Through the gateway of fear, our life is waiting for us.
I was at a weekend retreat recently learning how to see habitual patterns, and especially to see how our habitual patterns are designed to help us avoid our fear. In the final talk, our teacher told us that stepping out into our fear is like walking on stepping stones. We never know how firm the footing is; it’s scary. We have to be on the spot – precise and gentle, with a light footing. Walking on stepping stones is a moment of aliveness.
As our teacher talked about stepping stones, I couldn’t help but think of my friend, Jamie, who died over a month ago in Maui, swept away on the water out to sea. She used to be afraid of rip tides. She was in Hawaii for the first time, enjoying paradise. The last time I saw her, she was full of life, and so present in the moment. Her light was a beacon. She knew as well as anyone I know that fear is a gateway, and she walked through that gateway every day into a life that was rich and satisfying. Then she walked through the gateway into death. But in the moment of her death I know that she was more alive than most people are at any time of their lives. And in the wake of her death, she inspired all of us who knew her to live our lives with the same fullness that she lived hers.
Last Summer I was in an airplane traveling to Halifax. We hit turbulence during the landing. I sat there watching the strange landscape as we skimmed the turbulent skies. The land was full of trees with rivers running through them. We were flying through clouds, over sunlit trees with water running through them like ribbons of turquoise. The plane was rattling with turbulence, which occasionally dropped us an unexpected few feet, sending my mind into moments of wild weightlessness above the stunning landscape below. It was like riding on the back of a dragon. I felt terrified, excited, awestruck – alive.
Fearlessness is not toughening up in the face of our fear. It is not bravery. It is gentleness. It’s realizing that fear is a gateway. Fear is, I think, born from the innate understanding that all our gateways, all our moments, could lead to profound change or even death. The next stepping stone might not be solid, our footing might slip and we might find ourselves swept out to sea. Acknowledging our fear brings us up against our frailty, and the immediacy of our death, but it also makes us more present. So much of what is brilliant in our lives sits waiting for us on the other side of that gateway: our fear.
So I encourage us all to look for that fear in our lives, those moments when we shy away, whatever they are, and step a little closer. Just lean in, as Pema Chodron would say. And today, on the 49th day of her passing, give a thought for Jamie. I’ll leave you with her words:
I hear a little girl giggling cheerfully, and feel the sun caress my skin. Something wondrous happens: I am actually here, in my body, on this ground, and I am overwhelmed, by the splendor and poignancy of it all. When we are truly present, time no longer exists. In the eternal present, we melt into immortality, met with our infinite understanding of the preciousness of our finite time on this planet.