By David Koff, ©2010
Although rarely acknowledged, the journey of being a human usually includes an unconscious addiction to our egos, to our false sense of permanence or to our having control. Perhaps this is why many spiritual traditions remind us that one of the best things we can do in life is to let go, to learn to stop trying to control people or things and to just relax into the natural rhythms of life. This is, we’re told, far easier than fighting the natural rhythms of life. But how? How do we learn to let go of something on to which we’re holding so tightly? I’ve begun to learn by meditating, by surfing, by talking to friends and advisors and – when I was a younger, more foolish man – I learned by skydiving.
Now, for my first jump, I was informed that I couldn’t do a tandem jump, a jump where you and a skilled skydiver are joined together allowing you – the novice – to enjoy the terror of freefall without any of the responsibility of having to pull a ripcord, deal with an unpredictable parachute, or to navigate a landing at 20 mph.
“You’re too heavy,” an overweight woman behind a desk told me. “Our max weight for tandem jumps is 300lbs and we’re fresh out of 80lb jumpmasters, sorry. If you still want to jump, you’ll need to jump solo and that requires a four-hour class… and costs twice as much.” And so it was.
For your first solo jump, a propeller-driven plane shuttles you up to 11,000 feet. There, above an area called “the drop zone”, the plane slows down, someone shouts out a signal and then — as if it’s no big deal — people stand up, calmly file to the back of the plane and then… step off. They leap out in small groups so they can skydive in formation, causing your small plane to lurch violently as the weight is jettisoned. And it poetically snaps you into the present very efficiently:
The back hatch opens and I lose my breath
Pulse in my neck, wide eyes of death
A blast of wind and my heart pounds
If you’re gonna make your peace then do it now
Embrace your Devils and your Gods
Then leave them till you hit the ground
A jumpmaster shouts your name. Your mouth goes dry and you walk, dizzy in the low oxygen at this altitude, to the back of the plane. Time… slows down in a funny way when you’re about to do something insane, doesn’t it? You are now standing at the edge of an open door on a plane. There is your foot… and right next to it is an 11,000 foot drop. From this altitude, you’re beyond height: the only discernable feature you can see below are mountains. Inside the plane and next to you is one of your jumpmasters. He’s holding onto the extra fabric of your jumpsuit. It’s called holding “on point”. Outside the plane, literally holding onto the strut of the wing is your other jumpmaster. And with his one free hand, he’s also holding on point. And you wait there in electric silence and know, that in a moment, you’re going to do this ridiculous thing: you’re going step off of a plane while it’s still flying. And a great panic, an immense slamming together of every emotion, hormone and nerve ending in your body fires at same time at full blast. And a voice from a very ancient part of your brain asks a very ancient question:
Am I going to die?
But there’s no opportunity to answer that question. It’s time for the count you’ve rehearsed with your jumpmaster.
One: You all lean partially out of the plane.
Two: You all lean back into the plane.
Three: You all lean out of the plane and then…
…you simply fall. I have a picture of that first jump snapped just a few moments into my freefall: my two jumpmasters and me slicing through the frame diagonally and into a vast expanse of sky. It appears that we’re flying like birds in formation. But we’re not: we’re falling… we’re falling at 120mph. A speed so fast, it’s known as “terminal” velocity. Terminal: like an illness or death.
And the only thing between terminal illness and me is a backpack with a couple of parachutes and some nylon cords. It’s absurd that something so small can save your life, isn’t it? So small, in fact, that before my jump, I found myself asking: how do I know this contraption will work?!? How do any of us know with certainty that our parachutes will open when we jump?
And jump, we will. For we all stand together on the fragile precipice of our lives: we purchase a home and go into thirty years of debt; we give birth to a child… and go into another thirty years of debt; we quit a job to pursue another line of work; we walk away from a bad relationship; we start our own business; we learn that we have a life-threatening disease. No matter who we are or what we do, at some point, life will call us forth to make a decision, to make a leap and to jump off that precipice and into the vast expanse, the great void. How do any of us know with certainty that we will safely land?
The first page of one of my favorite books features a photo of the great Zen Master, Suzuki Roshi. In the picture, he’s beaming with a smile that lights up anyone who looks upon it. And you just know it by looking at him: he’s content, truly content. And the quote of his directly above the photo reads:
“Life is like stepping onto a boat which is about to sail out to sea… and sink.”
We often forget that we all share that same fate, that same boat and that our time here is precious and limited. We go about our day and we lose ourselves in the distractions of our lives and we forget that we’re slowly dying even as we’re living. It’s a coping mechanism, I think, that allows us remain sane in the face of uncertainty. We don’t rise in the morning and think, “My time is limited, my days are numbered… Yippee! Now, what shall I do to make this day memorable?”
But what if we did? What if we lived exactly the way we wanted… no matter what? What would we do then? What would we change if we truly embraced the fact that our time here was limited…? Would we drink more milkshakes? Dance in public? Would we sleep under the stars more, out by the campfire? Or play guitar on the subway platform corner during rush hour? Would we wear brighter, zanier clothes? Or tell the truth, no matter what…?
Perhaps we haven’t spent the time to consider how differently we might live, but time itself must be remembered: because the clock is ticking, right now… Right now.
How do we know when we crawl into bed at night and close our eyes that they’ll open again in the morning? How do we navigate situations that seem insurmountable? How do we ultimately learn to let go? And how do we know that our parachutes will open when we leap into the vast unknown?
Faith. The answer is faith. We just trust and believe and have faith that we’ll be ok and we walk through our lives and we look around at one another and try to remember that we’re still here. Some of us didn’t make it this far. But we did. We’re still alive for a reason. We’re still here for a purpose. Faith: its absurd that something so small can save your life, isn’t it?
I am standing on the edge of a plane again. Both of my parents have jumped before me and are approaching terminal velocity. My father has Lewy Body Disease – something akin to both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s – and my mom has metastatic breast cancer. Both have limited life expectancy, whatever that means. As a result, I recently journeyed home for six weeks to provide them with love and care. I’ve been telling people that I just returned to Los Angeles, but – upon looking at a calendar – I see that I’ve been back for nearly six weeks now, the same amount of time I was away. Time… slows down in a funny way when you’ve done something insane, doesn’t it?
Now, being so far away from both of them, I feel the distance and the helplessness those miles cause. But I have my jumpmasters who are holding me “on point”, I have my tools for learning to let go, and I have my faith. I have faith that everything will work out exactly the way it should and that I can just simply be there for my parents the best I can on their final journey, their final push to terminal velocity. And then, in the end, to let go of them as well.
You know, the funny thing about your first skydive: when your parachute does deploy and you float down in silence like a bird for a few minutes of sheer bliss, the very first thing you think once you’ve hit the ground and looked back up from where you’ve come… is that you want to go right back up and do it all over again.
So… here’s to a Summer of letting go, a Summer of freefall, and to Faith in ourselves and in each other to help cushion us wherever it is that we come to land.
3 thoughts on “Living in Freefall”
i’m honored and stoked that you thought well enough of this piece to share it with the world.
Laura–thanks for sharing such an amazing, thought-provoking piece. Currently, I’m reading, “Awakening the Buddha Within – Eight Steps to Enlightenment” and this article weaves several of the same threads and message. Good stuff…
I think it hit on something I needed to be reminded of, in such an immediate and dramatic and personal way.