Sometimes, but not always, I have a fear of falling. Yesterday I climbed the steep staircase to the top of Buttermilk Falls. It was about 90 feet high. Going up wasn’t so bad. One step at a time. But somewhere in the middle I thought about the return trip, and got a little bit panicky. Going back down would probably be scary. I reminded myself to stay in the moment. You’re not scared yet. You might be later, but why borrow that fear now?
I had done the same thing the day before. We were hiking up a mountain to a fire tower. And occasionally on the way up, I started thinking about the challenges of the way down. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Stay present.
Coming down that mountain had been much easier than I anticipated. So I reminded myself of that as I continued up the steep and narrow staircase. At the top of the waterfall, my daughter Maggie and I paused on the wooden bridge for a while, to catch our breath, enjoy the beauty, and play a few rounds of ‘Pooh Sticks’.
As we prepared to descend she asked if I wanted to go first, and I told her that she should. This way, if I got nervous, I could look down at her, and use her courage. Perhaps just saying that was enough, because the trip down was relatively stress free. Slowly. Mindfully. One step at a time.
Most of my life, I have looked to other people for courage. When doubt and fear would creep in, I would find inspiration from other people’s experiences. When my past experiences would creep in and color the present moment, I would draw on the strength of other people.
In the darkest moments, when the thought of making it through a day was enough to send me into a panic or a depression, I always knew there was someone out there who had been through so much more than I ever had. I would always think about my friend, Brian. His courage and resilience were like shining lights that banished my dark thoughts. And now he’s gone. As hard as it is for me to believe, he is dead.
When I was in my early twenties (and late teens, but don’t tell the bouncers) I frequented dance clubs with my friends. Once inside, I could be the beer-buzzed life of the party. But before that first bottle of Rolling Rock hit me I was a tightly wound ball of social anxiety. Being the ‘always on time’ person that I was, I would often arrive first. Instead of going in by myself I would sit out in my car anxiously waiting for someone I knew to pull up so we could go in together. I just couldn’t walk in by myself.
One particular night, I was bouncing around on a semi-crowded dance floor with my friend, Edvige. None of our other friends were there yet. Just the two of us. She told me she had to go to the bathroom. I felt a tiny shot of anxiety as she walked away, but I resisted the urge to follow after her, and continued dancing. I’m not here alone. She’s just going to the bathroom. I can still dance and have fun. No, folks, I am not alone here. My friend is just in the bathroom. I can’t see her, but I know she’s still here. I’m fine. Keep dancing.
After that night, whenever I arrived early, I was able to go into the club by myself. I would sit at the bar, or stand on the dance floor, by myself. Alone, but still drawing courage from my friends. I just pretended they were off, in the bathroom. I’m not alone here. I’m good.
So now, I am pretending that Brian is just off, in the bathroom. And my charming friend will be in there forever, because he was so full of crap! I’m fine. I can’t see him, but I know he’s still here with me. Keep dancing.
I can still look to his example to inspire my courage. He might be just off in the bathroom, but I’m really all alone inside of my head, on this dance floor, staring down this staircase. Just me and my thoughts. And I realize that my courage doesn’t come from any one else. My courage comes directly from my own fear. Without my fear, I would never be brave.
Courage can only come from inside of me, from my own ability to move through the moments. By staying present. By staying grounded. By taking one steep step at a time.
Sometimes, but not always, I have a fear of falling.
One therapist used to tell us, about social anxiety, just visualize yourself succeeding at the interaction. Another therapist said, “Bullshit. Don’t imagine anything. You’re resilient enough to handle the interaction regardless of outcome.”
Now, we’re trying to practice not attaching to outcomes because wanting things to be any way other than the way they are creates suffering for us. We are not sure if we are succeeding or if we are just detached. We will try not to guess or judge.
Funny, for me the Buddhist practices like present-moment mindfulness and non-attachment always seem like they border on detachment. It’s a fine line between presence of mind and delusional denial of past/future.
But in reality it is only this moment, this breath, this step. Everything else is in our heads.