Last week I spoke to a college class – an Asian philosophy class – about Zen. It is a gas to speak about something as simple and straightforward as waking up. The thing is, in this morning lecture to nearly 100 young people, a quarter of them were completely asleep and none of my antics could stir them. If it were an audience of middle-agers, the percentage in deep sleep would spike precipitously, so this was a chance to change the course of lives, to be sure.
Sometimes when I get rolling in a talk, the ocean swells, the surge accelerates and I finish up feeling as if I’d consumed all the oxygen in the room. Pens literally drop, and we hear them. Drop. Drop. There is a cushion of hush that follows, and hardly a murmur comes forth. I was not surprised that the horde rushed the exits, and only a smattering came to the front to see me.
A young woman waited her turn, eyes wide, and when the space between us cleared, I instinctively grasped her palm in one of mine and began tracing circles with my index finger on the top of her hand. She said she wanted to talk to me about something that had happened to her recently. She said, “You tell us to trust our lives . . . “
but I have a problem letting go. People tell me I am a control freak, and I wanted to do something to prove them wrong. Something to overcome my fear.
And so she dove out of an airplane.
She described the experience. The feeling of numb nonchalance, eerie disembodiment, followed about eight hours later by total shrieking hellish recall and paralyzing terror. She’d given herself post traumatic stress.
I said, “Don’t jump out of any more airplanes.”
I’m sure there are some for whom it qualifies as sport or playful pastime, but skydiving is one of those ridiculous things that fearful people do to prove they are fearless, humans do to prove they are superhuman, and mortals do to prove they are immortal.
“Don’t do that,” I soothed, still tracing circles on the back of her hand.
This is what I tell everybody all the time these days, because I’ve finally realized that what all the ancients tell us really is true, and really is that simple, and really is that effortless, natural and ordinary. Just exhale.
Exhalation is the act of letting go, the release, the surrender, the trust, that otherwise seems like mumbo jumbo psychobabble coming from another New Age guru with a book and website. Just exhale, and you’ll realize that all this time you’ve forgotten to exhale. You’ve become tense and constricted in your fearful distractions and your anxious grasping. All this time you’ve been holding onto your breath, choking yourself, and now all you have to do is exhale.
Just exhale: there’s the jump. Just inhale: there’s the parachute. Land in one piece without ever leaving the ground.
You’re safe, you’re free, you’re fearless. You’re dismissed.