Fear can either be an obstacle disabling us from moving forward, or a driving force sending us into the sweet spot of the present moment where all possibilities exist.
Since recently stumbling across a group of slackliners in a city park, I stopped to watch and asked the liners a few questions about some of the secrets of the sport. While slacklining may be similar in some ways to tight rope walking, it is also different. Instead of a steady and taught rope or wire, a nylon slackline is very unsteady and dynamic (reminds me of a tarp strap), constantly interacting with your body and your current state of balance. Unlike tight rope walking, slackliners rarely use physical support like a balance bar. Highlining is extreme slacklining…. long distances and high above the ground, often across deep canyons.
I was intrigued after watching these liners. Later that evening, I studied up on the sport and came across a highline trendsetter, Dean Potter. After reading about his experiences and watching some of his interviews, I discovered that there is much we can learn about life from these liners. In fact, life is just one long slackline.
Stepping out onto the slackline, in-spite-of fear, forces us into the present moment where all other ego thoughts dissipate immediately. When we face our fears, we become present with the situation and we take steps accordingly without all the past programming thoughts overriding. We cannot think, because we are forced to be, forced to take that next step with acute awareness. When we are walking across the line 1000 feet off the ground, we are not thinking about our appearance or being misunderstood at work. We are focused on our next step, our gaze unwavering on the end goal.
Dean Potter says he experienced fear every time he stepped out onto the line. In fact, he had many false starts where he had to jump back to regroup. But with each step he took forward, his fear would lessen, and he become more and more confident. Then he would get to that ultimate state of what he calls the “zone”, that mental place of stillness, of timelessness, of liberty, of calm, serenity, spaciousness, freedom, energized focus, which can only be found in the present moment, in the state of NOW. Once he made it into the zone, then it was clear sailing from there.
“I’m lucky I come into that zone and hold it. I am focusing on my breath and on remaining calm and to balance my way across the line… That is all that is really going on in my head. All I am really thinking about is catching that line. It’s the only way I make it across.” – Potter
The heightened state of awareness that enables Potter to get across the line is often referred to by psychologists as flow. This state is often crucial to success in many areas of our lives. The flow state of mind is a mindful state in which the inner critic is gone, where there is no judgment or anticipation; just beingness.
“Slacklining is the closest I feel to human flying. When I am out on the line, I am pressing against the air, I can feel it. When I am really in my most heightened states, I can actually see the air a little bit. All of my senses come together, the clarity I feel for all the things close to me become way more attuned.” – Potter
I found it interesting that Potter did not talk about starting out across the line in flow or in the zone. He had to take steps forward through his fear to that certain threshold where he could then flow from there. Perhaps the difference between those who succeed and those who fail in life may come down to those who let their fear immobilize them and those who press forward in-spite-of fear beyond their comfort zone to that place of limitlessness, of peace. Inner peace comes from overcoming fear.
“It is an incredible feeling getting to the other side. And stepping on the rock on the other side. It is a wonderful feeling of victory… the greatest feeling in the world.” – Potter
What drives these extreme sport enthusiasts? For Potter, it was the challenge of pushing past and conquering his fears, while getting into that addictive state of heightened awareness that only comes from being fully present.
“I wish I could find that heightened awareness without risking my life, but right now it is the only way I know how… doing these things, and walking across the lines, and breaking barriers. Each time, it is pushing myself beyond where I’ve gone.” – Potter
For Potter, he seems to only be able to get into the present moment of heightened awareness by forcing himself by walking out on a limb, so to speak. We do not have to force ourselves this way. We can choose to get into that stillness, where we have no other thought show up that would defeat us. We are our own worst enemy when it comes to our challenges in life. Our fears tend to color how we view the world. We shift from feeling fear because of some threat, to having a fearful attitude towards life itself. We come to see almost every event in terms of risk. We tend to exaggerate the dangers and our vulnerability and focus on the adversity that is potentially possible. We are generally unaware of this phenomenon because we accept it as normal. We are programmed to assess the risks based on past experiences or occurrences, as opposed to accepting the challenge in the moment with wonder and fresh inspiration. To succeed and move forward, we must learn to get out of our own way.
Life expands in a wonderful way when we can push through the fear to gain the victory of the moment. Then that experience can cause a change of mindset that ripples through our environment and changes what is possible for us. It is only then that we change our perspective and view the world through different eyes.