I was climbing in Colorado with my son’s father when I experienced my first paralyzing fear of heights as an adult. We were on the side of a mountain, on an easy slope, when Robert called out to me, to show me a mountain goat nibbling on the greenery. I turned to look and froze. We had been on a long slow walk through a pine forest. Now that we were out on bare rock, I could see that we had climbed way out of my comfort zone.
I leaned over, gripped a rock in front of me, and started to sweat.
“Mary, what’s wrong? You ok?”
Robert sounded far away, as if I was standing in the middle of a rushing mountain stream, and he was off to the side, shouting over the rush of the water.
The pounding surf I heard was a familiar refrain. “You are not safe. You are not safe. You are NOT safe. Don’t make a move.”
Robert reassured me over and over that we could not fall off this mountain even if we tried, as he gently pried my hands off the rocks and led me back down to safety.
For a lifetime, this fear and I have been intimate friends. I know it like I know my name. The sky is blue, the grass is green, and I am afraid of most heights, including the dizzying experience of success.
A good friend acknowledged me for my courage recently, congratulating me on making it up to the Lipton Seat. “You were a real trooper.”
I smiled in response, grateful for his support.
We are in Sri Lanka, and yesterday we took a trip up to the famous Lipton seat, where the founders of the ubiquitous tea company sat and viewed their massive wealth. The seat is located at the end of a narrow mountain road, with switchbacks so sharp that our van driver had to back up and make three point turns every few minutes to complete the circular climb to our destination at 6000 feet.
I had a window seat, with a gorgeous, terrifying view of steep tea plantations and mountains that make the Rockies seem small. When we came upon some mountain goats, I thought about that Colorado trip with my son’s father. How did I get from there, unable to move up a gentle slope with an experienced guide, to here, feeling the lean of the van towards the infinite expanse next to me?
Mostly, it was faith, a generous Buddhist monk, and a good best soul mate friend and writing partner, who lent his unwavering support to my dreams.
My fear was edged out as I walked onto a stage filled with high level monks, and bowed before them, one at a time, offering up a book I wrote about the Chief Sangha Patron of North America, Bhante Sujatha. I couldn’t be a nervous little girl, afraid to make another wrong choice, while I accepted a compliment from Bhante’s toughest teacher, who edited and translated my book.
When I was 8 years old, I was abducted and assaulted by a stranger in the woods. I was a rebellious little girl, and I convinced my childhood best friend to cross a dangerous dam with me, after our parents warned us not to cross. It was at the other side of this dam that the man appeared, and dragged me back into the woods while my best friend ran as fast as she could across the slippery river for help.
I thought this happened to me because I made the bad choice to cross the dam. When my friend ran for help, I thought she was saving herself, leaving me to be ruined. My friends were not allowed to go to the forest preserves alone after this trauma and we all agreed it was my fault.
I managed my life after that with unconscious constriction, ruining my finances, choosing inappropriate partners, and making sure that no matter how hard I worked or how much I learned, I would not come out of the safe space of just about to make it. I was unable to watch my own back and numb to harming myself.
Choices were next to impossible. People often complained that I refused to make up my mind. I wished I could, and I compensated by taking bold risks at the expense of a satisfying life.
The monks at the Blue Lotus Temple taught me that I could use meditation as make up for my mind, applying a thick mascara of loving kindness each morning with the gentle brush of mindful breathing.
Many times, especially after the book was written and I had to send it for expert review, I shrank back in fear, doing my best to step back behind the line of success, and the exposure it might bring. With lots of practice, I was able to love myself enough to burn the damn manuscript, if that‘s what it took for me to feel safe.
I knew I would finally step over the line to success when I was walking hand in hand with a self who was on her knees grateful for the lifelong protection of failure. Regrets about my past disappeared in a swirl of self compassion.
I learned that I was on my own, far too soon. I was not able to accept compliments, support or love.
Yesterday, when my friend congratulated me, I was able to accept his support. I have not lost my fear of heights. I have lost my fear of love.
Now, I can keep climbing, right up to my dreams.