The Parable of the Trapeze by Stress-Management and Mindful Lifestyle Educator Judy Banks (January 23, 2016)
Sometimes, I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings. I’m either hanging on to a trapeze bar swinging along or, for a few moments, I’m hurtling across space between the trapeze bars.
Mostly, I spend my time hanging on for dear life to the trapeze bar of the moment. It carries me along a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I’m in control. I know most of the right questions, and even some of the right answers. But once in a while, as I’m merrily, or not so merrily, swinging along, I look ahead of me into the distance, and what do I see?
I see another trapeze bar looking at me. It’s empty.
And I know, in that place in me that knows, that this new bar has my name on it. It is my next step, my growth, my aliveness coming to get me. In my heart of hearts, I know that for me to grow, I must release my grip on the present well-known bar to move to the new one.
Each time it happens, I hope—no, I pray—that I won’t have to grab the new one. But in my knowing place, I know that I must totally release my grasp on my old bar, and for some moments in time I must hurtle across space before I can grab the new bar. Each time I do this I am filled with terror. It doesn’t matter that in all my previous hurtles I have always made it.
Each time I am afraid I will miss, that I will be crushed on unseen rocks in the bottomless basin between the bars. But I do it anyway. I must. Perhaps this is the essence of what the mystics call faith. No guarantees, no net, no insurance, but we do it anyway because hanging on to that old bar is no longer an option. And so, for what seems to be an eternity but actually lasts a microsecond. I soar across the dark void called “the past is over; the future is not yet here.” It’s called a transition. I have come to believe that it is the only place that real change occurs.
I have a sneaking suspicion that the transition zone is the only real thing, and the bars are the illusions we dream up to not notice the void. Yes, with all the fear that can accompany transitions, they are still the most vibrant, growth-filled, passionate moments in our lives. And so transformation of fear may have nothing to do with making fear go away, but rather with giving ourselves permission to “hang out” in the transition zone — between the trapeze bars — allowing ourselves to dwell in the only place where change really happens.
It can be terrifying. It can also be enlightening. Hurtling through the void, we just may learn to fly.
Martha and I once took a trip to Bangkok, Thailand. I was studying Thai Buddhism at the time and so we asked our guide to show us as many temples as she could while we were there. This picture is from our trip to one of those Thai Buddhist temples, Wat Arun Temple of Dawn. What do you notice first? Well of course the giant fearsome statues. These are call Dvarapalas (pronunciation: [dʋaːɽɐpaːlɐ]). They are the gate guardians. Beautiful and weaponized with giant bats. What was most fascinating to me was when we walked through the entrance that there was a lip, a board across the threshold that we had to step over. When we asked about it, the guide told us that the board was to keep the demons out. Demons are unable to step over blockages, they need a smooth path. The raised doorsill was a crucial detail and we would find them at each Thai Buddhis temple we entered.
This little board across the threshold of this temple made me wonder “what are some other effects of this slight impedance?” Certainly it caused people who entered this holy place to do so with more awareness: Each person has to watch their step before entering. Does this pause result in internal questions like: Why am I entering this sacred space? What do I bring to this sacred site? How am I feeling and what am I thinking about as I enter? Is there more to crossing a threshold than simply putting one foot in front of the other?
Thresholds offer us opportunities. They are liminal spaces between one place and another, or one state of being and another. Religions of all kinds, cultures of all times and places, have ways to mark the moments when we are on a threshold between one state of being and another. Sufis, for instance, consider thresholds holy, and experience them as spaces between the seen and unseen worlds. Some Sufi, such as the Mevlevi order, practice whirling to reach a connection between themselves and Allah. “They wear a black cloak symbolizing death and the grave, which they remove before whirling. On their heads they wear a tall, brown hat known as a sikke, which symbolizes the tombstone and the death of the ego. Once their cloaks are removed, their long white robes and white jackets become visible. Both are symbols of resurrection.” (Wikipedia).
Religions and cultures mark transitions with threshold rituals for birth, adulthood, marriage, and death—the Catholic baptism, the Amish Rumspringa—during which adolescents take a break from the community before committing to the community as an adult, Pagan handfasting—gently binding the hands of the bride and groom together as a vow to love, honor and respect their partner, and the Buddhist ritual of pouring water over one hand of the deceased in a bathing ceremony, then placing the body in a casket and surrounding it with wreaths, candles and sticks of incense.
I experienced an unexpected and intentionally created threshold in a Unitarian Universalist church. I had joined First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church in Fort Worth, and was, as were we all, part of the building of a new sanctuary. I remember Martha and I varnishing the bookcases in the library. Anyway, as the process of building was happening, I noticed that a specific area was created between the greeting space and the sanctuary. A short hallway with double doors on either end. What had to be explained to me was that this was the transition or threshold space. That people were expected to quiet down as they entered this shadowed space to prepare for entrance into the sacred space for worship. And this was a congregation of mostly atheists and agnostics. UU Miami also has a transition space similar to what I just described. What purpose does it serve?
Most of us experience thresholds in our daily life in times of suffering, joy, and mystery. Some Unitarian Universalist congregations offer a specific ritual for honoring those times, a Joys and Concerns ritual which reverently acknowledges the joys and concerns of those present in the service to the congregation. I have often wondered about the value of this ritual, given the unpredictable nature of it, with politics, petitions, and announcements often getting mixed into what’s means to be a sacred ritual. But here’s the things I ask, what is the purpose of this ritual? Over time I have come to understand that it provides an opportunity for intimacy, connection, community support. And if we don’t have this ritual, how do we acknowledge and honor and strengthen these community connections? Recently in our community, I let the Joys and Concerns ritual go, because few, if any, people were utilizing it. But now in the time of Covid 19, I am asking the question how do we connect with one another with authentic sorrows and celebratory joys, something I feel is needed in a faith community. Bringing our joys, concerns, or even our times when we experience mystery to our community is an opportunity to cross through a threshold, acknowledging and moving beyond a sorrow or acknowledging and celebrating an event, with people we love, trust, and can be vulnerable with.
What is it about times of suffering, joy, and mystery that creates thresholds in our lives? Think about this question for a moment. Each of us have had these experiences. I think of these experiences as a time when something in us is cracked open, a part that was pretty solid and stable, a part we counted on. I really like the metaphor of the trapeze that Judy Bank’s uses. When we have an experience of suffering, joy, or mystery, the rope on our trapeze swing becomes frayed and it is time to swing to another swing. This is not always an easy thing to do. Take it from someone who climbed a telephone pole and then with sweaty palms, trembling hands, and shaking knees jumped off the pole to try to grab a trapeze swing. In my case, my hands were too sweaty to grab the swing and I lost my grip. Fortunately, I had safety ropes on and a belay team below holding the ropes. Many of us might wonder if we jump from the swing we are grasping, will we reach and be able to hang onto the next swing? Will there be a belay team and safety harness to catch us if we fall?
I will tell you that when I did this jump, the instructor told us to think of the thing we were most afraid of, then jump. I thought about my fear of speaking with authority in front of a large group of people, and that fear became both metaphorical and real. When I jumped, I realized that whatever my fear was, I could face it. Nothing could be more fear-inducing than what I was doing at that moment. I found that crossing the fearful threshold of jumping off the telephone pole kept me from letting fear get a grip on my life and my actions and that teaching is something I tap into to this day. It is so easy to let fear creep into our lives and allow it to begin to restrict our decisions and actions. Sometime I will have to tell you about rappelling down the side of the football stadium at Texas Christian University, another threshold experience.
With suffering, we can very much feel like we are hanging onto that trapeze swing, but what about joy and mystery? Let me take mystery first. I would guess that many of us, if not all of us, have had a powerful, emotional, inexplicable experience. I can think of a few off the top of my head from the inexplicable feelings of connection with something larger than myself at a 5 AM worship service while serving as an altar boy in a Catholic Church to the one night at Texas Christian University when I met all the people who would be important to me during my years in college and met my future wife. Perhaps you, too, have had an experience of synchronicity—when meaningful events in one's life occur that are so timely it feels as though some hand of fate or destiny is involved. Or perhaps you had a sense of awareness of or connection to something larger than yourself, god, goddess, divine, spirit, a mystical experience. Or maybe you had an intuitive experience—an awareness about a situation beyond rational logic, or a sense of overwhelming peace and well-being or any number of singular experiences. In those moments, what happens to your sense of what you know about the world, about yourself? Well the trapeze rope is frayed then also. It is unlikely that holding onto that trapeze will sustain you and the next swing may seem very far away from the one you are holding onto, but still, you have to swing to the next trapeze.
Even joy can result in a frayed rope. Think for a moment about the joy you experience when you graduate from High School, college, graduate school, or when you get a promotion at work, or when you find a faith community of people that really resonates with your soul. In these moments, the trapeze you were holding onto of being a student or holding a certain position at work or not being connected to a faith community no longer works for you. You have to leap to the next swing and that can be daunting. When I went to the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Association with the expectation of getting fellowshipped by the committee, I expected to get a score of 1 out of 5 and seamlessly begin my career as a minister. When I got a 2, my joy was deflated. Yes, all I had to do was go to a workshop and write a paper on institutional racism and then I would be fellowshipped, but my expectation was not fulfilled, I felt defeated. It took some rational and grounded friends to help me find my joy again and help me jump to the next swing of becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister.
As I have been thinking about thresholds, I have come to believe that being mindful about daily small thresholds can strengthen our emotional and spiritual flexibility. When it comes to crossing a looming big threshold, I am talking about when quarantine is lifted, we will be more prepared. I realized this emotionally the other day when I went to see my doctor for a routine blood test. The freeway near my home was all torn up and the directional signs were no longer there. It’s been 6 weeks since I’ve accessed the freeway by my house, and I discovered that I had to remember which entrance was the one I needed to reach my doctor, experiencing a moment of doubt and fear, experiencing one of the thresholds associated with the lifting of restrictions we’re beginning to face. And think about how it will be when you return and cross the threshold to this sanctuary for the first time. Joy, fear, doubt, maybe all these feelings at the same time.
So perhaps a little time to practice crossing thresholds would be helpful for all of us. Here are some ways you can make crossing thresholds into a spiritual practice.
Pick a day, and count the physical thresholds you cross during that day. Notice how many times you have to move from one type of place to another. You might write about the experience of crossing the thresholds in your home. And then write about crossing thresholds as you step out of your home. How are your feelings about the 2 different, or are your feelings different at all?
Another practice you might try is consciously step over a threshold. Start with the same foot each time you cross that particular threshold. This simple practice will bring your attention to where and who you are in the present. It will bring mindfulness into crossing thresholds.
Here’s one more. Pause at a threshold. And when you do, honor that threshold, you might bow or say a short prayer. Use the pause to focus on your intention for a few moments. This spiritual practice brings a sense of reverence and the holy to the experience. It can also help you ground yourself for the crossing of future thresholds.
(Spiritual Practice Feature by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality and Practice.com)
My friends even though things change all of the time, we usually don’t notice until a particular point. Water in a pan must reach 212 degrees Fahrenheit--at sea level--before it will boil. The air temperature must drop below 32 degrees Fahrenheit before rain will turn to snow. This is also true for our lives when we experience mystery, suffering, joy, or in our case coronavirus; there is point when we must pass over the threshold and become something new. At that point the trapeze we are currently swinging on, our way of living in the world or perceiving the world, will no longer work for us. We might see a desert in front of us with no way to cross, or a lot of empty space with nothing to hold onto, but there is always another swing for us if we just leap for and grab onto it. And your safety harness, your belay team? That’s us. Your UU Miami family is here to help catch you if you fall, to help get you back up so that you can try again, and grab that new swing that’s ready and waiting for you.