Oh shit….. here we go again!!!
Standing on top of the launch tower at Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre, astronaut Kathryn Thornton was savouring her last moment on Earth. It was night, the air was sick with tension but the sky was full of stars.
“It’s a very strange thing to find yourself in a moment when everything is about to fall apart,” says the astronaut, then mission specialist on the crew of Space Shuttle Discovery and since veteran of four space flights and 639 orbits of the Earth during 975 hours off-planet.
“I remember standing there, looking at myself in a space suit, and wondering: how has it all come to this?
Her view was spectacular. NASA’s Florida Space Centre is set between the sea, illuminated that night by a mid-winter moon, and a vast, empty landscape touched in the distance by city lights. “I stood there trying to soak it all in; life became hyper-vivid: those last breaths of natural air, every fragrance, the breeze – every tiny thing was heartbreakingly real.”
Which is how it feels, isn’t it, when things around you shatter?
In the next few moments Kathryn’s world was exploded by 22,680 kilograms of thrust set off by controlled explosions so vast they hurtled the 4.4 million pound shuttle she was on to a speed over 3700 kilometre per hour!!! in seconds. She was on the dark side of the atmosphere in less than one minute. Which kind of terror looks and feels, vulnerably, like this….
There, floating in an unfathomable silence, outside the embrace of gravity, where we gaze toward heaven, but which is actually bereft, Kathryn discovered why sometimes it takes loss to come to grips with love.
In those moments before she blasted into space, she was describing exactly how I feel.
When things get immense, when something precious is lost, there can be a feeling of skating close to an abyss. And this can switch through a bone-scraping dread to such an escalation of the senses, of attention to the minutia of life, of the things that hold us to the little blue planet, that every little thing explodes into Technicolor.
And it can surf too close to that feeling of… falling.
But then, by sheer force of will, sometimes, you pull yourself up. And through what?
In my case: the sea.
The umbilical wordless preciousness of saltwater. The warm fizzy exhale of every little bubble on the fractal skins. The unfathomable, homely ancient rhythm of tumbling waves. Light through a crystal. The exquisite, hopeless curvature of a tiny ball of sand, made by a crab.
In my life, grief has been a wild yoyo ride through a euphoria of tenderness – clinging to the earth through swings of despair sometimes, holding onto hibiscus petals, the tendrils of a passionfruit vine, wisps of pretty clouds as I spit out the bitter taste of infinity.
So that, even if I’m crawling to get there, I end up, more or less, feeling ripped open – in a good way.
In yoga, all of life is a practice for this. We practice endurance, steadiness, self-reflection (does that mean honesty?), forgiveness, courage… grace if we can – on the mat, and hopefully at least four feet away from it, on our way out the door, so that one day we can draw on those virtues when we really, really need to.
And we all will.
Because we all die.
If you did, dig, dig, scratchy, dig, claw, bite down into what the spiritual practices are really about, then I think it may all boil down to just two things.
In yoga, anyway, at final ; ), there is an encouragement to realise that it’s happening now – there’s an attempt to gently coax the living human being to realise, fully, and with gravity, that life is really now – it’s an exquisite inter-connected miraculous, heart-breakingly beautiful ride, and you can miss the splendor of it – in a dewdrop, a bite of toast, on a prayer mat made of cardboard, or in a break-up – it’s the whole cascade – so be careful not to spend your life turned inward, arguing with the terms.
The practice aims to give us tools so turn off our critic, our commentator and just say, Wow!!.. check it out!!… ouch!!… that was intense!!! Wow! Man! Hey! Christ! Woooo! Ouch! Aaaah! Noooooo…. Oooooooo K then, … to. all of it!
This is Life! Can you believe this shit???
And secondly, it’s preparing us to lose it all.
This is a more quiet teaching. One that’s very hard to give, because it is so hard to receive.
The more you become present with life, the more you come to know, to fathom in ways you hardly dare to imagine, what it means to love it. How beautiful and courageous that is.
And that you are going to lose it.
Life’s losses, pains, separations, grief, despair and everything – are also preparation for that.
So in the end, it’s a cruel stroke. The practice deepens your compassion, your connection, your bond to life – all around you – and at the same time it heightens your awareness that this will all be taken from you. That in the end you will lose it all: the taste of saltwater, the feeling of the fizz-kiss from every tiny bubble surfing in off the Pacific, your name, your body, your hobbies, beloveds – everything!
Fear, remorse, bargaining, denial, struggle…. maybe those as well – it’s accountable.
In those moments – that’s when you really want your yoga – whatever it is. What is it that calms the mind-stuff and creates a yoke strong enough between you and your self that you can steady that shit down?
A very dear friend of mine spent his life as a remote rescue paramedic. The guy on the wire in wilderness rescue. I last spent just a few minutes with him (he died some years later, on a wire in a waterfall) over the bar at a high school reunion where he was telling me, because of his job, that he had seen, since our graduation, a lot of people die.
I wanted to know what that was like.
I think he ordered Scotch. “You die fighting, or you surrender,” he said. “When they surrender it is a beautiful thing to witness – it is profoundly beautiful.”
“And when they don’t?” I asked him.
“It is like watching a creature shatter into a million pieces, He said. “It is pure horror.”
He said he had made a lot of changes in his life, having watched all this. He said all of life is a practice for dying well. “It really matters – there is something different, something terrible in what’s left of a body by a soul that could not let go.”
And we’re all coming to that junction.
Whether you have a car crash, a fall, a heart attack or die in a nice chair by the fire, we’re all coming up to it, and so as much as the trials of life prepare us for more life, in the end, what skills they give us prepare us, really, for the end of life – for that time when you are amazed to realise that this time there’s no fix.
This is the great scrape that takes not only the scales, but the light out of your eyes.
In her little rocket, Kathryn Thornton and all the other astronauts, had been profoundly, rigorously, scientifically prepared to not have that moment. To not lose their cool as they approached the ultimate metaphor for being alive while you die.
‘Cos, logically, the last thing anybody wants to deal with in tin can full of folk in outer space is a freak out.
The astronauts are put through largely unnecessary logical and sequential steps of operation at that time for the singular reason of manipulating their neurochemistry so that they do NOT activate pathways of peptides anywhere near the brain’s flip-out zones of survival. They keep busy, and that, for the crucial minutes (and the whole flight, really) keeps the crew from certain ‘realities’ that could reasonably cause any individual to shatter in a million pieces.
The weird thing is, despite all the vast resources of the world’s military brilliants – and all we ‘know; about the human mind: it turns out that almost none of NASA’s (or anybody else’s) astronauts were exactly ‘professional’ in those first moments in deep space.
When astronauts – of any nation – push out through the atmosphere into space, at the critical moment of separation, those who don’t fall into the greylands of despair enter a bliss-state, an awe, a rhapsody, really. They don’t press buttons, flip switches, call in numbers to Ground Control.
They stop, fully enraptured in the wonder of the Earth. They speak in hushed tones, received at HQ: of wonder.
NASA calls it Overview.
Their research describes it as… emotional outbursts on entering orbit [that]are unanimous and last, on average, for 42 seconds.
Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man on the moon, said it like this:
“The nature of the universe is not what I’ve been taught. I can see the connectedness. I feel it. My whole body is extending, physically and mentally, out into the cosmos” Another said, “Defenceless and vulnerable when faced with the ineffable, all I have left to me is a deep feeling that sends shivers through my core. I recognize it as awe, in its full and undiluted splendor”.
Astronaut Edward Gibson tried to explain the experience; “you see things as you actually see them, emotionally and viscerally as ecstasy and (with) a total sense of unity and oneness.”
“You see how diminutive your life and concerns are compared to other things in the universe… The result is that you enjoy the life that is before you… to have inner peace.”
He said, “you develop an instant global consciousness … From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’
In this state, one lets go of the ego and becomes aware of Spirit beyond creation. The soul is able to absorb the fire of Spirit-Wisdom that “roasts” or destroys the body-bound inclinations and experience its own bliss.
Philosopher David Loy said, about Overview, “To have that experience of awe is, at least for the moment, to let go of yourself, to transcend the sense of separation… integrating, realizing their interconnectedness with that beautiful blue-green ball.”
Which I don’t think is quite right. It’s not only about love for the Earth, it’s about love itself.
I think they were, because of the yoga of their training, holding steady, witnessing the moment when they transmuted what could have turned up as struggle, but became surrender – which is, as all the doctrines teach, at essence (if you ignore all the other carry-on); an ecstasy at the very core of everyday life – if we can only find a way to it.
Kathryn Thornton told me it was ‘wonder’. She told me it was ‘love’.
“Then, as I watched the Earth, heart-struck – the sun came up, shafting through the layers of atmosphere, it split into a rainbow, travelling fast, like a multi-coloured snake across the edge of the planet illuminating everything it touched, and I was….. there are no words for that.”
This morning I woke up feeling like I’d accidentally ridden a rocket outside the skin of our bubble. There was an abyss all around me. I was thunderstruck with grief. Dogs of regret, shame and loss were hunting me down, and I had nowhere to go but to run: run to the sea, to make it go away.
I was in space, without a window, and even the frame of this long beach on the wide, deep Pacific would narrow my abyss.
I was feeling them: those million tiny pieces, and teetering between shattering and grabbing on to my feeble routine for support, I ran to the sea for stars.
I walked in, full of remorse, offering prayers, knowing I had offended the graces that had offered me a magic I had wounded.
I swam for two hours, letting waves hit me and caress me. I added tears to the brine. I felt the huge expanse all around me, and let the little bubbles remind me of the sucklefizzle wonderful that is being alive.
I drew on the miracle meeting in a Cuenca souvenir shop, of a man who makes lights, whose voice makes me rise and fall in the same note, who wears the pants, (and my Fedora as well) – who had caught me mid-tumble, through another bad surrender, and taught me how to do it.
And who was having me let go, just as I was falling in love with everything.