I have been afraid of heights forever. While not totally crippling, I have experienced many moments of discomfort and have avoided doing some activities that others consider fun like riding on roller coasters and hiking on steep mountains. Even as I type these words my belly is tightening up, as if to say, “Don’t even think about it girlfriend.”
So when I visited Esalen Institute last December every inner system was on full alert as we drove south on the beautiful and terrifying Route 1 from Carmel, California to Big Sur. Esalen itself is perched on the side of a cliff overlooking a wild and rocky Pacific shoreline. While my visit there was completely fulfilling and relaxing in many ways—picture delicious food, great friends, awesome natural settings, inspiring teachers, hot baths and the famous Esalen massages—another part of me was terrified the whole time. Every time I slept I dreamt of falling off cliffs, and each time I closed my eyes in savasana (deep relaxation) or meditation my whole body felt afraid, as if I were in imminent danger. This continued the entire week I was away. I only gradually calmed down as I returned to the flat lands of Ohio.
Now as I type this I’m noticing another part of me that is nervous that I am sharing this with you. After all of my years of yoga, this part of me thinks I should have conquered my fear by now. In this phase of my life, as I continue to practice accepting all parts of myself, I am feeling tender toward this part and also toward the part that has so much fear.
So, with this much discomfort how could I accept another invitation to visit Esalen as an assistant to my dear teachers? How could I not? Five more days in that magical setting going deeply into the practices that are most nourishing to me now was enough of a payback to get me back on Route 1. This time, noticing that fear was arising just thinking about the trip, I began to engage with the part of me that feels fear. I say “the part of me” because it is clear that not all of me is afraid, and there are many parts of me that know I am fine and will be fine no matter what happens. I realized after that first trip that the fear is helping me to understand just how much I love life and want to stay alive. From this perspective, I can thank this fearful part for reminding me.
To care for this fearful part, I began giving it Reiki every day and let it know I was listening to its messages. When the fear showed up as body sensations I named the sensations, sometimes out loud, so that it knew I was really listening. In advance of the trip, I came up with a plan for the drive down Route 1—every time my belly or chest would clench or swirl I planned to notice the sensation and give it my full attention including naming the sensation. In deference to other passengers, “we” agreed that this could be a silent naming.
The driver of the van to Esalen turned out to be the most relaxed driver with whom I have ever ridden. His own stated goal was to drive as smoothly and comfortably for us as possible. He didn’t know of my fear, but I thanked him sincerely for his intention, which I so appreciated. There were only a couple of times on the ride where I named sensations and felt more relaxed than I could have imagined.
As the week progressed, I continued to feel much more at ease than the last visit. On the next to last day, after a long undulating movement exercise, I lay down in a blissful savasana. After many minutes of delicious inner sensations of sparkling and melting without any thoughts at all, I was suddenly up on a high, high cliff. I felt a bit of fear but also excitement. I saw myself leap off the cliff and swim my arms as if to fly. I remember having the thought that I had to be up really high because it might take time to learn to fly, and being higher gave me more time to learn. I practiced flying for part of the way down and then I was back on the top of the cliff again. I was eager to be up there, learning to fly, and I knew that I could with this kind of practice. I was so engrossed in this exercise that I was actually disappointed when the teacher rang the bell for us to begin to sit up.
Later that afternoon I sat on the edge of a real cliff, journaling and practicing flying in my mind. I made sure to have my body fully grounded but let my spirit soar as it longed to do, over and over again. I can tell that I still have practices to do around this fear, but I feel engaged in a way that is hopeful and more joyful.
When I mentioned my experience to our group, one of the participants stood up and recited a perfect poem from the mystic poet Tukaram. I offer it here as an extra treat for you.
You might hear the beautiful shout of “Geronimo”
from a lover who has just dove from a
cliff and is heading full speed
into the Ocean – into the
And of course there will always be lots of gab
along the shore from those who are
drawn to God
but have yet to really get bare assed
and go in.
“Geronimo” may be the last word we hear
from that brave gal falling 625 MPH
from a cliff,
for once beneath the sea,
once within the
only fish open their mouths, still bargaining
The soul becomes quiet in ecstasy, so quiet.
Love speaks in absence of God,
not in the heights