Meditating does not come naturally for me. As a kid, I would get moderately depressed over the summer holidays without the constant activity from school. I’m a poster child for the Millennial Generation: When I watch tv, I’ve usually got my computer screen open and my phone out so I can flip through apps. I’ve learned to focus over the years, but I’m naturally active, perhaps a bit over-active, both mentally and physically. So it’s both surprising, and completely predictable, that I found my inner zen at trapeze school, of all places.
Despite extensive research on the subject, I’ve never been able to meditate for more than thirty seconds at a time. Anxiety wells up as I try to ignore my own mental chatter, making me feel ready to explode with thoughts. Deep breaths become more belabored; singled purposed focus quickly slips through my fingers.
Some of us just aren’t meant to find that kind of focus in a sedentary activity, though. Many people find meditative focus through running, others through yoga. While yoga and running are both activities I enjoy, they aren’t ones that bring me that clear-headed-ness or peace of mind.
Unfortunately, my competitive nature comes out too easily when I’m practicing yoga; ditto for running. I know being competitive in yoga defeats the purpose. I’ve read my fair share of articles on how all I’m doing is bringing my ego to the mat. But I suspect the mat isn’t the place I’m meant to leave my ego at the door.
Instead, I recently found a way to tap into that elusive meditative state in the most unlikely of places: swinging from a bar, two stories up in the air.
Taking trapeze classes is not for the faint of heart. Sure, you’ve got a harness, several safety lines, and a net, but there’s a natural adrenaline rush that comes with jumping off of a platform and swinging your body around a bar midair. For some, confronting that fear is enough to whet their interest in trapeze. For me, it’s so much more than a cheap thrill.
The first classes require listening exactly to an instructors timing and commands. They call out what you’re supposed to do—“knees up” or “drop hands and grab your legs”—and if you do exactly as told, your success at the trick is much more likely. As a type-A perfectionist, releasing my control and entrusting my body and my safety to a group of basic strangers was simultaneously unnatural and liberating. As soon as I took that first leap off of the platform, I finally understood what all those yoga teachers meant when they talked about surrender.
Trapeze work relies on not thinking too hard. The more you think, plan, and worry, the more fear is likely to seize you as you’re swinging from the bar. You have to trust your body knows what it’s doing. You have to trust your body is capable of what others are asking you to do. You have to trust a stranger yelling out commands at you. Trapeze work, in short, requires the majority of emotional skills that I’m generally awful at maintaining.
But I think what made finding a meditative state on the trapeze so natural for me was the actual unnaturalness of jumping off a platform two stories into the air. That the danger and the fear of the situation is direct and upfront is what allowed me to let go of my control, my ego, and my anxiety in the first place. The attendants and teachers at the trapeze school took safety in their classes and their space seriously, but I’d be a fool to think I wasn’t taking some form of a calculated risk, however minimized this risk was by good safety practices.
I knew that the only way I wouldn’t freeze up on the trapeze bar would be if I just didn’t think too much about what was going to happen after the present moment. I would give myself mini mantras— “I am climbing up the ladder now,” or “I am grabbing the bar and setting into position now,” or “I am going to jump at the call.” While the thoughts might come in a rapid succession, my brain could have and would have only one thought at a time. I was, finally, present.
Knowing I was placing myself in a controlled dangerous situation was probably the only way to force myself to let down all of my defenses, all of those mechanisms that have strongly prevent my ability to meditate in the first place. It didn’t hurt that I signed up for a class at the Trapeze School of New York on the Santa Monica Pier. Being able to watch the ocean as you fly through the air definitely has its perks.
Trapeze work has been the first place I’ve found a calming meditative state. It’s also the first time since childhood that I’ve been able to enjoy a practice, even when I’m doing badly or having an off day. I don’t have to be the best in the class to enjoy what I’m doing. I don’t have to be improving at every turn. There’s just a weird, internal peace for me about stepping up to that bar, forcing my guard down and reminding myself how to let go of everything else.
And that’s something worth leaping for.
Photos: courtesy of Aminah Mae Safi