[ Pokhara, Nepal ]
I was recently approached by a most excellent friend1 to answer a handful of spousally-posed questions about skydiving and BASE jumping, with the answers to be used as fodder for a sermon at a Unitarian Universalist church service this coming Sunday, somewhere in North Carolina.
The cosmos is awash in irony. And laughter.
Having spent years discussing skydiving and paragliding with curious outsiders, I’ll do my best to give you coherent responses, but you should know—in full disclosure’s interest—I am not (yet) a BASE jumper. Several close friends within my skydiving and paragliding families are avid, skilled practitioners of BASE, and I have a good grasp of the sport’s basic gear, disciplines, and techniques—and many concepts translate directly from skydiving—but I have no direct experience with it. With that said, let’s move on to your questions.
Both of these sports have the reputation of being edgy, risky, adrenaline-driven. What is your experience? Would you self-describe as an “adrenaline junkie”, or is this characterization just a stereotype of extreme sports in general?
It’s fair to say these activities are slightly on the edge of how most people live their lives. The public’s conception of the actual risks involved, however, is radically inflated. Today’s equipment is highly evolved and rarely fails, and modern training techniques and safety procedures help offset the remaining risks: commuting to work by motorcycle is substantially more dangerous according to all the actuarial tables and fatality statistics3. Top-tier, professional athletes pushing the envelope within these sports may experience somewhat higher risk factors, but their additional training and experience offset that risk as well, so it’s hard to say for sure. I do think it’s inapt to label the vast majority of participants, at any level, as adrenaline junkies.
Rather than being especially risk-seeking, my experience is that we are simply a bit less risk-averse than the general population. Furthermore, to address skydiving specifically, other than the first few jumps adrenaline really isn’t much of a factor at all. Those who remain in the sport spend our time and money improving our ability to skillfully fly our bodies during freefall. There are many, surprisingly diverse, disciplines within skydiving, paragliding, & BASE, each with its own specialized gear requirements, risks, and attendant rewards. Many of us become competitors in one or more of these disciplines. Each of these communities and sub-communities is very tight-knit; ongoing participation becomes a matter of spending time with your best friends in the world, doing things most people only dream about. It’s undeniably exhilirating, but mostly due to factors less simplistic than adrenaline. My impression? Most of us simply prefer active participation in life over passive observation thereof; why watch someone else have all the fun online or on television when I can do it myself? Vicarious living is a contingency, a compromise, a simulacrum of life rather than life itself; we do our best to avoid it.
Are these sports ever transcendent for you, ie. experiences that bring you out of your body perhaps into a spiritual realm — either before, during, or after your jump? Do you ever experience deep insight connected to your jumps?
This is a complex question, and everyone will answer differently. One common thread you will hear: skydiving and BASE require an intense level of mental focus. For a matter of a couple of minutes or a few seconds (respectively), you have no choice but to turn off all the interior and exterior noises of your world. Rent, job, marriage, failed dreams, your (Rightist or Leftist) Orwellian nightmares re our contemporary world political situation, whatever it is that keeps you up at night, raises your blood pressure, or causes you despair; all these things are forcibly vanquished—forgotten completely—for a small, gloriously bright and focused few moments. If we’re addicted to anything, I’d say it’s this clarity or focus, rather than adrenaline. Is that transcendent? I dunno. I don’t like the word, personally, and spiritual even less so, but it surely isn’t something you’d call “mundane” or “average” or “quotidian.” And does any of this count as insight—deep or otherwise? Probably not. Is it high octane meditation? Who knows. The clarity and focus are all I am certain of. What one does (or does not do) with that afterwards? Talk to a thousand participants, get a thousand different answers, I suspect.
Are these experiences for you ever healing? Do they block pain, or provide relief?
This answer is the same as the previous one. Clarity and focus are gifts which certainly block pain and provide relief during the activity. Healing (i.e. long term pain-blocking and relief provision) depends upon what use we make of those gifts afterwards.
Do you experience “flow” during your jumps — a calm, extraordinary, but detached focus connected to relaxed, but extraordinary performance?
Your “calm, extraordinary, …focus” is what I’m describing above. Sans “detached.” I believe most of us never feel more present than we do during these minutes or seconds. And while this focus may be extraordinary, our performances, despite perceptions, typically are not. Most skydivers or paraglider pilots or BASE jumpers don’t live at the cutting edge of their sport; rather, we are weekend warriors, non-professionals; competent, striving amateurs. And we’re ok with that. We acquire the requisite training, build the appropriate muscle memory and mental acuity required, and become comfortable with the technical details you mention below—after which these activities become surprisingly relaxed and relaxing. This is perhaps the thing that outsiders find hardest to believe.
These sports would seem to require great technical knowledge and meticulous planning, but also tremendous courage. Does any of your apparent courage transfer to other areas of your life, eg, enabling you to take on other kinds of difficult challenges?
As my first answer should make clear, there really isn’t any “tremendous courage” involved beyond the initial courage required to try something new and unknown and different. It’s the same courage required to try a new career path, or write a novel, or play your newest song at the local open mic night—to push beyond one’s comfort zone on any level: emotional, physical, intellectual, cultural. It seems to me your question is backwards, putting the proverbial Cart before the (beaten, deceased) Horse: am I cursed with an insatiable need to restlessly experience and learn and grow because I skydive? Am I terminally curious because I ride a bicycle unsupported for thousands of miles in the middle of nowhere? Did paragliding buttress my otherwise waivering courage, allowing me to confront crippling internal doubts and fears? Worded this way, it seems to me obvious it works the other way ‘round: I came to these activities because some combination of nature and nurture made me a life-long learner, curious and easily bored, rarely satisfied with the answers handed to me by others, or by life. From whatever source, it’s in my DNA—whether we speak of that eternal golden braid metaphorically or literally. On the other hand, there is undeniably a strong feedback loop at play: success breeds success, energy breeds energy, joy joy, etc. One adventure always suggests the next. In any case, nothing I’ve ever done scares me half so much as the mind-numbing, soul-crushing confines of societally-dictated norms—of The Ordinary for the sake of the ordinary.
And there, I suppose, an actual lesson may be lurking—one which has nothing to do with physicality, and even less so with “extremity” or “risk” or “adrenaline.” One possible formulation: our boundaries—all of them—are every bit as imaginary as the excuses we contrive to keep us from exploring them, and by extension ourselves.
Have an excellent day.
1) One of several such I’ve never actually met in person. The internet was a beautiful thing, eh? At least until the US government destroyed Net Neutrality a few days ago. Government putting the wishes of wealthy corporations ahead of the public’s interests and desires? Nah. That’d never happen.
3) Certainly this is true for skydiving and paragliding. BASE disciplines are definitely the riskiest of the group.