My Circus Life is a weekly broadcast in which I share lessons from my pursuit of flying trapeze and trampoline and how they apply to life and business. Today was Episode 89: Letting Go and Embracing Uncertainty.
When I first started to learn flying trapeze 15 years ago, I read Sam Keen’s book Learning to Fly: Reflections on Fear, Trust & Letting Go.
Learning to let go is the journey of flying trapeze. It is also the journey of life.
On the surface level, it’s about letting yourself jump off the board, even if you don’t feel ready. Letting go of your hands from the bar. Letting go of the bar to the catcher. Letting go of the catcher to go back the bar.
Beneath that, it’s about letting go of expectations: of a timeline for progress and what the path to progress even looks like, of expectations of what my body can and cannot do, of what I can accomplish.
What keeps us from letting go — in any situation — is fear. Fear of injury, of humiliation, of failure, of death. And beneath all of that is the fear of uncertainty.
Certainty is a Fundamental Human Need
The need for certainty is one of the fundamental driving needs of human beings. Certainty is perceived as safety.
If you watch a new flyer release the bar to come to the net, you will see that most grab their safety lines as they fall. This does not actually do anything to save them. The person pulling the lines controls them like a marionette master. Their grab is an instinctive, habitual action: they grab the closest thing because falling through the air is an unfamiliar feeling and the lines are the closest solid thing to them.
Our evolutionary, habitual response to uncertainty is to grab for the closest thing we can find. In the grips of fight-or-flight mode, we don’t notice that what we grab for is just an illusion of certainty.
Facing the Void
We don’t know what will happen when we let go. What will we have to grab onto when we release what we are currently holding? What will anchor us to safety? Will there be something to catch us that will keep us safe?
After letting go of the bar, there is always a gap, a brief moment before the flier lands in the catcher’s hands. That moment creates uncertainty. It’s mystery. If you’ve ever watched a flying trapeze performance, you know that moment. The entire audience holds its breath before exhaling when the catch is complete.
As the catcher pushes a flier up and the flier turns for the trapeze bar, there is another gap. A brief moment of uncertainty before the flier grabs the bar. Another moment where the crowd holds its breath.
As the flier remounts the platform, the flier releases the bar one final time.
The Magic of Flight Happens in the Void
The entire journey of learning flying trapeze is about cultivating the skill of letting go and embracing the uncertainty that follows the release, whether you’re releasing to the net or to the catcher.
It was only when I started to fly without the safety lines that I fully appreciated the need to embrace the uncertainty.
Without the safety lines I could finally feel the magic of flying. The flying happens in the void, in the emptiness that follows the release.
You must embrace the uncertainty to experience the magic of flight. On the trapeze, and in life.
How to Embrace Uncertainty
When I tell people that I fly out of lines, the first thing they say is “but there’s a net, right?” Yes, there’s a net. But the net is only a safe harbor if you know how to land in it properly.
Without the trampoline skills, the net is part of the risk. I’ve seen people get very badly injured from bad net landings.
That’s why I train on the trampoline. Trampoline work builds aerial awareness and skills.
It’s also the reason I do so many practice tricks in safety lines before taking the trick out of lines, and why I take the tricks to the net dozens of times before even thinking about taking the trick across to the catcher.
The physical action of twisting to my back to land in the net safely must become habit so that if something goes wrong I don’t have to think about how to save myself.
All the drills and the practice help me cultivate trust that I will be safe in the void. The more I can trust, the more I can embrace the joy of flying.
Drilling the habit of getting to my back safely doesn’t remove the uncertainty of the void.
The uncertainty is always there, in trapeze and in life.
Rather, it builds trust and resilience to embrace the uncertainty.
When you deepen your trust — in yourself, in others, in God/the universe/source/nature (whatever works for you) — you expand your capacity to embrace uncertainty. The more you embrace uncertainty, the easier it is to let go. And in letting go you will experience the magic of flight.
What I have learned over the past 15 years is that the magic of life happens in the empty space between letting go and landing.