Small problems seem to dominate a large segment of our lives and seem so big as they are doing so. When I was studying Eastern religions, I came across a bit of wisdom that has helped me in times when I felt I was not enjoying much of life. The saying went like this “Don’t let your mind become an appointment book.”
What it means is that people spend far too much time thinking about the next thing that will happen. I’m not saying it is not good to have something to look forward to, but we must realize that the only enjoyment in life really comes from the now. What we experience is what our life is.
This sounds simple enough, but when I am unhappy it is often about something I cannot change. If I thought I could change it, then I wouldn’t be so unhappy, just anxious. However, dwelling on bad things one cannot change is no life at all.
Through much of my life I have thought of myself as a problem solver. I often try to solve problems before they happen. I see pitfalls that may be ahead. Often those pitfalls do not materialize, but when they do, I feel very satisfied that I knew it was coming. Many times I do things to avoid pitfalls, and then I have no idea whether I really avoided a pitfall or whether the pitfall was just a product of my active imagination.
I’m sure it must be a good thing to drive safely and avoid accidents. But I realize that a lot of my problems with stress result from this. If one is only avoiding possible unforeseen consequences, one can never be in the moment. If one is always looking at the future, the mind is turned into an appointment book. The present is ever illusive.
I remember learning in psychology about Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. I believe that “safety” was at the bottom, the basic human need that had to be satisfied before reaching higher levels of fulfillment.
One of the life changing experiences I have had was doing a “zip line” in Mexico. It would be hard to find someone who was more afraid of heights than I but I also had friends who coaxed me into overcoming my fear. The first thing our zip line guides did was correctly outfit us in our gear. This was very important and very personal. I can’t remember someone being so concerned about the things I was wearing. This helped ease my mind, that I was being well taken care of but also at the same time reinforced the awareness that danger was ahead. Next they pointed to a guide that looked like an ant at the top of a tree. He repelled down on a rope. Repelling apparently doesn’t have to have a side of a mountain or structure to bounce off every once it a while. His journey was straight down at a startling speed. It was truly an awesome site, well until the reason for this demonstration was revealed. We would be doing this exact same thing at the end of our journey. While the repelling part, which seemed much less like an amusement park ride than an athletic endeavor, was daunting, the part that struck terror in my heart was the height the man had been before he had repelled down.
This turned out to be an important part of the experience because at the top of a tree, looking down at the ground, it is hard to tell how high one is without any familiar objects below. After first giving us safety instructions which I paid more attention to than any class I can remember, we climbed a hill which was no small task itself for a 50 year old guy. A platform was built on the side of the hill so we could have more room to meander and see exactly what the task demanded. My two friends, Jonathan and Steven, zipped right across to the gigantic tree in front of us with no apparent fear. I had graciously allowed them to go first. As my time approached, a guide asked me if I minded if he go first. Oh, sure, that sounded fine. Every moment on that platform was another moment I was still alive. Seriously, just being on that platform with safety rails would have been a major achievement before this time.
Finally, it must eventually be my turn. The guide, who turned out to be assigned to me and a few others, helped get my gear attached to the line just the way it was supposed to be. He told me to remember the basic concept that I must slow myself with my hand, that is grab onto the line we were zipping on and let friction slow me down. This would be to avoid slamming into the tree ahead. The gloves they had given us looked well used and very professional. All of the equipment seemed very professional. So I took a leap of faith off the platform and found myself zipping down the line at quite a speed. Trees flashed by on the right and left side of me. It looked as if I could crash into any one of them until I realized that I kind of had to follow the line that was above my head.
The slow down maneuver was important to master because one developed quite a speed. Unfortunately, I was holding the line above me for dear life and despite my speed, I was not going fast enough to reach the platform on the tree. We had been warned not to do this. Oddly, this was the only mistake I made for the entire experience. So, here I am hanging on the line about 30 feet from my objective. The guide who had went before me, came down the line and pulled me up to the platform, thankfully. Later I found out that this guide who had zipped across just before me had told Jonathan and Steven upon his arrival that he wasn't sure I was going to go through with it based on the look on my face. :)
The platform around the tree was another experience all in itself. Here I was, safely on a platform finally, that seemed about 2 feet wide from the tree trunk. It was then that I noticed how carefully the guides moved my safety line to another line that surrounded the tree. So, there was the main line you hung from and a safety line should this line fail. When moving from one place to another, one or the other of these lines was always attached. So the safety line was really necessary to make sure that you were always hooked at any given moment. The care the guides took doing these maneuvers immediately put me at ease. The rest of the journey was a gradual development of this trust of my guide. The zipping from tree to tree became exhilarating and less and less frightening as my trust in my guide grew.
I don’t know how many trees we zipped. I think it was miles in all, from tree to tree. The danger surrounded us at all times. Either we were zipping down a line or we were standing on a platform that was none too wide. There was one break in the danger. We zipped to another hill top and solid ground was finally beneath our feet. As is the experience of getting off a cruise ship onto land, it is a bit disconcerting to realize you are actually on solid ground. Why this is, I don’t know. Perhaps in this case, it was because my safety line was now unhooked. Soon, however, I was relaxed and thinking, “Wow, was that some experience or what?!?” On this hill, midway through our journey, was a large thermos with a pour spout of something that looked like Gatorade. Bees were swarming around it, hanging off of things in curtains. That Gatorade looked mighty good but the bees put a few people off from filling a cup. Not me. Heck, my worst fear in all the world was behind me. What the heck is a small bee going to do to me compared to a fall that would have killed me for sure at any moment during the last 30 minutes? I ended up filling cups for others, such a brave guy.
Later I saw pictures of me up on the platforms lines, and while we were watching the safety demonstration. I wouldn’t describe my face as showing abject terror, but one might have interpreted it that way. Another picture taken later showed me intent upon checking out the line ahead of us. I was analyzing the danger ahead. None of the pictures I saw looked too terribly flattering as even the ones where I am smiling zipping along, showed that I had worn the wrong type of clothing for this event, if you get my drift. Next time, and I’ll make sure there IS a next time, I’ll be dressed more appropriately.
After the hill, there was another long journey until the end where we had to repel down to the ground. As I looked down at the people below who had already made their descent, I now had a visual reference point as to the height. Fear began spreading through my mind. Repelling is an entirely different activity. I’m still not sure I understand the physics behind this even after having gone through it. But from my point of view at the time, when my time came, I was hooked on a line and controlled my own rate of descent with a clamp that held a rope. I think that is the way it went. At any rate, they hooked me onto this line and told me to lean back. My feet were still on the platform and I was leaning away from it. I found it difficult to force myself to take my feet from the platform. The guide looked at me and said, “Go ahead.” My trust was so well developed that I immediately let my feet fall from the platform. Then I was to repel down the line. “Just slowly let loose of your clamp.” Well, by this time I wanted to make sure that my fear was gone and that those at the bottom, who might have witnessed my original mishap would see a confident man repelling down that line. I think I went faster than anyone else down that line and found out at the bottom that really, I had no need to worry. The guy at the bottom had full control of me had there been a problem. I was complemented at the bottom by the guides for my skill. Skill heck, I just went as fast as I could.
I felt absolutely great. The whole experience had just changed my life, and I knew it. We had to climb back up to the starting camp from the valley we were now in. I took the lead and soon my guide was saying to slow down. He looked me in the face, which at the time was always unusually red and asked, “Are you OK?” I said, “Oh yes, my face always gets this red.” I looked back and my guide and I were far ahead of the others. I slowed down and talked to the guy who I now trusted most in the world. We talked of his childhood. We talked of his parents. I told him your parents must be very proud of him having such a responsible job. Did they ever come zip with him? He said, “Sadly, no. They do not understand."
My mountain of fear was just a molehill, really. My constant fear of the future subsided quite a bit after that experience. It took a while for the lesson I had learned to really have dramatic effects in my life, but it did and has and always will.