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What this book does attempt is to offer you both...
What this book does attempt is to offer you both audacity and comfort. Although comfort feels quiet, it arrives through a bold move: accepting the presence of fear. To do this, we must pick our way between two powerful tendencies, to control and to cure, the Scylla and Charybdis of our culture. These tendencies show themselves constantly in words like manage, handle, overcome, conquer, dispel, banish, fix... By regarding fear as a pathology to control or cure, we assume that life without its presence is possible, normal, or even desirable. But once we accept fear as a habitual acquaintance in an imaginative, meaningful life, we can begin to cultivate a conversation with it rather than engage it in a fight."
From A Conversation with Fear,
Formerly titled In the Yikes! Zone
Meeting the Moment
It is a tremendous act of violence to begin anything.
— Rainer Maria Rilke
The time has come to jump. I must leave the slow-paced, easy busyness of the garden and walk through the door into my study and face the blank page. Suddenly, I want only to putter among my plants—pink against red, gray, shades of green, deep pine to iridescent—a sanctuary of beauty and memory and what is too deep and inchoate to articulate. But I turn away to sit at my desk. The pivotal moment has come. I recognize it. I hate and love it. My body droops with fatigue, my hands shake as I look out from the edge of a cliff. I want the words to leap down onto the page. But do I dare push off? Like J. Alfred Prufrock, I brew myself one more cup of tea.
What is this moment that comes before every small or large leap? Whether it is time to begin a performance, or walk into the boss's office and say "I quit," or sit down in protest in the town square, there is a moment of passage, a push off, after which we cannot go back. It can seem like a quick flash of time, the tiniest of rooms, but it is packed with a magnetism that attracts and repels us in seemingly equal amounts.
What is comforting and mundane starts to beckon with a happy familiarity—the clean tabletop, the dish drainer stacked with dishes, the laundry basket waiting. I could vacuum the living room, it really needs it, I say to myself, and soon a list floods my mind: food to buy, that insurance company to call, the endless number of weeds to pull. I am tricky. I pick the most valid, must-do jobs that I could even wax self-righteous about, jobs that sustain and maintain the sturdy fiber of our lives: food and shelter. But I know this dilemma. If I keep retreating from that vital moment, those mundane acts of maintenance will stack up one after the other and turn living into a chronic support system for life.
What then do we want to avoid? What huge tension vibrates inside that miniscule moment that we do not want to face? Is it all the possibility inherent in the push-off? In that moment, we decide to leave behind firm ground and surrender ourselves into air. We willingly suspend the control that comforts us, and give ourselves over to the possibility rather than the certainty of landing. The moment carries a gravity not only for the body but for the soul. We become electrified, tense, engaged along our entire lengths: we are entering a mystery, a question. To do this, we must welcome, as in sex, a tiny death. This moment is an infinitesimal microcosm of life, packed with a pulsing larger than ourselves. And our proximity to this energy—electric, magnetic, divine—infuses a beauty into the homey comforts of our lives. What else can make the dish drainer shine so?
I remember the first time this moment took on a life of its own and I became aware of its force, a puppet of its push and pull. When I was a teenager, I loved to jump off rocky ledges into small pools of water along with my older brother and his friends. Then I fell in love and following my sweetheart, I made all sorts of unprotected leaps, across a deep chasm onto another outcropping, or across rushing water to grab an overhang. Though I was aware that I could not make a mistake, I never told myself that. If I had articulated my focus, it would have been, Do this. Exactly this. Now. The first time was the only time. My awareness squeezed itself down into that one jump. There was nothing left over, no thoughts leaking out the edges, no anticipation or fear of what was farther ahead.
Then it changed. I was nineteen, still in love. Four of us went to Huntington Gorge in the northwestern part of Vermont. Rocky cliffs rose on each side of the stream. We hiked to a flat ledge that jutted high above a narrow, deep pool where the water gathered itself up for a moment. It had been a couple of years since I had jumped. Scott, my sweetheart, took off his clothes and stood at the edge, comfortable in his nakedness. I watched him look down—for longer than a moment—before he leapt. A long silence and then a splash. We heard him surface, sputtering, hooting and hollering. The fall was long and the water was cold! He shot out of the pool and scrambled onto the rocks below, dancing the cold away. Then he crooked his neck up, waiting for us. He looked tiny down there, his skin a bright, fragile white against the shades of gray. Henry then followed his path out to the edge and jumped. My friend, Cece, also once fearless, was now scared. I told her I would go first. I took off my clothes and stood where rock and air met. The pool looked far away, black and small, the size of a puddle, of a quarter. There were rocky outcroppings everywhere, and huge upturned slabs of granite. Across from me, a small maple clung by its roots to a rock face, no more than three feet high with just a few leaves hanging. I had the thought, What if I miss? My feet got hot on the ledge. I backed up. Then I tried again. The boys yelled from below. Words of encouragement, words of instruction, words. I backed up again. Back and forth, back and forth. I stood at the edge, I even said yes! and went—or almost went, but even within that instant, I pulled myself back.
That moment of push-off had changed. It was no longer just a flash of time that I could rush through unconsciously. That day, it introduced itself to me; it revealed its nature. I was pushed, I was pulled. The moment was energized. I kept banging against a wall inside of it. Three-dimensional. I held my stomach feeling sick, both viscerally and emotionally under its power. Grips body AND soul, makes them indistinguishable. With my feet, I reached again for the edge of the rock ... air. To leave the safety of the ledge meant to lose control, there was no going back. A finality. On the far side of this moment was an impenetrable darkness I could not see beyond. Shadowed in mystery. This was no ordinary moment.
A few minutes later, I jumped. I said yes! with enough intensity to make it over the wall. Shaky and elated, I crawled out of the water onto the rocks. Then Cece stood on the ledge alone. The three of us looked up knowing how small we must appear. We yelled. More words. Back and forth, back and forth till finally, she jumped.
We didn't know it at the time but the ambivalence that Cece and I experienced that day was far more valuable than the ease of jumping freely and unconsciously as we both had before. We had sparked a relationship with that enigmatic moment and had begun to glimpse its nature. How could we know what possibilities it held in store?
The Thrill-Freedom Continuum
We all reside on a continuum in relation to fear. On one extreme are those who want or need some thrill, crave some physical exhilaration. Their lives mirror that of the outward-facing hero who leaves his own city to conquer the dragon and capture a boon to bring back home. They want and choose the challenge of an adventure—somewhat risky, somewhat unpredictable—to bring back into their lives a spark of joy and vitality. Even though they flirt with this measure of thrill, they often want the accompanying fear to be erased. Look at all the other heroes on the quest—they look free and easy, why not me? But once someone is conscious of the push and pull within that moment, fear becomes the flip side of thrill and remains a permanent part of leaving the "home city."
Some thrill-seekers are accustomed to taking risks in the court room, dealing with their teenagers, creating a painting. They know how to face that moment intellectually, emotionally, artistically, or psychologically but they want to translate that risk-taking into sport, experiencing fear in one of its most physical manifestations. "I want to feel it in every muscle," a student said to me. Conversely, others who barely blink at physical risk want to learn how to take more ethereal leaps, like a ski racer I know who deliberated for months before deciding to audition for a play.
At the other extreme of the continuum are those that do not want thrill at all. Fear haunts them. They want to be free of it. They want relief, some ease. They have often survived a trauma that has overwhelmed their lives, invading their home city. What was once comfortable and familiar is now often a challenge. Everywhere, even home, is a new place, with new rules, new pressures, new limits contracting their feelings of comfort and freedom. For them, the edge of a cliff can pop up anywhere. Just to live, they must constantly pass through the moment. Outsiders, especially thrill-seekers often can't see those moments. Getting in the car to drive three hours to see the grandchildren for the first time after her husband died. Returning, brain-injured, to golf where he golfed and socialized for twenty years. Walking alone out to the barn on a cold, winter night. These are the freedom- seekers. They want to return to some semblance of being free: safe and "at home." But like thrill, that freedom comes inextricably coupled with fear.
Thrill-seekers voluntarily choose to play with speed and gravity: water-skiing, bike racing, sky-diving, skidding a car in a parking lot. Freedom-seekers want to return to activities they did before—riding a horse one has already ridden for five years, ice-skating after a major surgery—activities chosen not in a search for thrill but to use as a shield to repel the fear pressing upon them. They need to feel comfortable again living on this earth. In between the extremes lies the majority of us, sometimes leaning toward one side, sometimes toward the other. But whether we seek thrill, freedom, or a mixture of both, the moment we must pass through can feel the same.
Skiing: A Metaphor
The strongest, surest way to the soul is through the flesh.
— Mabel Dodge
Many of us covet the unconscious, fearless freedom we had before—before we were injured or traumatized or aged. We want to return to that innocent state. We don't want to get stuck before we jump. We don't like our feet to tap and our hands to shake before we speak. We want that moment, and all the fear inherent within it, banished. But it can't be. That moment of passage before we willingly surrender is an essential part of any leap forward, any creative act. It is not a moment for us to control or manage. We need to become its students, its devotees.
Through skiing, I began to study the nature of this moment. Since the age of three, I felt skiing's fundamental tussle—shall I surrender my body down the hill or hold my own across the hill? As I grew older and began to race, this question became more tangible and more subtle. But it was not until I began to teach fearful students that I was able to characterize this moment of surrender, and in the thirty years since, I observed a wide array of responses.
To ski is to flirt with gravity. We go up only to come down. We pay to travel in a chairlift or a tram up the side of a mountain in order to feel gravity's pull, to feel ourselves in a delicious, selective fall like a moment in love. Like love, skiing has within it, inherent in its very nature, the act of letting go. And it is this letting go, this feeling of a controlled fall down a mountain that brings the thrill, the freedom, the feeling of being swept along in the fever of a new crush. But to willingly let go, to fall, we must move through that small passage of time which contains not only exhilaration but fear.
Lodged within the very idea of falling is the risk of getting hurt. Even if the evidence were there that no risk is involved in a particular fall, the mind still binds the two together in a long and tight association. In skiing, the actual risk we take might be negligible but we can nevertheless experience that feeling of a fall and therefore the feeling of standing on the edge, a push-off point, the moment.
Skiing is not an ordinary risk sport; it offers a huge range of risk-taking. My father can play it safe at eighty. My son can scare himself silly at eighteen. It's a democratic sport that accommodates every level of skill, every degree of athleticism, and almost every age and body-type. You don't have to be particularly natural or experienced or skillful or daring.
This broad gradation of risk makes skiing a compelling, almost magical medium in which to work with fear. The degree of risk can be finely regulated. We can stay quite cozy if we want, we can even get bored, or we can dare to let go a little farther than we did yesterday, stay a little longer with that feeling of falling. Then we can ease up, ski slowly and comfortably for a while until the appetite for thrill or the need for freedom rises again.
For some people, the desire or need to dare does not arise on its own. The presence of risk causes conflict. A part of them wants to push off from the edge and feel the body surrender. But another part cannot let go of the safe and familiar. Like Cece and me, they often start to start but then back off as the conflicting voices get louder and louder. This is not a conversation. This is a fight.
Many feel the fight is not worth it. They stick to the safe and familiar, their comfort zone. As one student said, "I've almost skied myself to sleep." But some feel they're losing something, a joyfulness or freedom they once experienced. "I felt my spirit fading," another said. "Each year I got worse. I became so ... tame." They want to learn how to take that one step over the edge again, even if it's a small step with little risk.
It does not matter if taking that step means feeling safe driving to the store again or if it means leaping off a cornice. What is important is learning to guide ourselves through what we recognize and acknowledge as the pivotal moment, to give the voice that says, Yes, I can do that a chance.
Trusting The Body To Play
A survey done in 1996 by Ski Industries of America asked a group of women who no longer skied why they quit. One of the main reasons was that they did not feel athletic enough. Many of the women I teach go to the gym, jog, take tennis or riding lessons, and yet they do not feel athletic either. "I'm basically a klutz." "I'm gonna be your worst student." "I've never been good at anything even slightly athletic."
Some of these women are actually very coordinated. When I described one as a "natural," she said after her initial surprise, "I guess I've always had a big chip on my shoulder and any mistake I made I chalked up to being unathletic. When actually, I just needed to keep practicing."
Is athleticism only a permanently fixed, primal condition? Isn't it also a quality capable of being developed?
At any beach you can see even young girls strut like they're on a fashion runway, wily and self-conscious, already caught in the tight grip of convention while packs of uninhibited boys twice their age still play wildly in the waves. (This is not just a modern dilemma. The ancient Greeks felt that if young girls fell too soon under the influence of Aphrodite, the girls-turned-women would become too civilized and tame. During those susceptible adolescent years, Grecian girls participated in the bear cults of Artemis to sustain for a little longer—and even cultivate—their solitary, uncivilized wildness.)
Spontaneous play—rough-housing, snowball fights, Frisbee on a beach—gives the body a store of knowledge that it can translate into disciplined, precise movements. The body begins to know, during each millisecond, precisely where it is in space and also where the other is—a person, a Frisbee, a ball—and exactly how far and in which direction to move to meet or avoid that other. As this body-knowledge grows, so does our trust. It is simple: the more we see that the body does know, the more we allow it to do what it knows. We stop micromanaging. We "let go." Practiced movements that might have been robotic and mechanical become naturally playful, a fusion of discipline and freedom that we associate with being athletic.
Excerpted from A Conversation with Fear by Mermer Blakeslee. Copyright © 1971 Mermer Blakeslee. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted June 3, 2012
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