Jump! Meditations on skydiving
By Nancy B. Loughlin
Published in News Press on April 22, 2014. Posted with permission.
Skydiving was the most frightening event of my life.
And, unequivocally, it was the most transformative.
When my plane reached 14,000 feet, my instructor, Miki Baranowski, yanked the belts that fastened me to his chest. I gasped Heimlich Maneuver-style. I had just been jacked into a nylon corset.
(Enjoy a video of my first jump!)
Together we slid down a bench toward the open airplane door. The photographer was clutching the outside of the plane, waiting for me to be born.
As we wiggled down the seat, I said, “I’m afraid. I’m afraid. I’m afraid.” I know Miki heard me. He just ignored me. The jump left the bucket list and entered reality as I looked down at Clewiston’s checkered landscape snuggled against Lake Okeechobee.
The fear was unlike any I’ve experienced. Nervousness. Trepidation. Anxiety. These three words are inadequate. My arms and legs chilled as the blood rushed to my core. My ordinarily deep yogic breath flailed in my upper chest, and my heart advanced to warp speed. I could feel every hair on my body rise.
This was terror. The plane’s door was death’s maw.
On one, I assumed the position. On two, I channeled Risky Business and dropped the F Bomb. On three, I was airborne.
I first read Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in high school, and it became my tome. “My ties and ballasts leave me. My elbows rest in sea-gaps. I skirt sierras. My palms cover continents. I am afoot with my vision.” I memorized that quote in tenth grade, and it has been a mantra ever since. It was a fantasy of freedom, of being unbound to anyone or anything. Only through freedom was creativity possible
The mythology of independence always resonated with me. The cowboy. The Chaplinesque waddle into the open road sunset. The hair flips of the 1970s Bionic Woman.
With Skydive Spaceland Clewiston, the tandem jump has a 60-second freefall. That’s about 8,000 feet at 120 miles-per-hour. During those 60 seconds I was more present with myself than I have ever been.
If the goal of meditation is to exist in the space between the thoughts, the freefall accomplished that. The wind rushed by my ears like a freight train, so talking was futile. When I opened my mouth, the air barreled in, and I snapped my mouth shut. Non-reactive, I was lost in ecstatic experience and beyond thinking and feeling.
Was this the fulfillment of the Whitman fantasy?
In 60 seconds, the freefall was over. Miki and I pulled the ripcord and silenced the freight train. In exquisite peace, we drifted to earth.
Photographer Philippe Halsman created a series of photographs he called Jumpology. Celebrities including Marilyn Monroe, Salvador Dali, Richard Nixon, Liberace and Brigitte Bardot jumped for Halsman, and when he clicked the shutter, they were frozen in space.
Halsman said, “When you ask a person to jump, his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping, and the mask falls so that the real person appears.”
My freefall did it for me.
Inspired by Halsman, I’ve taken many pictures of myself, friends and students jumping. I’ve seen my subjects transform into lithe fairies. Faces soften into smiles or float off into a place that is definitely not here. The temporary moment hovering between earth and sky demands surrender.
It’s yoga. It’s Samadhi. Meditators do not experience enlightenment during the act of meditation. Meditation is psychic maintenance, clearing the airwaves so we can be better antennae for universal knowledge. The effects of the freefall, for me, have yet to stop.
Naturally, I’ve watched my skydiving video countless times. When interviewed in the hangar, I explained why I was going to jump out of a plane at 14,000 feet.
Here is what I said: “I think it’s time for me to sever all my grounding ties and to know what it’s like to be apart from Earth and support and just to freefall.”
I am astounded at how wrong I was. I jumped out of an airplane strapped to man I met only 15 minutes prior. I was and continue to be so grateful for his 12 years of experience and his sense of humor.
After this experience, I have never felt freer and more satisfied with the ties and ballasts that yoke me to everyone and everything.
I’m now quoting another Whitman line in tandem with the first. “This is the city, and I am one of the citizens. Whatever interests the rest interests me.”
Truth lies within the paradox of these two quotes side by side.
For more information, visit www.skydivespaceland.com. Check out Philippe Halsman’s photos at www.philippehalsman.com.