I’m standing on a red rock cliff in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado with my toes glued to the lichen and my heels leaning on thin air. My fingers grip desperately to the rope that will rappel me 200 feet down the rock. And I’m asking the clean blue sky, “What do I do now?”
I’ve been waiting a lifetime for this instant of gut-twisting fear. I’ve read the books, prepped my body, coached my brain. I’ve leapt into this Outward Bound adventure to test how well I know myself, to see how cleanly I can navigate my way through even the most treacherous boundaries, and perhaps to catch a glimmer of some of life’s spiritual truths along the way. And now, in my moment of deepest amazement, my own best advice eludes me. Something about not being afraid. Something about looking doubt in the face and walking right through it. Something about learning to love the mystery, the adventure of life.
I take a long look over the edge and gaze in disbelief at the sheer rock I'll slither down.
I’m all roped in, smiling uneasily to a few companions at the cliff’s edge. Our guide checks my harness knots—crafted by my own uncertain hands from a lengthy well-worn strand of gray webbing. I take a last long look over the edge and gaze in disbelief at the sheer rock I’ll slither down. I gasp at the blank and empty space below. Once I start, I’ll have no choice but to dangle like a spider from its homegrown silky thread.
My eyes settle on that vast world of rocky mountains around me, within me. Up here at 9,000 feet the clouds are eye level. Enormous earth-solid peaks lie in the distance. I spot our three blue tarps far below, with the thin strand of river snaking past them. Now there’s nowhere else to go but down.
I focus on what I need to do. I’m supposed to step off the cliff backwards—butt out, feet in—and walk down this harder-than-life mountain as if walking through a Sunday afternoon.
I dive in. Or really, I dive out. Friends disappear above me. I’m more alone than I have ever been. The harness, the cliff, the body dissolve into the step-by-step journey of where these feet go next, of how this rope feels as it slides through my grasping fingers, of how far I’ve dropped and how far I’ve yet to fall. One quick glance out the window of the world, and then even I disappear. I’m wiped off the face of past and future, plunging headfirst into that deep round chasm of now.
The real experience lies in the fleeting eternity when I, me, this separate creature, all disappear completely.
What can be seen, told, and known from the outside are those illusory minutes before and after the big leap. But the real experience lies in the fleeting eternity when I, me, this separate creature, all disappear completely. For those few moments of swimming in the sky, I merge with the mountain, the void, all of creation.
I disappear into that secret sacred space where life burns through. The space inside my brain grows quiet. Remembering ceases; planning becomes an impossibility. Gone are family and friends, jobs and journeys, joys and fears. The stage goes black. Life is reduced to this: the instinctual me climbing down a red rock cliff. Pure, clean, flowing. Innocent, absorbed. It lasts an instant and it lasts a lifetime.
How little time we spend in those secret gaps of now—not before, not after, but here. Seconds in a lifetime, perhaps.
It’s only when I hit solid ground that the world returns and the complexity of knowing replaces the stillness of the flow. I unlash myself from ropes and rings, my body still trembling with exhilaration. I look at my hands, now blackened from clinging so tightly to the ropes. My right hand is blood-stained, with a callus ripped from the pad of my palm, a deep round crater in the flesh.
Where was I just now? Honestly, I’m not sure. But I do know it was one of those pure and blazing spaces where life shines through. One of the places poet Annie Dillard envisioned when she urged us to “stalk the gaps.” The crevices, the canyons, the cliffs. The secret life. The whole shebang. Why drag slowly, stomach to the ground, when you can fly, or at least climb, over and through the mountains of infinite possibility? How little time we spend in those secret gaps of now—not before, not after, but here. Seconds in a lifetime, perhaps.
Having found a gap I know I am restored, electrified, made whole again. No boundaries between me and the others and the sweet hot sky or the silky water running through the gorge. I understand Zen master Dogen’s words, “To forget the self is to gain intimacy with all things.”
The secret of rappelling—I almost hate to admit it—is that it’s easy. It’s embarrassing once it’s over. What then seemed so foreboding, so impossible, so overwhelming, was nothing more than some ropes, a few instructions, a leap, and then back to solid ground. Realizing this, I wonder how much of life I’ve made harder than it is. How often have underground fears halted me before the adventure has even been conceived?
To forget the self is to gain intimacy with all things.
I’ve heard Buddhist monks talk about life burning so brightly, so cleanly that no trace remains after the moment. Having descended down this sheer side of the mountain, I see that soul-sweet possibility of living fully and fearlessly. I understand why spiritual teachers urge us with such fervor to embrace the present moment.
That night my companions and I skip down the slope triumphantly, each burned clean by our own pure moments in the sky. We return to our thin and well-worn tarps and a bonfire in the night. To a playful dinner of rice and veggies and meandering talk about who we are in this enormous and unbounded world of life and adventure and undeserved potential. We’ve grown so much sweeter since our faithful leaps this after-noon. Closer, kinder, happier. Each of us, perhaps, returned to child-born innocence. To that place of possibility within us where, despite life’s unending dangers, we’re no longer afraid to jump.