For the last two Sundays, I attended Sky Church. The meetings involve confronting primal fear, and staring it down. This is done on the basis of a desire to fly, an intellectual understanding of the tiny risks you are in fact facing if you choose to do so. Then, while either staring down your demons, or more likely having pushed them from your consciousness, you step out of an airplane and become a bird.
I celebrated this mass for the first time on Sunday, August 2, and three times again yesterday on Sunday, August 9. My two oldest sons were initiated with me. I don’t expect to have a better bonding experience with either of them.
Okay, I exaggerated a bit. It’s not quite as simple as just stepping out of the plane and flying. First, you are hit by an 85 mile an hour wind and completely disoriented. Then, you have to do something that seems profoundly stupid, and dangerous. You have to put yourself into the most vulnerable possible position — head looking up away from the ground that you so desperately want to find; pelvis thrust out as far as you can thrust it; legs and arms spread eagled and trailing behind. Nothing in you wants to do this. Your flight or fight system is screaming — “Curl up and get ready for the worst, or a least look down and try to figure out where the hell the ground is!”. But if you do that, you spiral out of control, and if you do what your instructor has told you to do (“Arch! Arch! Arch!”), and everything that you know about aerodynamics says that you should do when falling out of an airplane, you will fly.
Here’s the kicker for post-Mormons, or perhaps people leaving bad relationships, facing major career changes, dealing with bullies, etc. In so many ways, our evolutionary and cultural history has equipped us with dysfunctional instincts. We feel, for example, inclined to eat sugar and fat as often as we can. This made sense while humanity evolved on the African plains. It makes no sense now. Many of our other instincts are similarly dysfunctional in our current environment. One the most of us here are familiar with is the instinct to remain with your social group. For most of human history, leaving the social group — or being kicked out for disruptive behavior — meant death. So, we have an existential fear (similar to that of jumping out of airplanes) of even information that could infect us to the point where we might be expelled from our social group. This is, in our current environment, yet another dysfunctional instincts.
Just as many people have done with the food thing I mentioned above, we can deal with other dysfunctional instincts by understanding from a rational, logical perspective the nature of the risks we face if we allow ourselves to remain where we are (in a bad culture, or a bad relationship, for example) and what is likely to happen if we take the steps necessary to change our lives. However, many people who reach the intellectual understanding that they should change, simply cannot get themselves to change. Our instincts are just too strong in many cases to allow that to happen.
So, what if we primed the pump little bit by getting to understand the nature of the relationship between our conscious, seemingly rational choices and these primal fears? There are probably lots of places where that could be done. Skydiving might be one of the best. This, of course, will not work for some personality types. But those who are even moderately inclined toward openness to new experience perspective may find this to be just the thing.
It occurred to me this morning as I woke up that one of the reasons the skydiving experience has been so fascinating for me is that it condenses the “face your demons” process into something small enough that it can be more easily understood. For example, when getting out of the plane, as indicated above, our instinct is to look for the ground and figure out where we are and what to do. Nothing in our evolutionary history prepares us to step out of a plane. Our instinct is designed for living on the ground. To do what we need to do to fly requires overcoming a powerful instinct. We do that by learning about aerodynamics, listening to people who have jumped out of thousands of airplanes talk about their experience, and then practicing on the ground what has been conclusively demonstrated to work. Still, nothing prepares us for what happens when we step out of the airplane’s door, reach up the wing strut and then allow ourselves to hang in that position while doing our best to arch, spread eagled. Again, that is the furthest from possible from what instinct tells us to do. In fact, this instinct is so powerful that our conscious mind may actually trick us into thinking that we are arching as we have decided to do, and have practiced doing many times, leaving it for the instructor on the ground to let us know what we were in fact doing anything but that.
So, while getting out of the plane, we engage in hand-to-hand combat with our primal instincts. We pit but we have decided to do on the basis of rational considerations, against those instinct. In this case, the objective is to experience unaided human flight before what amounts to a great hang gliding exercise for the rest of the trip down. However, the skills we pick up here are transferable to other much more important aspects of life — where we need to face down that same set of primal instincts in order to make life liveable, or to move from surviving to thriving.
Staring down our instincts time after time during the process of learning to skydive, and gradually feeling a sense of mastery over them, is surprisingly empowering. The process of leaving Mormonism generally plays out over months or years. It involves all of the same forces I have described with regard to skydiving, but tends to be scattered across a complex emotional landscape, and a long time. This made the process hard to bring into focus. Skydiving, on the other hand, condenses more or less the same process into two-hour segments, which is roughly what is required to prepare for a dive, execute the dive, and then digest what happened afterwards. By going through this process over and over again, the mechanisms required to face down primal fear come into focus, and I believe that the skills developed in that regard are transferable to many other things: fundamentally changing (or leaving) dysfunctional intimate relationships; leaving dysfunctional belief systems and the communities that relate to them, orchanging those relationships in a basic way; changing careers whether required by circumstance, or because that is something you want to do for ongoing personal development; taking the risk necessary to meet someone new, or engage in a new hobby or sport; etc.
I think this has potentially important implications for a least some personality types (those at least moderately open to new experience). This might be a useful adjunct to the art therapy processes I’ve also found be helpful (See, for example, http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.art%20therapy%20for%20recovering%20mormons.pdf). This has to do with the way in which “right brain” or artistic activities help to loosen up the kind of deep neural networks that need to be restructured in order for us to change the kind of habits of thought and action that have developed during the course of being raised within a tradition like Mormonism.
And, I don’t think one can jump (tandem or otherwise) would be enough. That certainly would be a nice start — facing down some fear, once. I found the individual jumps much more challenging in that regard. As indicated above, what I am so for finding to be most useful is feeling of deep, instinctive fear gradually under control. That happened with regard to Mormonism over a long time. I think that if early on in that process I had done, for example, 20 skydives and gotten to the point where I was thrilled but comfortable when climbing out of the plane, and in control as I fell for some distance before pulling the cord, that I would have been able to transfer that skill more effectively to some of the grindingly difficult transitions that I made on the way out of Mormonism.
Perhaps some enterprising soul should organize a group skydiving experience relative to the annual Exmormon Conference, or some other less formal gathering of post-Mormons.
One of the last things I saw last night before going to bed was a text message from my son Brayden which said that our skydiving experience had been “life-changing” for him. I agreed, but late last night had not intuited why. This note is an effort to try to articulate the nature of those doors that I felt open.
What do people here think, or feel about this idea in general — that exercises in confronting our primal fears may be transferable to the “leaving the fold” process? Has anyone had experiences similar to what I had while skydiving that either supports, or does confirms this idea?