No Way Out, But Through
All month long I’m featuring other wise women sharing about their well-fed lives.
Today’s post comes from the courageous Kate Swoboda
In Sonoma Valley wine country, there is this moment that I look for, every afternoon. The sun is an hour away from completely setting. The light curves around the hills, like wind around the wing of a bird. The landscape is dotted with farms, and cows munch grass in contended formations. Especially in the spring, just past the rainy season, the grass is lush and green, and fields of mustard flowers spring tall, their yellow brilliant.
My husband proposed to me on a hill overlooking the valley. One evening at sunset, he drove us to a favorite spot where you can see the hills in the distance. High up on this hill, the world is exquisitely quiet. The hum of cars going over roads at fast speeds is far away, leaving only the sounds of the wind and the birds.
The sun was a ball of fire in the distance, casting the clouds purple, and I was leaning over a cattle gate to get a better angle with my iPhone when I realized that I didn’t hear Andy behind me. I turned around, and he was down on one knee, and then both of us were crying.
About a week after we got engaged, it occurred to me that I kept having one chronic, irrational thought: a fear that I, or someone I loved, was going to die.
It was irrational only because there was no reason to be any more afraid of people dying at this time than there was at any other. People die. I understand and accept this as much as any human being can.
But suddenly, there it was, the thought as quiet and simple and, well, present as a thought can be:
:: What if Andy died? What would I do?
:: I’m scared that my father will die, and I want him to walk me down the aisle.
:: I’m scared that people will fly out for the wedding and die in transit and then it’ll be all my fault because we held the wedding and they wouldn’t have been on the plane or in the car, otherwise.
:: Will this auto-immune disease accelerate my aging process, and thus, speed me towards death?
It might seem odd to say that I was having these thoughts and not going into a panic attack, but maybe that’s just the effect of nearly a decade of meditation practice. The thoughts were uncomfortable, and sometimes I would cry thinking them, but somehow I was able to separate them enough to understand that they were just thoughts, not reality.
It was only a few months later that I would understand why I was having them.
In many of her books, Buddhist meditation teacher Cheri Huber shares that it’s a common experience to get deeply enough into a regular meditation practice and then to suddenly feel a seemingly irrational sense that you are going to die.
I know–this does not actually “sell” you on practicing regular meditation, does it?
But as she explains it, this comes up when the Ego or the scared self has nowhere else to go, nowhere else to hide. The longer you sit on a cushion and see that your thoughts come and go, come and go, come and go, the less attracted you are to worrying about the “content” of your life. Eventually, fear of death will appear as the ultimate “content” to work through.
It started to make sense to me.
Here I am, so utterly well-fed. There’s the sweet-smelling wine country air and there’s the the golden sky in the afternoon. There’s my man over there who is my best friend and my love. There’s the business that I’ve nourished and cultivated and worked so hard for, such a labor of love, and it’s singing. My best friends celebrated me throughout the entire engagement process, pushing me up against my own self-imposed boundaries of what it is okay to receive from another. My health has returned after several years of being exhausted. I adore everything about my home.
I feel good in my skin, so fully alive. For the first time in my life, all of the pieces are in place, not just some of them, and that is not a statement of perfectionism but rather a statement that the pieces are where they are and I am contented even if they are imperfect.
This terrifies the scared self, the self who has always been hungry. When life is going really well, the parts of ourselves that are still wounded, that still remember what it’s like to hope so high and see things not work out, will step forward to advise caution.
Most of the time, this scared self has other “content” to focus on. The content can be daily resentments and complaints. The content can be an illness. The content can be conflict in a relationship.
The content doesn’t really matter–the scared self has something “to do” when things aren’t working out.
Fear of death steps in at this moment when there’s no other “content” available. When everything else in my life, as far as the horizon could see, was stunningly beautiful, she raised her head to remind me of the one ultimate fear, the one thing that I could not control: the fact that people will die, that I will die, and that death is distinctly uncomfortable.
The day we got married, we were outdoors. Everyone I loved had arrived safely and it was back to the “content” of life, again. Before I was to walk down the aisle, I was struck by a sudden desire to not have everyone looking at me. The big white dress suddenly felt stupid, like a garish, unnecessary accessory.
Walking down the aisle, I couldn’t focus on anyone’s face and I kept thinking, “Who are these people?” My fear was total. I was afraid of looking like a fool. I was afraid of “doing it wrong” in front of all these people, of somehow not doing whatever it was that brides were supposed to do. I was afraid of my husband seeing me in my dress and not really thinking that I looked beautiful.
Then I saw Julie Daley’s face among the crowd, locked eyes with her, and knew that I was going to be okay. Up at the altar, even though it technically broke with tradition, my husband and I fumbled for one another’s hands and stood together, and with his familiar hand in mind, I again knew it was going to be okay. While our officiant was running the ceremony, we whispered to one another behind his back, like misbehaving children–and because that was Andy and I being so very “us,” I again knew that it was going to be okay.
It occurs to me now that another reason the fear of death comes up is because it’s the inevitable corollary of a life fully-lived. When you have more to lose, there’s more fear–and with less to lose, there’s less fear of losing. That’s why so many of us can hesitate to step forward and commit fully to our lives. Committing fully brings many rewards–and the shadow side of fear.
“No way out, but through,” said Robert Frost–the definitive statement of courage.
To live my life fully, I had to walk down that aisle and risk looking like a fool in white satin. I had to make those very public, vulnerable promises to love someone, always and totally, in front of a bunch of other people.
In my day to day, at the same time that I consciously cultivate a well-fed, courageous life, I understand that I risk feeling the fear of death, of loss. They go hand in hand, but the discomfort of potential loss, when it arises, doesn’t make what I yearn for any less worth it.
All the pictures from that day show the bluest of skies and the kind of cinematic clouds you find in movies. The sun is shining bright. We are happy. I am happy. I am alive, not just living and breathing, but fully and vitally alive, present, awake to another golden sunset.
Kate Swoboda is an author and coach who writes about how to face fear and live with courage over at Your Courageous Life. She is the author of The Courageous Living Program and The Coaching Blueprint. When she’s not working out of her home office in Sonoma wine country, you can find her rocking vinyasa flow, buying too many books, and training for her first triathlon.