“The bad news is: you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is: there’s no ground.” – Chogyam Trungpa
I've always been terrified of heights. When I was thirteen, I went with my family to the World Trade Center, still standing, in New York City. On the roof of the world's tallest building, looking down a steep angle at the top of the Empire State Building, the wind whipped at my hair and my legs turned to Jell-O. I had to cling to the innermost ring of the roof, despite the obvious security of the area, as I inched my way around the building in a loop to reach the escalator going down.
This fear of heights has never left me, even as in more recent years, I have taken on experiences that might intimidate others, such as studying kabbalah with orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, or paddling a canoe down the Mississippi River. In particular, I have had some deep experiences, while working in Peru, with ayahuasca, the Amazonian "mother" vine known for its powerful physical and energetic effects as well as visions. These sometimes-terrifying visions often tell themselves in stories, as a series of symbol-rich and meaning-laden insights that take one deep within.
On one such ayahuasca retreat, participating in a dieta with a group in the Peruvian Amazon, this fear of heights re-presented itself. Along with a series of insights about the people I love and the next steps in my life, I had the exhilarating and visceral feeling of my heart racing and being suspended in space, almost as if I were in freefall, even though I was sitting right there on the simple wooden floor. I realized that my fear of heights was also my fear of flying – that is, it was my fear of stepping into the true purpose of my life.
Flight was a metaphor for stepping into the next phase of my adult life: being of service, taking responsibility for tending my closest relationships, and giving voice and action to my deepest purpose and dreams. To do all these things, I would have to jump.
For months after, I got refracted exhilaration from this memory of freefall. And I watched as the effects of this powerful experience reverberated throughout my life. I "took the plunge" into graduate school, work with my family, the tending of new and enduring relationships, and starting my own business. Still, I had the sneaking suspicion that I needed to make it more real. And so for my 30th birthday, I summoned the courage and decided to jump out of a plane.
With my brother beside me in a little plane, and strapped into my guide, I stuck my legs out the open door at 14,000 feet and got flung out into the open air. (I was also wearing a teddy bear jump suit).
Plenty of people can tell you about the experience of freefall. Still, there is nothing like actually doing it. In free fall, there is a deep feeling of being alive, brought on by the willingness to let go. Whatever fears or inhibitions have limited us, in freefall we move beyond them, accepting that this is our moment, and one way or another, we are on our way to the ground.
When we let go, that’s when we realize that we can fly.
But what is it we let go of? Not our responsibilities, or our work. Not the people we love. Rather, a fear of failure. A needing to be someone else, or someone better. A fear of death. In a death-phobic and perfectionist culture, we expend enormous energy resisting death and failure. As people, we are often tense, embattled and holding on. This exertion on our survival, in many ways natural, nonetheless has enormous, pervasive effects on the nature and quality of our lives.
The freedom that emerges when we actually face up to some of these fears and allow ourselves to release them is huge. That’s when we wake up to the precious beauty and indescribable meaning of this life. That’s when the heart comes alive and begins to buzz.
In this simple act, there is in fact great wisdom. As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche puts it, “The bad news is: you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is: there’s no ground.”