For most of my professional life, my physical activities have been focused towards bettering my health and fitness — aerobics, running, lifting weights and yoga. Unlike my earlier years, when I loved to try new activities just for the heck of it, I had come to evaluate new activities through the lens of effectiveness, risk management and staying in my comfort zone.
Last week, I finally strayed from this course I’ve been on for the last 20 years. Our family vacationed for the first time at a Club Med resort that offered a multitude of sports and physical activities. After 15 years of cajoling by my husband, I finally tried rollerblading and enjoyed it, leaving me to wonder what took me so long. I played basketball with my husband for the first time in years, rekindling a playfulness I had forgotten and reliving my school days when I actually played on a team. But most amazing was my doing the trapeze. Unknowingly, the trapeze experience offered a doorway through which I grew physically, emotionally and existentially. It offered answers to a question I’ve long asked about the interplay of faith, fear and action as one journeys to live a truly full life.
For most of my adult life, I’ve had an intense fear of anything of high altitude with a sheer drop. More truthfully, it’s a phobia. Just watching people stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon on TV would make my palms sweat in anxiety. So you can imagine my sheer amazement and incredulity when I actually scaled a ladder that was about two stories high, stood on a landing that seemed a couple of feet wide and with my two hands on the swinging bar, stepped off into the abyss below and took flight. I wasn’t exactly gliding blissfully like the seagulls who seem to be at one with air, land and water. I screamed nonstop, and I mean nonstop, from the moment I stepped off the board until the swinging finally lessened to a quiet swaying. I could not have been safer — I was buckled to the safety harness that was tethered to the cable held by the trapeze teacher below — but it was not a moment about logic, but pure base emotions. Survival instincts took over. The fall into flight is difficult to describe – but it was a combination of sheer terror, physical electrification and an intense being with my physical body. My screaming was primal and for those moments, it seemed as if my thinking brain had completely shut off and another part of me took over. Before I took off from the landing, I thought I would loosen my grip at some point and give up, but when I was in flight, my hands held tightly, not out of any conscious decision but it was the only thing I could do as I concentrated on my intense physical feelings of flight.
As the pendulum eased and I gained my awareness, Katie, the trapeze teacher holding onto the cable on terra firma, asked me to prepare to swing both of my legs over the bar and hang by my knees. My thinking brain had frozen. And for some reason, I simply followed her instructions. Miraculously I saw my legs come up over my head and onto the bar. More miraculously, I let go and was hanging only from my knees. I even had the chutzpah to bend my back and look behind me. After I was instructed to put both of my hands back on the bar, which I did obediently, I did another unbelievable thing, which was to do a back flip in the air to end the trapeze session. My descent onto the safety net below was guided by the tethered cable held by Katie. When it was all over, I sat for a minute on that net. I had to gather myself. I did it. But somehow, the experience seemed unreal. With little grace and much stumbling, I crawled to the edge of the net and descended back onto terra firma. I hugged Marc, my love of 25 years. In his arms, I realized that all this was, indeed, real. He was so proud, in disbelief about what I had just done. My little daughter, who had been doing trapeze practically everyday at the resort, hugged me in celebration, not yet fully understanding the significance of this simple act of flight.
This trapeze flight happened almost a week ago and the significance of this experience is still deepening. It was physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. I know the Universe had answered a longstanding question I’ve been asking about one’s ultimate safety in life. I am in a place in my life and in my business where I need to take a leap of faith in order to answer my life’s calling. For months, I’ve felt my feet stuck at the edge of the precipice, unable to step off and take flight. I’ve had conversations with the Universe about this dilemma. I’ve been thinking and thinking about strategies and tactics to outwit my fear. I would take steps towards flight but, at the same time, feel my feet stuck to the ground, unwilling to fully step off into the unknown. I now know that this physical leap into the air was the experience I needed to fully understand what it means to take a leap of faith and not only land safely, but renewed. I’ve always found safety in my thinking self. During the last 10 years, I’ve been branching out into a new terrain of trust in myself and the larger Universe, beyond my thinking and into to my being. This trapeze experience reinforced with clarity that my safety lies beyond the reaches of thought and logic. It is spiritual and existential. Taking the leap, whether in work or in life, requires faith in the unseen and unknown and most importantly, in ourselves. This faith seems foolhardy and irresponsible to our logical and 5-sensory self. But faith and trust is known by our deepest self, the self that is connected to the larger Essence of which we are all a part.
I learned another important lesson about taking a leap. It is a not a solo journey, as depicted by the heroic lone cowboy galloping into lands unknown. Yes, I am the only one who can step off and hold on to the bar as I fly. But my flight was possible because I was supported by a group of great people. It started with my husband and daughter who knew I could do it. It was initiated by Meghan, a trapeze teacher, who gave my brain no time to deliberate about whether I should do this, who immediately buckled me in my belt and ushered me up the ladder, following behind me to minimize my fear of falling. It was supported by the calm knowing of Pallito, the trapeze lead teacher, who calmly asked me my name, who instilled trust in me, buckled me to the safety harness and held me in the air so I could reach for the bar with both hands before I could step off. And when I couldn’t step off at first, I felt him nudging my heels off the landing, until I knew there was no turning back and decided to step off into the abyss. Seamlessly, Katie, the teacher below who was holding onto the cable that held my harness, guided me in the midst of my screaming and terror towards a place of eventual equilibrium and calm. She made me believe that I could continue to hold onto the bar, put my legs over the bar, let go, flip, and survive. She communicated with a balance of firmness and encouragement, in such a way that I followed her voice commands with surprising ease. Before I knew it, I accomplished something my wildest thoughts would never have believed to be possible. I am deeply thankful to each of them, for without their support and guidance, I could not have flown.
Perhaps the most pivotal learning is about my relationship with fear and terror. For a very long time, I have lived in a delusion about those who accomplish bigger-than-life goals. Somehow I have believed that it is achieved largely through fearlessness, unfettered boldness and utter elegance. That these heroic people just dust off fear the way one does with lint on one’s clothing. Of course I knew they had fears, but I made myself believe that these heroes lived without fear. Thusly my inner critic repeatedly chided me every time I found myself in fear. How inept I must be I thought. Why can’t I be more fearless? It is something I must be rid of. So I resist it, which of course, just gives fear more power over me. Or I run away from it and abandon ship and thus divert from set course, deluding myself into believing that this original course is no longer worthy of my attention. But this trapeze experience, this very physical experience, has taught me that safety is a concept devised by our thoughts but known only at our deepest sense of self. It has taught me that taking a leap of faith into the unknown is a meeting together of hope, optimism, trust and continued action through the most frightening moments until equilibrium is restored. The last phrase is critical…continued action through the most frightening moments. Too often, we give up in the midst of great discomfort. But perhaps if we dare to work through it, what we find at the other end is peace and the very thing we’ve dreamt of. I can’t say for sure about the outcome of this leap I’m taking at this point in my life. But what I know for sure is that fear is not something to be managed or kept at bay. Fear is one of the experiences to be lived through as we take actions towards becoming our dream. To be in flight, to continue to take action, even as we feel intense terror. For our terror does not predict outcome. It is the rite of passage as we travel to liberate into our deepest and happiest self, away from the expectations and opinions of our inner critic and of all those outside ourselves. And so, as I endured the unbearable intensity of the initial trapeze flight and continued with it, the excruciating discomfort eased into a state of manageable equilibrium. On the other side of this intense discomfort, unexpectedly, was the peace and contentment I had been seeking.
I know I will continue to reap insights from this experience. For now, I offer this experience to you as a metaphor for taking a leap of faith in life. May this offer a moment for you to reflect on your own experience. What is the leap of faith you need to take? What would you do if you knew that when you leapt, you not only landed on safe ground but became the dream for which you had wished for so very long?