Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Big Jump: a reflection on fear

This is a version of the talk I gave at Sunday Night Meditation 8/25/19. It is also recorded and can be found on my website.

Every summer we go to Acadia National Park in Maine. There is a place on one of the ponds where we swim where you can, illegally, jump from the surrounding mountain. There is a lower ledge and a much higher ledge which I estimate to be about 20 feet high. I would see people jumping from the other side of the pond and I would be both awed and excited as I watched. When my kids came for the first time and witnessed it, they thought it was crazy and exciting, too. My son asked if he could do it. At the time, I said, “absolutely not.” The following year, I found the way to that spot, going a little bit off the beaten path. I stood at the top alone taking it in. It was so peaceful, beautiful, and thrilling. I took my husband and kids there the next day. I gave my kids permission to jump from the lower rock which was probably 6 feet up. My son was nervous, but he did it, as did I. That was exhilarating enough for me. My son asked if he could do the big jump the next year and I said, “maybe,” which I find is always the good parent answer to put something off. The next year arrived and a week ago we were, again, at that place on the mountain, at the pond. My son jumped a few times from the lower rock until he asked the dreaded question, could he do the big jump? I sighed and we climbed to the top and stood there. I looked at him and said, “James, if I said yes, if I gave you my permission and wasn’t in your way, would you really do it?" I could see how nervous he was as he kept looking down at the water and shifting his weight back and forth. His response was a quiet, shaky, “ahhh…I don’t know.” So I gave him permission, secretly hoping he would skip it. Just then a family arrived. They turned out to be locals, which you could tell from the ease at which the kids climbed to the high ledge. The girl, who, turned out to be 12 also, got up there, took three purposeful steps and jumped. No apparent fear, just confidence. After that, James said definitively he wanted to do it. Of course he did. Now, my hair was getting grayer by the second. The aspect to this jump that made it frightening was that at the top you were on a slant to begin with, so you already felt like you were falling, unstable, and the water below looked so very far away. But besides that, you had to clear the lower ledge which you couldn’t see from up there, which meant you had to propel yourself far enough away from the cliff. I asked the family, who were now down below, for any tips. The father was happy to offer this, he said, “once you decide to do it, just don’t hesitate.” I looked at James. He nodded. So we stood there for a while as James wrestled with himself. Realizing we could be in this place all night, feeling tired from a full day with a cold coming on, I finally said, “okay, how about I count down?” He agreed. I started at 10 and slowly made my way down to 1 going slower and slower, at his request, which was fine by me. I had no idea if when I said 1, if he would actually go. To my surprise he did. In a second it was over. That was enough for the day. We all rooted him on. The father kindly sent me the burst of pictures he took of him jumping from down below. I had the video from up above. I had to color my hair when I got home. I could tell James was so pleased with himself that night.

It gives me goose bumps when I tell this story. Watching someone do something they want to do, but are also terrified to do it is inspiring. When we have these moments in life when we are faced with an opportunity that we know will give us something in return — we might not even know what it is it will give us, just something we need, we become willing to look fear in the eyes. We say, “yes” despite the fear, and we don’t hesitate. This is a moment of feeling fully alive. It doesn’t need to be a physical feat. It can emotional, relational, creative, spiritual, but it is some calling that scares us and enlivens us just by the prospect of it being there. 

Facing fear is the subject of tonight’s talk. Most of us aren’t deciding to jump from high heights, but all of us will always have fear to face. Learning how to face it is what we do in here, what we do when we practice coming into stillness, when we let ourselves be silent, and we face ourselves. When we face ourselves, if we are doing it honestly, we come up against fear because we start to see what it is we do to avoid it…how we push away what makes us uncomfortable, how we protect ourselves with judgements and defenses, how we shut down, how we distract ourselves with busyness, worries, habits. This work of coming into stillness and awareness and staying takes courage. It might not sound as exciting as jumping from a cliff, but it is just as impactful. The fear of not being enough, the fear of being alone, the fear of being dependent, the fear of letting go, and the largest letting go, death…all of these lie waiting for us and not to pounce on us (they are not a threat), but lie waiting to be cared for. That is what our fears are really wanting. When we can look at them with the curiosity that only comes when we can slow down and breathe and give a little space, when we are not reactive…and when we can give the voice of fear some room to be heard, the panic subsides. We just need to listen and say, “I hear you” and offer compassion. That alone shifts everything. But, most of the time we are afraid to even go there because we think if we really visit the fear we won’t survive; it will consume us. But that is not what happens when we can truly listen and not react. That is what we are practicing in here when we don’t react to every feeling, sensation, and thought that arises.

We will sit in silence now and I invite you to work with the practice of noticing when you get pulled away. Can you get to the bottom of a fear that might be there. Of course, not every thought has a fear, but many do. Can you acknowledge it…”I know you are there; I hear how hard this is. I don’t want us to suffer either.” Can you be on its side. Then return to your breathing having made this space. Nothing more to do. You can do it multiple times if you find you are pulled away again. Practice not reacting, giving space, and offering compassion. Practice taking the big jump.