It happened at the end of my first season of skydiving.
At the beginning of that year, I never imagined that I would be in a plane in flight with the door wide open next to me, and yet here I was with 50 jumps under my belt. I even had my own gear. I split the cost of a used parachute with a friend, and my share was a meager 150 bucks. Between jumps, I packed parachutes for the incoming students in order to off-set the expense of riding the plane to altitude for my own jumps. I was starting to feel like a pro.
It was late afternoon when I left the plane with an instructor who was teaching me relative work—how to fly my body in order to hook up with other jumpers while in free-fall. I did well, and we parted at our usual altitude to get enough space to individually pull our own parachutes. I pulled, and looked up to see my beautiful blue and gray canopy blossoming above me.
Something was odd, though. The parachute was turning. I was used to spinning a bit on opening. Like being on a giant swing, winding yourself up and then letting go, sometimes the parachute would turn as it deployed before becoming a steady kite above—leaving the jumper to gently unwind from the simple line twists. Somehow, this time it felt different.
As I examined my parachute more closely, I could hear the precise, warning tone of the instructor’s voice during my first jump class, “if the whole parachute is turning, you have more than line twists.”
My whole parachute was definitely turning. This was not good.
I released the brakes to see what would happen and the spinning increased. My parachute was now whipping around, un-steerable and dropping me like a stone. I could not land this.
I looked down at my reserve handle. I had never pulled one before and hoped I would never have to. I grabbed it firmly with two hands and pulled down hard. Nothing happened. It was stuck. I tried again, this time with all my force. One—two—three! Nothing.
“Sh*t,” I thought, “I am going to die because I can’t pull this handle.”
I had a moment of stunned silence. I was running out of ideas. Then a force rose inside me and these exact words screamed in my head, “bullsh*t, I am going to die because I can’t pull this f*cking handle!”
I grabbed the handle again, and with the kind of adrenaline that women who pick cars up off their children get, I pulled. It released, the force of it throwing me onto my back as I watched my blue-gray canopy disappear above me like a huge handkerchief in the wind. I went back into free-fall, accelerating dramatically toward the ground again.
I waited for the reserve to pop out. This was old gear with a one-point cut-away system. The handle I pulled should jettison the main parachute and deploy the reserve in one fell swoop. I waited. Nothing happened.
“Well,” I thought matter-of-factly, “now I am definitely going to die because I have a total malfunction on my reserve.”
That was when my mind went completely blank.
I was out of options.
I had one thing to pull and I had pulled it.
Suddenly abdicating its post, my thinking mind just disappeared. It was too overwhelmed by the whole situation, I guess.
Everything became utterly silent.
I wasn’t afraid, I wasn’t resigned. I wasn’t imagining pain, or who I would leave behind, or what the afterlife might be like.
I was just emptiness itself: aware, silent and falling.
I remember something inside me turning toward death with a kind of curiosity—like hearing someone unexpected knocking at the door and watching myself move to peek out the window to see who it was.
Then out of the silence something arose—not a thought exactly, more like a knowing. It wasn’t a voice from an angel or anything, though that’s probably the closest analogy. It said very simply, “turn over.” I was still on my back, and I realized then that the air rushing up from under me might be pinning my pack closed, keeping the reserve parachute from deploying.
I flipped over quickly and waited…and waited. Nothing happened.
My mind slipped back into silence again. Everything was still, and I felt my being turn once again toward death at my door—me moving closer to the window to get a glimpse of his face. No fear. No resistance.
Now on my belly, face down toward the fast approaching ground, something else emerged into my awareness. Something was hitting me. The slack reserve handle, still dangling, was whipping me in the face. I instinctively pulled it further out and felt a “ca-chunk,” as something unhinged. There was a release from behind me, and immediately I began to slow as the huge round parachute blossomed over my head.
My altimeter showed that I was 1000 feet over the ground.
I had initially pulled my main parachute at 3500 feet.
I had never flown a round canopy before. They are more stable, but almost un-steerable, and besides that, I was already on landing approach being so close to the ground. Looking down, I saw that I had two options: power lines or a grove of trees. I steered toward the trees. Once again, the instructor’s voice from my first jump class on how to manage a tree landing announced itself to me like it was on speaker-phone, “feet and knees together, bent and under pressure. Arms up, folded across the face, hands covering armpits.” I moved my body into position and closed my eyes as I crashed through the trees.
A moment later, everything stopped.
I opened my eyes and found myself about six inches off the ground. The height of the trees was almost exactly that of the line stretch to the parachute, which draped over the tops of the trees high above.The silence inside me was now met by the silence outside me. No wind, no sound, no thoughts, nothing. I un-clicked my harness and felt my feet touch ground. Glancing down at myself I checked for injuries and tasted blood on my lip. I could feel a bruise rising on my right hip. I would have been delighted with two broken legs and a concussion, and yet this near death experience had left me utterly intact.
There is a saying in Buddhism that “all things resolve themselves in the unborn.”
The unborn, from my understanding, is the space before or between thoughts.
Before concepts are born in the mind—and before they give birth to the “ten thousand things” as they say—there is just what is, no situation, no problem, no me.
Without a concept, how can there be a “me?”
And how can there be fear when there is no problem and no self to have a problem?
And yet, some kind of primordial wisdom arises from that great space of the unborn.
And it is far more efficient than the thinking mind.
This wisdom literally saved my life. Thinking, trying to figure it out, feeling panicked—all those would have cost me what was left of my precious time.
At terminal velocity (the rate of speed of a body in free-fall after it has fully accelerated), a person falls about 1000 feet in five seconds. Without the wisdom that arises from silence, I had five more seconds to live.
My brush with death makes a good war story, but for me it isn’t the dramatic tale that matters.
It’s what I am left with. There is something bigger than me that is not me, and yet is not other than me. Adyashanti calls it simply “being.” Compulsive thinking, and the associated feelings—often negative—tend to rule our world. But always in the background I remember that there is a huge silence waiting, just over my shoulder, for my mind to quiet down.
The truth is, that every moment of our lives hangs in a precarious balance.
I had good reason to think that I might die when my parachute malfunctioned, but none of us knows when we might die, or when things that we thought were stable might suddenly end or change dramatically—our health, the lives of our friends and families, our marriages, our financial well-being. The one certainty we have is that they will.
I was lucky enough to have the rug so totally pulled out from under me that my thinking mind, like my parachute, jettisoned and I got to see what lies beyond.
Meanwhile, in daily life, most of us live lives of quiet desperation—not yet shocked enough to take the leap beyond the mind into that which actually liberates and, dare I say, loves us.
Our lives move fast, fast enough to distract us but not fast enough to wrest us from our sense of confidence about reality.
We live in the “born,” not in the unborn—the known rather than the unknown. When I sit on a mediation cushion, I find that I am faced with the same situation as when I went back into free-fall, waiting fruitlessly for my reserve parachute to appear.
In that moment I have a choice: I can stay in my thinking mind or take the radical leap of letting go altogether—just for a moment—and allow the light of wisdom that is beyond me to come in through that wide open door.
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Assistant Ed: Terri Tremblett