikes. That was close.
Terror followed by relief.
If I may belatedly note, for additional context:
I sleep in an unfinished structure called “the barn” by the family I live with. The barn has outside walls but no interior walls, so it’s just exposed wooden beams on the inside and there are plenty of nooks and crannies for bugs to crawl in. (And crawl out. Please centipede, please stay crawled out!)
It is disturbing to think how close I was to getting a rude awakening by the wrath of an island centipede’s fierce mandibles. (Dear god what if it had landed on my face?!?!)
A rather rude awakening regardless. With adrenaline pumping, I was certainly awake. I knew I wasn’t going to get any more sleep after that. At least it wasn’t the anxiously anticipated conversation keeping me up. I daresay the centipede drove all those other stressful thoughts from my mind. (Gee, thanks.)
But it did get me thinking…
I absolutely love metaphors, and interpreting things in symbolic terms comes naturally to me. Plus I find it quite fun. From that perspective, I often look at life as a kind of dreamscape. And like in a dream, the little things that occur could mean nothing, and sometimes I bypass them as such; or they could mean something significant, and help shed light on issues or questions I may be struggling with in my “waking” world. This centipede thing made me perk up to attention. (With a vengeance!)
Animal and insect encounters are one of my favorite ways of checking in, to glean some deeper insight and understanding into my self and life generally.
My latest “dream” centipede was actually the third installment of a trilogy of encounters with them this month, after nearly the entire year without any at all. I suppose I could write this off as simply a seasonal thing since the island winter (such as it is) has brought more rain and cooler temperatures; perhaps the centipedes have been seeking shelter in my “barn”. But for my own amusement and self development, I have interpreted the sudden string of centipede appearances as being an important lesson. A wake up call.
One way to frame the experiences is that these centipedes are showing up to indicate the “bugs” in my own thinking. Specifically, they are revealing where I have fear, and challenging me to consider how I might deal with that fear. And, to consider what the fear may have to teach me.
The centipede is an apt metaphor for this.
Ask most anyone here on the island how they feel about centipedes and you’ll likely be greeted by a shudder, a grimace, and some horrific story to colorfully illustrate how nasty they are.
Some people might consider me a bit weird and extreme around here, because I do my best to avoid killing any and all bugs. Catch and release, always. Including the big centipedes here. Yet my fear of their bite and those creepy crawly legs have kept me and them relatively unacquainted. I’d kind of prefer to keep it that way. However, the friendly (ha) centipede drop in this morning confronted me with the need to come to terms with them. Not only because we inadvertently share living quarters, but also because there is something more going on in my thoughts and feelings about them, concurrently with their recent appearances, that I believe is worth exploring.
So I’ve asked myself, if I perceive the centipede as being more than just a physical bug in my external reality, if I viewed it as a symbolic representation of my internal world, what does it tell me?
Bearing this question in mind, I’ve been looking more deeply at the centipede experiences in relation to my thoughts, in an effort to “debug” them. Breaking the metaphor down actually brings out some cool insights.
Centipedes, when doing their own thing, are utterly harmless. They’re not bothering anyone, at least not actively on their part. They’re just going about their business, living life, no big deal. It is the perception of them, and the fear of the pain they can cause if accidentally provoked, that creates animosity toward them.
The same could be said about negative thoughts, and negative emotions.
It was not lost on me that I was mulling over anxious thoughts when the centipede landed today. I felt I was getting served with a reminder to control my thoughts (especially the emotionally charged ones). Or rather, to stay aware and ready to handle them.
That conversation I was lying awake anxiously about wasn’t hurting me at the time I thought about it. It was simply my thoughts about that were causing me to hurt myself (i.e. lying awake anxiously). Anticipation of being vulnerable and exposed in the conversation was more of a problem than any reaction I expected to get from the person I would be talking with. Just as my recent centipede encounters brought on fear of harm without actually experiencing any physically. It was all taking place in my mind and in my responses to perceived threats, first and foremost.
When challenges arise, they often serve to train us into preparing for bigger ones. Before my little visitor today, I’d had two other recent centipede adventures; consequently I was ready to react quickly and decisively after I heard the “thunk” and saw the centipede in the folds of my blanket this morning. In the back of my mind, I had anticipated just such an event, because of the other centipedes that made me more aware of the possibility. Similarly, other experiences I have had in my life recently seem to be getting me ready for bigger and better challenges. I’m getting better prepared to handle my own inner responses, my thoughts and emotions, through more consistent practice. I’m finding more ways to stay mindful.
The same way software can become corrupted with “bugs”, our mental processes are susceptible to viruses of sorts. We can hold outdated perceptions that disallow smooth processing of new data input, our beliefs may not match our behaviors, we might be reacting emotionally to things that are not true threats, etc. All of these are areas of self-inquiry I’ve engaged with following my three centipede episodes. I’ve had some profound “ahas” as a result. I could dig even deeper and share each of them, but I’ll spare you!
What I will share are some of the questions that have arisen in my processing. Simply opening up to personal inquiry can bring a positive shift in awareness and lead to smoother function of thoughts and emotions.
- What thoughts do I need to “flick off” and send back through the cracks from whence they came?
- When do I close off in an effort to keep myself “safe”?
- When do my best qualities waiver?
- What freaks me out? (What if it didn’t?)
- What else does nothing to me but show up in my awareness, and yet elicits an emotional and/or physical response in me?
- What if the threat of those things are only a matter of my perspective; a perceived rather than real threat? How do I handle my inner response?
- Am I genuinely in a dangerous situation, or am I simply up against the edges of my comfort zone and consequently feeling unsettled? (Fight or flight)
- What’s the worst case scenario? Can I find peace in the moment even if that scenario comes to pass in the future?
- What am I focusing on that is not in my best interest?
- How else can I expect and consequently be ready for the unexpected?
- What can I do to get myself in the right place (i.e. mindset) at the right time?
I’ve found that pretty much anything can be a teacher or a guide in personal growth, if we are open to the messages and lessons that arise from them. Next time something shows up in your reality, especially if it “bug” you, pay special attention and consider doing a little self-debugging of your own. (No centipede required!)
What kinds of questions can you ask yourself? How might you change your thinking, in response to them?
UPDATE: The family I live with got me a Christmas present, which I opened the night the centipede dropped onto my bed. It was a mosquito net. Booyah! Continuing with my “dream” interpretation, how would I view this? I could possibly see it as a sign that I got the centipede’s message. We cool. I’m safe. [FOR NOW! Haha…]
And this takeaway, too: the best way to protect yourself from bugs is to protect yourself from bugs! The net is like a physical malware protection, to keep bugs from plopping down from the ceiling. My ability to stay mindful and self-aware is my mental guard against the bugs in my thinking: the malware that is fear.
Which reminds me of the Litany Against Fear, by Frank Herbert:
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.