Go Jump Out of a Plane

 In Honorable Closure (HC), Mindfulness, Reclaiming Joy, Tools & Resources

“May I hear the voice of blessing whispering in my heart that something good is going to happen today.” – Basque Prayer

I recently heard my teacher, the anthropologist and author Angeles Arrien, describe a practice she learned from her Basque heritage. Starting at a tender age she was encouraged to try something new each month on the day that corresponds to her birthday. The activity could be big or small, but it had to be new. At first blush this sounds like a great way to cultivate life-long learning. But the express intention of this tradition is profound: to expand our comfort with the unknown.

The greatest unknown is the “how” and “when” of death—our own end and that of those we cherish. Death eludes rehearsal or control. Doing this practice is one way to cultivate acceptance of the inevitable while also keeping us fresh and flexible. It sounded like a gracious way to work with a truth I would rather ignore.

As Angeles spoke, I remembered a birthday experience 11 years ago when I tandem skydived 14,000 feet from “a perfectly good airplane.” (It was something I had always wanted to try, but the activity was frowned upon in the Jehovah’s Witness community I grew up in. After leaving that religion, I felt free to pursue many life-long dreams.) Two friends helped me find an outfit with an impeccable safety record, then joined me on this adventure.

The jump (from a plane with no door) made me swoon with adrenaline, and the free fall was so intense that my cheeks jiggled like jello during an earthquake. The next minute felt like sixty. Then my experienced dive partner released the parachute with a blessed, loud swoosh. The shift from falling to gliding created an initial perception of being sucked upward. This lasted until the chute was full. I was in a stunned state of wonder, every cell of my body on high alert, captivated by the view of rolling farmland below. Our landing was smooth and on target. My legs wobbled. The entire experience was over in 10 minutes. But this Basque practice doesn’t require daredevil activities to make it effective. Any activity that pushes you into your personal “unknown” will do.

I asked Angeles how this practice has influenced her over a lifetime full of travel, interesting work, contribution and joy. She said it has helped her maintain a sense of adventure and a spirit of discovery. It opened the way for her to observe, month-to-month and year-to-year, her varying levels of courage, when she played it safe, and when she let loose of fear and chose to trust. “If you practice this,” she said, “you get to meet yourself exactly where you are.”

Most people would probably say that they are open to new things. But my experience as a mentor and coach has made me aware of the strong resistance human beings have to change, messiness, and discomfort of any stripe.

It takes courage to venture into uncharted territory. Courage comes from the French word coeur, which means “of the heart.” That is ultimately why people press ahead with new things despite initial resistance. If it has heart and meaning for them, discomfort is endured for a higher purpose.

Depending on your personality and the new activity you choose, you might feel excitement, fear and wonder all at once. My skydiving adventure was all of those things and more. It was enlivening and freeing. As an unexpected side benefit, my mild fear of heights evaporated. Standing on ladders or walking over city sidewalk grates no longer makes my stomach queasy.

My birthday was last month and I have decided to play with this practice each month and see what comes of it. My potential list includes: taking a Zumba dance class. (uncomfortable because I’m a klutzy dancer), indoor rock wall climbing, committing a favorite poem to memory, and observing a self-imposed 24-hour period of silence. The latter will require the courage to turn off my smart phone.

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