“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.” Pema Chodron
The night before my first surgery, facing an unknown diagnosis and all the fear my teenage heart could handle, one of my best friends came to visit me. She brought with her the gift of her presence, a warm blanket, and the hope of soft words for a vulnerable heart. We climbed on top of her car and lay on the roof together, gazing into the black sky. As we lay there, enveloped by quiet, a strange sensation overwhelmed me. All my eyes could see was the blackness of night with her blinking starlight. The earth disappeared below me: I felt as if I were falling into the darkness, one with her expansiveness, nothing holding me down. I was completely groundless, free falling into the night.
This feeling of groundlessness has echoed within me time and time again whenever I wander or feel lost. Life isn’t a constant forward trajectory. It’s more an expanding cycle, like a spiraling staircase, constantly winding back upon itself yet occupying different space. This spiraling often leaves us feeling lost, at the edge of our selves. This wandering, this groundlessness, this feeling of being lost is universal and natural: to every shape is negative space, to every note in a line of music, is a rest. What would the stars be without the dark blanket of space between them? Even our galaxy itself wanders this way through space, with each intricate part spiraling back upon itself while free-falling together into the unknown. But when I meet my edge, rather than relishing in wonder at the thrill and beauty of the fall, I find myself running away, resisting as if my life depended on it.
When we feel lost, it’s in our DNA to fear: fight or flight, this primal fear incites a natural adrenaline rush, fogging our brain and decreasing our ability to focus our awareness on our surroundings. Our primeval brain is engaged, and we instinctually respond with a sense of hopelessness and anxiety. Most of us run like crazy to find a way to escape this condition, we forge a new goal with a specific path to follow, we listen to the voices of others and succumb to their wisdom and ideas. We do whatever it takes to feel grounded, to know our direction, to feel secure.
Perhaps our fear stems from the constant rush for progress, the incessant voices of our culture declaring to know the best path for us. Maybe its a misperception of what it is to live in balance. Balance isn’t something we find. It is something we live into, constantly. I have often thought of balance as stillness, like a calm lake, our beings and minds at rest, unaltered by external circumstance. But I’ve found that balance is more the ability to remain two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen in the midst of the free-fall plunge of a waterfall onto the rocks below, the strength of internal bonds at the edge of our cliff.
Thoreau said “Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” Maybe this feeling of being lost stems naturally from forging our own path: choosing our own way and direction is a constant state of free fall. As J.R.R. Tolkein so aptly said, “Not all those who wander are lost.” It’s in this vulnerable place that we can open to our innermost selves. Here we can live into the spaces of our discomfort without leaving them prematurely. We can fall into the tension of life’s dichotomies: I am alone, but I am a part of everything. I journey a path that is my destination. In being lost, I am found.
Yesterday we hiked to Moore Cove Falls in Pisgah National Forest. We parked along US 276, hauled the boys out of the car, strapped on a backpack filled with a million bribery snacks for little legs that need motivation, nestled the baby into his hiking carrier and followed a short trail through the woods to the waterfall. Our little troupe hiked here a short while ago, and I was aghast at the changes the forest had already encountered. The blanket of fall’s leaves was giving way to spring. Tiny purple butterflies fluttered their wings above fresh flowers and bubbling streams. The woods were so full of life: I could easily get lost in the beauty of each tiny crevice and the grandeur of the entire spectacle. At the waterfall, the boys busied themselves exploring, climbing the rocky banks along the river’s edge, throwing rocks into the water, getting lost in the wonder of it all. I climbed the muddy rocks into the crevice behind the waterfall, feeling the coolness of the water’s spray on my face.
And again, here in nature, I face myself: this waterfall is me, in the rawness of the present moment, a separate self, yet one with my surroundings. Here in this unnerving wildness, I am groundless. Completely lost. Completely exposed. But completely alive.