Friday, August 9, 2013

face fear and free fall

The photos above were taken towards the end of May. The girl in the photo jumping into the water is not me. I felt for her, though, felt her fear and her gumption when she took the flying leap off the plank and splashed rather haphazardly into the deep blue. And even though she was helped out of the water by the lifeguard below, I admired her.

May seems like another lifetime ago. I started writing this blog entry then but somehow could never quite finish it. Some things, I realize, take time to gestate. Certain concepts, ideas, feelings need time, space and opportunity to be tested by practice before coming into maturity.

May was a strange month of intense work. On top of that, at every turn, there seemed to be some old fear challenging me. I was telling my friend about how the place where I was staying in Boracay was draped in pitch black after sunset, and how I have this irrational fear of the dark. By then, she had heard of my fear of ghosts, of being underwater, and of heights. She replied casually that it seemed that I was afraid of quite a few things.

Now, I don't consider myself a fearful person. On the contrary, I think I can be quite brave. Admittedly, by being brave I mean that I acknowledge the fears I've accumulated and embrace, nay, even seek out opportunities to challenge and unhinge these deeply ingrained patterns. 

When said friend first talked about coming to work with me in the Philippines, she said that what she really wanted to do during her visit was to jump off some cliffs. Jump off cliffs?! Right, I knew then that I was in for it!

So towards the end of our time in Boracay, when our work commitment had ceased to take each and every waking hour and every bit of energy, we boarded a boat to Ariel's Point, a favorite cliff jumping spot on the mainland in Buruanga. With no hesitation, Zoë , who is pretty darn fearless, was one of the first people (along with the girl pictured above) to jump off the wood plank perched on the highest cliff, 20 meters above the cool water.

I, on the other hand, took my sweet time walking onto the 8 meter-high board. Each step was nerve-racking. I looked down, and the water seemed foreboding, especially the distance between me and it, which was amplified by the the lifeguard wadding in the water, managing the cliff jump traffic. He signaled me to get on with it. I could not. The crowd along the rails were egging me on to jump. I could not. Flustered and under pressure, I slowly edged back onto firm solid rock.

I had to change my tactic. I needed to ease myself into this process, I needed to find my own pace, one that I was comfortable with. So I started with the smallest jump, three meters, a kiddie leap into the water, hoping to work my way up.

I managed to jump off the 8-meter board. The 10 and 15 meter cliff as well. It helped to have the support of Zoë  and a couple of new friends who jumped along with me, who waited for me as they waded in the water as I deliberated over each jump, as I negotiated with my fearful self-limiting ego.

And then, finally, time had come to take the 20 meter-cliff jump. Just stepping on the wood board filled me with anxiety. I looked below and the drop was intensely intimidating, I looked out onto the infinite watery horizon and that too was incredibly frightening, I looked back at the rock and saw expecting faces. I just stood there, at the edge, for some time. Breathing, then panicking, then collecting myself, then hyperventilating, then relocating that inner internal struggle of who was boss raging within me as I teetered at the edge, with 20 meters of air between me and water.

At some point, Zoë calls to me from below. "You can do this! Remember engage banda!" And I started to think of practice, of my yogasana teacher Sharath Jois in India, his playfully stern voice in my head: "Why you fearing?"

It was then that I talked myself into breathing, deep, full breaths. I can do this, I CAN DO THIS, and took that small step into air, while pulling into my center as the world of fear closed in on me. I gasped, closed my eyes, and held my breath as I dove feet first into the water, where there was no fear, but instead: joy and excitement and gratitude. I stepped out of the blue shaken but jubilant.

Later, I returned to that top spot to go a second time. I decided that I wanted to take that leap with my eyes open. As I worked up the courage to go again, I started to talk to an older friendly Australian, who'd been watching the day unfold. "Good job," he said, "You know, when I saw you at that 8-meter board when we first arrived, I thought to myself this girl isn't going to be able to do it, that's how scared you looked. You proved me wrong." I felt like I had proven myself--the unconfident, disbelieving self--wrong too.

I did take that 20-meter jump a second time before we left Ariel's Point. And I did keep my eyes open as I excitedly leaped into the air before free falling. Fear was still there, but so was courage.

I've had more lessons in fear and in courage since then. Moments filled with the anxiety and excitement of the uncertain. Moments of vulnerability and of surrender. Moments of heart break and whole-heartedness.

When I think now of that hot summer May day in the Philippines I am amazed at how many times I've had to repeat that process of taking breath, finding center, and asking myself what am I really afraid of? before leaping into the unknown. What got me to jump off that cliff was the same mettle that made me to fly to England for the love of someone, and when that didn't work, gave me strength to leave Spain and to fly to Osaka for the love of myself.

My fear of heights seems less powerful these days. But more importantly, I feel less moved by fear itself. No doubt fear and all its surly little friends will surely persist. Still, I am comforted that built into my nature (and this is true for all of us) is the antidote of fear: courage. And in the heart of courage, which is from the Latin "cor" (meaning, heart), is love. Thus my heart story continues: face fear with love, feel free with love, fall into grace with love.

This article is also greatly inspired by Brené Brown ( and Neale Donald Walsh (Conversation with God) and the many many brave hearts who I have met recently and it seems always--with gratitude to them all! 

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