What Skydiving Taught Me about Life

What Skydiving Taught Me about Life

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Skydiving started as a one-time adventure and became a passion that reinforces and expands my determination to live life to the fullest.

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A moment of joy in between skill tests during a training jump

Earlier this summer, I started dating a man who loved adventure. In fact, he started an organization to bring adventurous people together. One of the activities he planned was a tandem skydiving event. I’d always wanted to try it so I signed up. What was going to be a one-time thing has now become a borderline obsession that has taught me a lot about how I want to live my life.

Being Present in the Moment.

On that first tandem skydive, I noticed that all of the other first-time jumpers were visibly nervous as we shared the flight up to 12,500 feet. I wasn’t. I wondered if I was missing something. Then I flashed back to my first year of law school when all of my classmates were freaking out about exams. I wasn’t nervous then either. If anything, I was anxious that I wasn’t anxious! Sitting on the plane, I made the connection and decided I wouldn’t worry about not worrying.

I took stock of my situation. I was in a stable plane, chatting (flirting) with my very attractive tandem instructor. He was telling me stories about some of his more daring jumps. Nothing was wrong in that moment. It was so enjoyable that I decided not to waste it worrying about what would happen in 10 minutes when I was at the door of the plane. I’d face that when it happened. In the meantime, I was in good company, sitting safely in an ascending plane as the ground disappeared in the distance. I was happy.

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Soaking up the thrill of my first skydive.

When the time came to approach the door, I thought to myself, what’s scary about standing at the door of a plane? I’m not falling and this very experienced skydiver literally has my back.

Then we jumped and as we were falling I thought, “This is pretty ‘effen awesome.” My next thought was that I shouldn’t have worn a V-neck shirt because boy, did the cameraman get an eyeful. I shook off the fact that my video might not be fit for public viewing and went back to having fun. I didn’t worry about what might happen in 52 seconds when the parachute opened (or didn’t open as the case may be). I flew.

When he pulled the cord the world went quiet. For anyone who has ever jumped out of a plane (and survived), you know what I mean. The sound of the rushing wind evaporates instantly. The noise from the plane has dissipated. You’re left with the sound of nothing. It’s beyond peaceful. I could have worried about landing, which I’d been warned could give me a bruise or two. But I didn’t. I sat back, took a deep breath and watched the horizon slowly rise up to meet us.

Practicing a diving exit during a training jump.
Practicing a diving exit during a training jump.

The landing wasn’t comfortable. I’ll leave it at that. But I jumped up immediately and proclaimed, “I want to go again. Like right now!” My instructor laughed. But I meant it.

Within 10 days I was back to pursue my skydiving license. On my first solo jump, as I stood at the edge of the plane looking down at the drop zone below, I felt no fear. In that moment, I knew one thing about myself with certainty: I was a person capable of living without fear. All it took was complete presence, an unwavering commitment to the now. To this day, 25 jumps in, my fearlessness is still the last thought I have as I hurl myself into the air.

Only by Releasing the Need for Control Can I Find Balance.

The hardest thing for new skydivers to learn is to relax during the free fall. Most tense up and try to control their descent. This tension prevents balance and the less balance you have, the less control you’ll have. That can cause you to spin or wobble uncontrollably and both greatly increase the likelihood that your parachute won’t have a smooth, or even safe, opening.

I was no exception. I lost control in one of my early jumps and began spinning. Before I could right myself, my instructor flew in and pulled my cord. I was devastated. I had failed the jump. I graduated from an Ivy League law school; I wasn’t a person who failed anything! While I took solace in the fact that I had remained calm while spinning, not allowing fear in, I still had failed to maintain control.

On my fourth round in the wind tunnel, the moment I finally stabilized.
On my fourth round in the wind tunnel, the moment I finally stabilized.

Off to the wind tunnel I went. For those who aren’t familiar, a wind tunnel gives you the experience of a free fall but on solid ground. I went in for 10 two-minute intervals with my coach. My first go was atrocious. I bounced from wall to wall and had to be pulled out. I shook it off. Head down, mind focused, I went in again. I had the same experience. On my third try I attempted to muscle my way through it — I was an athlete after all! It was worse. My coach, ever full of encouragement, said, “You need to stop trying so hard. Relax into it.”

Inside, I gave up a little. I released the need to conquer the wind. It wouldn’t be conquered. If that meant that I wouldn’t be a skydiver, so be it. I went back in. And it happened. I surrendered to the wind. That’s when I flew. I let the wind dictate my direction and I merely responded to its whims. I released the tension from my body and sank into it. Everything clicked. A few minutes later, I was doing tricks. I was completely in control of myself because I ceased trying to control my environment.

When I went up for my next skydive, it was close to perfect. My coach was shocked. He kept saying, “I’ve never seen anything like that from a student. Just great. Amazing.” When I got it, the shift was so profound that it altered my version of reality. I knew that I would never lose control up there again.

The Moments in which I Lose my Balance are my Greatest Teachers

During Accelerated Free Fall training, before you’re allowed to jump on your own, you jump with an instructor who gives you tasks or tricks to perform. These include turns, barrel rolls, flips and tracking exercises. They don’t do this because it looks cool; they do this to teach you that you can stabilize after any event that could take place during a free fall.

Practicing a front flip as part of a skills test during a training jump.
Practicing a front flip as part of a skills test during a training jump.

They throw you off balance so you can learn to find it again. There is even one dive labeled the “unstable exit dive” where the student crouches down into a ball at the edge of the plane’s door and the instructor literally kicks them out into a series of front flips. This was my favorite jump of all. It was so empowering to enjoy the flips, knowing that I could stop and stabilize at any time.

In order to really internalize this lesson, I had to experience an unstable situation from time to time. If I stayed comfortably in the arched skydiving position, I would always wonder what would happen if I lost my balance. By intentionally forcing me out of a stable position, they taught me how to find it again.

I decided to apply this lesson to my life. When things happen that throw me off, rather than resisting them, I choose to look at them as an opportunity to practice finding my center again. I find a way to stop wishing for a different experience and instead find gratitude. In the end, it is the lack of resistance that allows me to regain my balance. More than that, I look forward to situations that might cause me discomfort because they provide me the opportunity to grow to the next level.

Perceived Problems Only Appear Insurmountable if I’m not Living in the Now.

I’ve done 25 jumps and I’ve already had 3 “incidents,” which is actually very rare. One of these incidents involved a slight parachute malfunction that caused me to spin at a high velocity on my side. I looked up (or rather sideways) and took stock of my parachute. I remembered my training. All I needed to do was release one of the “breaks” because the other had fired early. I did it without hesitation or anxiety and the parachute righted itself. At no time did I feel fear. I didn’t worry about what would happen if I failed to fix it. I didn’t have time to worry. I merely took note of the issue, altered the parachute and went on with my canopy ride.

A tracking exercise during a training jump.
A tracking exercise during a training jump.

I’ve once heard it said that “fear is an emotional response to something that isn’t happening.” If I had felt fear in that moment, it would have been fear of what was to come if I failed to fix the parachute. I didn’t think that far ahead. Instead of using my energy to worry, I used my energy to fix the parachute. For the rest of the week, nothing in life looked like a problem. There were merely things that needed to be addressed.

The final and least profound lesson was this. My relationship with the man who introduced me to skydiving didn’t quite go as planned. Our timing was off. But instead of wishing that a relationship would turn into something that it isn’t, or instead of wishing that your singleness was something that it isn’t, find gratitude for the gifts that they bring. I assure you the gifts are there. After all, how could I resent a man who brought me the gift of flight?

Copyright © Heather Orr/2013 Singular Communications, LLC.

Heather OrrSingularCity member Heather Orr is the owner of HSO Law, a law firm committed to providing representation to local businesses so that they can compete on a level playing field with Corporate America, both in the marketplace and in the courtroom. Heather is also an adjunct professor at Loyola Law School and in her free time, she plays softball, football and tennis and is an avid yogi.
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2 thoughts on “What Skydiving Taught Me about Life

  1. Absolutely inspiring and stunning. Amazing how we can learn something about ourself and approach to life while picking up a new adventure, hobby, or interest.

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