“Be fully present. Feel your heart. And engage the next moment without an agenda.” – Pema Chödrön
I’ve always considered myself an armchair fencer.
My well-loved collection of fencing manuals attest to my ongoing interest in martial history. Then there’s my multi-year, still-unfulfilled intention to take an actual historical fencing class. At least, this year I started yoga again, so I can at least get back in shape for this new level of martial commitment.
One might say my interest in fencing to date has been mostly intellectual. After all, reading a manual does not make one an actual fencer. Book knowledge alone will not win a bout. Nor does intending to take a class replace for actually taking one.
Until now, I’ve been okay with that.
Let’s face it: the armchair version of combat is pretty safe. The armchair is grounded on terra firma. My backside is flat on that seat. The stakes are low, the danger nonexistent. While it’s quite entertaining to speculate how I might parry a blow or wrestle an opponent to the ground, I do not really have to do these things.
I do not actually have to dance with Death.
In fencing, there’s a fine line between fighting and dancing. An even finer line between dancing and falling flat on your face (with a sword in your back). As long as I’m tied to the armchair, I don’t have to risk much of anything.
It’s combat, without the very thing that makes combat so exhilarating: risk.
Recently, I’ve realized that my approach to fencing is rather indicative of my general approach to life. While some might call me a risk-taker, and I do have a history of unconventional choices, I know deep down that I manage my level of risk pretty heavily. I only take on projects I feel have a decent chance of succeeding, according to whatever standard I’ve set up. I don’t step out very often without a lot of pre-consideration. And whatever else I do, I make sure I’ve got good old terra firma underneath my feet.
But that was before I read Pema Chödrön’s disarmingly bold little book Living Beautifully: With Uncertainty and Change. Chodron recasts the traditional Buddhist Three Commitments—known as the Warrior Tradition—for a modern audience.
In practical terms, she argues that uncertainty is actually the only certainty in human existence. The suffering we experience is tied to our resistance to that uncertainty, not to the uncertainty itself. She renames uncertainty as groundlessness, and invites us to welcome this sense of constant shift as a welcome sign we are truly alive.
“Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet,” Chödrön writes, “to realize our dream of constant okayness . . .”
I love this mental picture of groundlessness. For me in my current stage of life, groundless often feels not just like shifting ground, but like no ground at all. When things are uncertain in my life, I feel like I’m a fencer levitating en garde at 30,000 feet. All I can feel, see and sense is the sheer lack of anything between me and the pinprick landscape below.
This, Chodron says, is exactly how things should be. And exactly how we resist them being.
She goes on to argue that groundlessness is our best training for the Warrior Tradition: the place where we really learn to live with courage, radical openness to all beings, and love that always says, “yes” to what life sends our way. In other words, for those fencing-inclined among us who are series about enlightenment, groundlessness is the perfect place to fight.
But what the heck does it really mean to fight well at 30,000 feet?
I don’t have a manual for that in my collection.
While I’m no guru on the subject, I have a few theories. To me, under these circumstances, fighting well means learning to walk on air and love the feeling. It means living each day as if you’re dancing through the clouds, knowing every lunge or pivot could break the nothingness you balance on and send you plunging to your death.
To me, fighting well at 30,00 feet means parrying with your own mortality—and enjoy the thrill. We can choose to see this as terrifying, or we (like Kate Winslet in Titanic) can spread our arms wide and welcome the wind.
“If we can get in touch with the sensation as sensation and open ourselves to it without labeling it good or bad,” Chodron writes, “then even when we feel the urge to draw back, we can stay present and move forward into the feeling.”
The remedy, in other words, is to stop resisting the discomfort of life at 30,000 feet. To stop looking down, and to start sitting with our anxiety, erasing the thousand storylines our brain wants to concoct about why it is “good” and “bad,” in that moment.
The remedy, then, is to simply be.
Like warriors, we must train ourselves to fight well in any circumstances. Instead of running from the pain of uncertainty, we actually advance into those wispy clouds, blades lifted confidently, feeling the fact that we have absolutely no ground under our feet, delighting in it, and moving forward anyway.
The problem, then, is never our anxiety about uncertainty. It’s the fact that we think there’s something wrong with anxiety.
“But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it,”Chödrön says, “when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature . . .”
She promises a sense of rest and peace, of exhilaration even, that come with cultivating this practice of acceptance.
All this sounds wonderful enough between the pages of a book, of course. But what happens when life throws you a few curveballs, as it did to me just days long after I determined to start practicing my 30K-foot fencing skills?
I can’t say as I was thrilled to see huge challenges loom up in my face. But I was not surprised, either. This sort of thing always happens after you decide to try on a new way of being. Some of the challenges, predictably, were tied to recent life situations that are still very painful for me.
In that space, huge old fears loom large despite one’s own best efforts. It’s far easier to panic than keep a clear head.
But this time, instead of resisting the panic twisting in my chest, I decided to dance with it. I shut my eyes for 90 seconds and just sat with the feelings in compassion. No judgement. No sweeping it under the emotional rug. No suppressing it. (Which, by the way, only makes the panic worse.)
I erased my mind of stories about whether these events were good, or bad, or anything at all, and just felt the sensation of groundlessness moving through my body.
And that’s exactly what it did: move through. To my surprise, each time the panic evaporated, after about 90 seconds of focused concentration, I was able to release it completely and feel calm again. Occasionally, I was even able to get to what Chödrön calls “blue sky”—the place where you can see beyond fear-based storylines completely to consider how the anxiety-inducing event might actually open up new horizons.
Most of all, I felt a curious tickling in my chest: an urge to throw back my head and laugh out loud in sheer joy at the insanity of it all. After all, if you’re going to dance with chaos, you’ve got be able to laugh.
When I did manage to truly laugh out loud, I felt a rush of freedom and a sense of exhilaration I don’t think I’ve ever felt in my life. I flung open my arms and said, “Bring me whatcha got, world. Bring me the biggest brand of crazy you have. ’Cause this time, we’re going to dance.”
I cannot remember the last time I genuinely laughed in the face of my own uncertainty and pain. Not a laugh of derision, spite or anger . . . but a true laugh of joy that this beautiful, crazy groundlessness means I am no longer asleep.
I am fully awake now. And to be awake, to me, means so much more than to be “not asleep.” It means to be alive.
In those precious moments, I knew everything would be okay. Because to laugh with joy, and welcome with open arms,the opponent you fear most, nothing to stand on, is the truest form of fighting well. It also the path to freedom.
At 30,000 feet, there may not be much ground. There’s no armchair to keep me safe, and we’re fencing on a landscape of clouds.
It’s all blue sky up here.