I had a dream about my grandmother one night when I was about 17. She had been in decline for a long time, but still clung to the desire to stay in her home. My mother, her daughter, struggled with her for several years. It was about two years after that dream that she succumbed to multiple myeloma in a nursing facility, the very kind of place she didn’t want to be.
But back to the dream: it was evening, and my grandmother, wearing one of her old-lady rayon frocks, her gray hair in a hair net, was standing in the waves close to the shore. She was walking further and further out into the water. She was a slight figure, but her face was determined. One after another the waves would knock her over, and each time she would struggle back to her feet, only to be knocked down again. When she finally failed to get up, a group of rescuers at the shore went into the water to bring her back in. They carried her back, laid her down, except instead of my grandmother, the person was a young girl, one of my classmates, in fact, and as I gazed at her, I realized that it was me lying on the sand. And I knew with absolute certainty in that moment that nothing—not time, not age, nothing—separated me from the old woman who had disappeared in the waves.
The iconic ending to Thelma and Louise is a sublime moment of absolute freedom. Everything has closed in on them, but rather than obey the authorities and let themselves be taken, they choose to “keep going”—right over the edge of the Grand Canyon. It’s a beautiful sight, that Ford Thunderbird flying through the blue sky against the backdrop of one of nature’s marvels. They hang for a moment, suspended in midair, and of course we all know that within seconds their lives will be extinguished in a fiery crash. But there they are, at that moment, suspended.
What do you suppose is going through their minds? Do you think Louise is looking at Thelma, thinking “I wonder what she really thinks of me . . .”? Or maybe Thelma is asking herself, “Do these jeans make me look fat?” The very thought is ridiculous. At such a moment, there is no to-do list, no goals, no projects, no 5-year plan, nothing but the air and the space around them and the seat of the car against their bodies. And what would you say if I told you that all of us, at every moment, are in just that space, suspended in each instant, no before or after? That nothing, absolutely nothing, separates us from extinction other than thin air?
It’s impossible to put ourselves in such a frame in ordinary life, with so much else claiming our attention, not to mention the fact that we furiously resist any such insight out of self-protection. The Buddha once asked his monks how often they thought about death, and concluded with the admonition that they should all have their own death on their minds every single moment of the day. But who can stand to do that? I certainly can’t. Yet what the thought of our death does is release us from every petty concern we have, to leave us in infinite space as we sail effortlessly through the air.
One of my dharma friends suggested that whenever we feel frightened of something, the internal message is, “and then I will die.” So for me: “If I try to play my violin in front of even the smallest and most supportive audience, my bow arm will shake all over the strings and I won’t be able to play a damn thing, and everyone will know how scared I am and I’ll be ashamed . . . and then I will die.” So I stop playing altogether out of self-protection, to save my life (you can fill in the blanks with your phobia of choice). The shaking is part of the sympathetic nervous system’s flight-or-fight response, which is the body’s way of trying to save our life.
This is common knowledge, yet what gets submerged is the life-and-death peril we so often feel without realizing it. When someone cuts us off in traffic or when a colleague contradicts us in a meeting, that jolt of fury we feel is the sense of panic transformed into a fight response. I remember one evening when I was walking through a strange town after dark with my mother a man jumped out in front of us, opened his raincoat, and laughed out loud (he wasn’t even exposed, just trying to scare us). I immediately shoved my mother behind me, planted my feet on the ground, and raised my fists, my face contorted into a mask of rage. I didn’t even think.
Actually, being able to act without thinking, completely in the moment, is one of the most pleasurable experiences we can have. In that case, fear for my own life was banished by a powerful protective instinct. Many years ago I saw a young mother who lived in the apartment next to mine dive down an open well to rescue her toddler, who had wandered over and fallen in. Her husband dragged them out, shaking, saying, “I thought I’d lost both of them.” Prey animals cornered by much larger predators will turn on their attackers and often send them packing.
There is a thrill in such moments when a creature acts in complete abandon, all fear banished by the immediacy of the situation. Thelma and Louise are sailing through the air, putting their physical survival on the line in order to preserve something that matters more, their survival as free beings. Homer’s bloody epics are thrilling because of the heroes’ total abandonment to their freedom as warriors. These men despised fear and anyone who displayed it.
In ordinary life we can all be aware of moments of fearful constriction and moments of absolute freedom, when we lose our fear of death and realize perfect stillness, in the suspension of time.