by: Keith Varnum
Six hundred feet straight down! Nothing to break the fall. I’ve got to switch channels. I don’t like my chances on this station. Infused with youthful caprice, I mused to myself about my predicament. Enjoying the intense body rush of imminent danger, I was torn between prolonging the joy-terror and searching for an escape from my imminent demise.
I’d been in similar dire situations before and I’d always evaded the worst. How did I get out of danger before? Quick, you idiot, think! You don’t have all day!
The impending disaster pumped my adrenaline-and my memory. I let go, I reminded myself. That’s what I did in past situations. I just let go of having to control the whole thing. I released my need to be right about how life operates. I allowed the picture to change. That’s when circumstances shifted and something unexpected, seemingly impossible, occurred. Let the channel switch, Keith! I coached myself into letting go into safety once again. Averting the most probable outcome, I robbed death of its prey yet another time.
Yes, rather unceremoniously, I was reminded of the natural malleability of the physical universe by a six-hundred-foot free fall straight down a sheer cliff. The threat of a perilous plunge into empty space re-impressed on my young mind the lessons I learned in similar predicaments: go with the slide on the ice rink, relax into the tackle in football and turn toward the skid in the car. Now I call it “the decision to surrender.” Back then, I called it “just letting go.”
I was fourteen. My girlfriend Cheryl and I decided to go for a hike down a precipitous gorge in upstate New York. We had most of the crisp spring day to play before reporting to work as dinnertime servers at a local restaurant. The trail was winding and steep. Three hours later, we arrived at the bottom of the granite and shale canyon.
After spending an afternoon swimming in the rippling stream, it dawned on us we didn’t have enough time to hike back up the zigzagging trail to the top and get to work on time. We concluded we could still make it back to our job deadline if we climbed straight up the vertical cliff.
Ascending the steep cliff turned out to be quite easy. Protruding from the sheer granite wall were small rock ledges as easy to climb up as rungs on a ladder. Within thirty minutes we were twenty feet from the top. We would have been home free, except that the previous night’s rain had soaked the soil near the crest, loosening the shale ledges. As we neared the top, each time we placed a foot or hand on the next rock outcropping, the shale broke away from the cliff. Very quickly, we found ourselves frantically moving our hands and feet from one shelf to another, searching for something solid to support us in order to clamber up the last few feet to safety.
With total panic on her face, Cheryl looked over at me-a silent plea for guidance screaming over the space between us. I didn’t know what to do next. I had no answers. Like her, I’d also run out of ledges within reach to grasp. I felt myself beginning to slide down the cliff.
Suddenly, my whole life flashed in front of my eyes! It was like watching a movie being projected a few feet in front of me. During the first second of my descent into the abyss, I re-experienced every major positive event of my life in full, living color, including all the emotional and physical sensations of each incident. I re-lived every significant birthday party, picnic, vacation, romantic date, school honor, sports achievement and family celebration of my short life. This vivid, comprehensive review was very rich and satisfying. Considering my precarious situation, an incongruous aura of calm and fulfillment swept over me.
The flashback ended as abruptly as it began. Suddenly, I was acutely aware of being suspended in time and space between the life review and the next moment of present time-me in the midst of my slide down the cliff. During that seemingly eternal moment, the realization hit me like a ten-ton boulder: I don’t want to die! A wave of acute appreciation flooded over me. I love life. I want to continue exploring what life has to offer. I remember whispering to myself, I want to live, as if one part of me were informing another part of me.
Then, swoosh! I plummeted into the vast emptiness beneath me. Some alert, unknown aspect of my being spontaneously yelled to Cheryl, “Lie flat! Relax! Let go!” Hearing the words that came unbidden from within me, I, too, obeyed, and consciously chose to surrender to the inevitable.
I don’t remember anything after that decision, including what logically should have been a very abrupt and painful landing. All I know is, Cheryl and I were suddenly sitting in the stream at the bottom of the gorge where the current formed a small pool. Although the water in the pool had turned crimson with our blood, neither of us was experiencing any aches or discomfort. The bleeding came from small, razor-thin cuts all over the fronts of our bodies. But we had no broken bones, bruises or other injuries. It was as if the only purpose of the scratches was to remind us that, yes, indeed, we had just gone free falling down a six-hundred-foot cliff.
After a short period of wonderment, we practically danced up the long, circuitous trail to the top of the gorge. We were so thankful-and simply happy to be alive, in one piece and being given a second chance. The climb was effortless.
Crisis. Emergency. Danger.
These threats to my well-being were my early teachers. From these seeming enemies, I learned that when faced with an expected outcome I don’t like, I have an option. I can open to an alternative scenario, another framework, a different set of rules. I jokingly call my ploy “switching channels.” It’s an apt metaphor. I simply let go of my old way of viewing the world and allow a fresh perspective to emerge-or not! After all, when we truly let go, anything can happen! More often than not, however, I find myself shifted to a new reality-a different station with a new story line that has a much better ending! This is the stuff of miracles and alchemy.