Sunday, May 20, 2012

A lesson about my mind through sky diving

Yesterday I jumped out of an airplane. Well, not quite. I showed up, paid a large sum of cash, signed some legal waivers, stepped into a funny full body suit + hat + goggles, allowed someone to put a body harness on me, voluntarily walked into an airplane, which went up to 10,000 feet, and sat on the ledge of an airplane with open doors. Just as the feeling of panic and fear started to arise, the tandem instructor  leaned forward, lo and behold, I was out of the aircraft and free falling from the sky. No jumping actually happened on my part.

It may have seemed like an excessively expensive approach to experience 4 minutes of adrenaline rush, but I felt like I got many important life lessons out of it.

I feel incredibly lucky to live in an era when I can jump out of airplanes and survive without knowing a single thing about how parachutes work and techniques to sky dive. The availability of commercial tandem sky diving is a pretty recent phenomenon. Before the availability of tandem sky diving, I would have to learn how to release and operate the parachute, all the emergency manoeuvres, not to mention actually perform my own jumping and landing. According to this article I would have to do 6 static line jumps before I would be allowed to experience 3 seconds of free fall. I didn't even know the difference between free falling and parachuting. Now I can let an expert with lots of training plus >5000 jumps under his belt to take care of all the technical aspects of this activity, and just focus on the experience of floating in the air. I dreamed about free falls and flying many times. I have to say, free falling in dreams feel way scarier. I often felt like falling into the abyss and would literally experience a drop and land with a thump, all while laying perfectly supported by my bed.

My brain went totally RETARDED when in the air. It was my first time being in a small plane. It felt weird that I didn't need to strap myself into to a seatbelt. I was cramped up in a small space with 3 friends and four slightly bored-looking sky diving instructors who didn't really introduce themselves (they just landed from their 14th jump of the day 5 minutes ago). We didn't talk much because the plane was loud and we didn't know what to say. The four of us kept smiling stupidly out of sheer excitement and nervousness. One guy opened the airplane door (since I've only ever flown on commercial jumbo jets before this act just looked and felt wrong), and before any of us knew how to react, one of our friend was out of the airplane already. The rest of us obeyed instructions like sheep ("swing your legs to the ledge of the airplane"), and one by one the instructors took us into the open sky before we had time to panic or protest. Once I was in the air it felt like all common sense and logic also went out the window.  Logically, I should panic, and maybe regret this action, but I am already in mid-air, falling at 120 mph. It's too late to feel sorry, so I'll just feel stupid instead. However, there's a guy with cool sunglasses strapped to my back. If anything terrible happens to me, it could happen to him too, right? So I'll let him take care of it all.

Did I mention my brain sounds like a dumb ass in high elevation outside of an aircraft?

Free falling from 10,000 feet, strangely enough, does not feel as scary as one of those free fall rides in amusement parks. It might have something to do with the air cushioning or reaching terminal velocity before my brain could react. Supposedly the free fall lasted about 45 seconds, but it felt more like 5 seconds before I felt this yank, and went from horizontal to vertical when the instructor opened up the parachute. From then on it felt like smooth cruising in the sky with a human navigator attached to my back, showing me around the gorgeous scenery for about 3 minutes. I was a bit nauseous from the turning and spiralling, but then again I get dizzy and nauseous from standing forward folds and drop backs in yoga classes. Because the gliding part felt so smooth and easy, I actually asked the dumbest questions: "How long have you been doing this?" "21 years" (a sense of relieve from my part). "Do you ever get bored?" "No, it's a bit different every time I jump" (I was completely oblivious to the amount of skills and knowledge it required to perform the tandem jump, glide, navigate and land so smoothly and effortlessly). I landed on my two feet, with two weak knees and limp legs. The instructor stabilized me so I didn't fall backwards, and then practically sprinted off to receive the next group of customers.

When I was in the air my mind desperately wanted to grasp and put the moment on pause. I didn't have thoughts of danger or dying, but my mind was screaming: whoa whoa whoa this is happening too fast! Slow down! Why isn't the instructor giving me more verbal instructions? Am I doing this right? Am I doing anything that will endanger myself (ha ha ha)?  Am I supposed to be doing something right now (put arms in better positions or whatever)?  Free fall gave me the direct experience of how time is literally slipping away every single second of the day, and we can do nothing to slow it down. It also showed me how my brain is completely useless in unfamiliar situations. Why would I ask someone if they get "bored" of their sky diving job when this is one of the most intense experience I've ever had? Although it didn't show, but I remained stunned and somewhat dumbfounded for the rest of the day, still thinking that experience went by way too fast, and wishing I could have relaxed more while gliding in the sky.

After an evening of rest, I've come to the conclusion that bring a tandem sky diving instructor's job lets him opening up people's minds each time he takes a customer to sky dive for the first time. If someone can tandem sky dive for a living (16 times a day! Holy cow!), why do I give myself so much restrictions on what I can and cannot do with my life? I also realize I can't be responsible for other people's lives because I don't even trust myself with my life. I'm thankful that I live in a country with good enough safety standards that I can just show up to one of these places and do a jump without thoroughly checking their business reputation/history (I did look at their website before I went). This is not a privilege that everybody has. I feel very humbled and grateful for this experience.

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