I was sitting at the edge of the waterfall. Small children in life jackets were tossing themselves off the 20-foot drop into the pool below. I saw their faces shift from trepidation to liberation as their bodies took flight in what had seemed an impossibility and then disappear below the surface for a moment. I imagined what it would feel like to emerge victorious and invigorated. I wondered what it would take to just step off into the free fall. My muscles fired in anticipation of such a simple move, slowly standing and taking a few steps, no different from a thousand steps I have taken every day of my life. My stomach twisted and my hands began to shake.
Whether I have been aware of it or not, fear has been the main motivator in my life. I am afraid of taking the risk, and I am afraid of feeling stuck if I don’t. I am afraid of getting hurt and I am afraid of being judged a coward. I am afraid of losing my voice, and I am afraid of being rejected for my truth. Life has been an exhausting exercise in liberating myself from fear by pushing myself to do what frightens me the most or seeking the easy and comfortable path so I won’t feel threatened. Or simply numbing out.
Beginning a new relationship has made me face how much I try to control myself, my circumstances, and others in order to avoid feeling hurt. When I’m triggered, I close. When I succeed, I worry about when the other shoe will drop. What will I do the next time he hurts my feelings? What will I do when I have to find a job in the “real world”? I better set an ultimatum. I better spend my free time creating passive income. I better really beef up my Linked In and Facebook profiles because I’m vulnerable out there unless a whole lot of people like I’m somebody, and I know the slightest wrong move could jeopardize everything.
There is no space for freedom in this sort of life. In fact, it is no life at all. It is living as a puppet to a parade of thoughts and feelings that have me totally hypnotized, jumping to action at their neurotic bidding. A friend of mind recently introduced me to an article called, “Knowing that You’re Full of Shit Will Set You Free.” I instinctively laughed for a good two minutes before he even told me what it was about, because deep down this was an incredibly liberating notion. The one thing those who know me best have always told me is that I take things too seriously. The author says we are all full of shit because we believe our opinions, assessments, conclusions and agreements are real and sacred, and get so bent out of shape when they are challenged or unfulfilled. All of our thoughts and feelings are illusory and incomplete at some level. When we take them seriously, as indicators of reality and our identity, we are locked into a constant state of reacting to our inner triggers instead of responding to the moment itself.
What’s the alternative? I invite you to participate in an exercise to explore another way of being. Become aware of what is around you. Look at what is in front of you. Absorb the details. Now close your eyes. Do you still exist? Of course you do. You are not the things you observe, but the awareness that sees them. Now become aware of your breath flowing in and out. Then hold your breath. Are you still there? Of course. Even without light and movement, you are still there watching. Apply this same technique to sensations in your body – the constrictions or agitations we call feelings. Don’t label, explain, or try to understand or change them, just watch. You are not these sensations, you are simply aware of them. Now place your attention on your thoughts – the narrator in your head, the images that come to you as you do this exercise. They are just like a movie and its soundtrack in the background of your life. Even if they stop you are still there. At our core, we are all just awareness – no story, no striving – just a familiar presence noticing each experience coming and going, energy changing from one form into another inside and around us.
Every time I get stuck on something – an external circumstance I think I can’t deal with, an inner feeling that is hard to tolerate, a destructive thought I think is true – I can simply see it as an invitation to free myself a little more. I don’t need to understand or to act, I just need to open, feel that knot in my chest loosen, that cramp in my back relax, that irritating thought go. I don’t have to let them run me. I can stay still in my sense of self as what observes my experience and wait for it to pass, to relax away. In this way, I am slowly being liberated from fear, from “supposed to”. I am reminded that the only thing that is real is the energy in this moment, and my awareness can direct it by deciding what to feed and what to release. It is that simple and real. That is who I really am.
I never jumped off the waterfall. My mind gave a dozen rational reasons why I shouldn’t because of what could go wrong and how intense the fear was, and then why I should because I want to be cool and feel free. Clarity came in a sudden moment of stillness. I realized that what mattered more than whether I jumped or not was that I was wasting so much energy on the edge, absorbed in the battle between my mind, heart, and body. Real freedom wasn’t about the exhileration of jumping or the self-love of letting myself off the hook. Real freedom was breaking the cycle of letting my mind and heart determine my reality, distracting me from the experience of myself, in that moment, as pure awareness. As the turmoil settled, I realized what I really wanted was just to be in the water, so I climbed down the cliff, swam for a frigid minute, and moved on.
Whatever I am doing from moment to moment matters far less than how I am experiencing it. When I am in my core, I know that I am neither strong nor weak, neither fearful nor brave, neither greedy nor generous. These are labels on a spectrum that is becoming irrelevant. Our world is changing at a rate that is impossible to keep up with. Our minds can only accurately project out the next step or two if we’re lucky, and our hearts are becoming clogged with painful feelings from our past and the world around us that obscure the truth in every moment. But if I can keep my attention on myself as pure awareness, as the observer of this present moment, I can experience everything around and within me not as a threat, but simply as energy moving through me. I can let it wash me clean, I can let it empty my mind and open my heart, and I can remember I am free, always.
“Attention is like a beam of light – the focused power of your consciousness transmutes everything into itself.” – Eckhart Tolle