Authored by Peter van Gorder (a guest contribution)
Strapping on my harness and checking my gear to make sure it was secure, I held the reins tightly in my hands, until the winged creature lurched and squirmed as it wriggled and writhed to free itself from its restraints and heave me into the abyss. My keepers, one at either side, were able to contain its fury, but it took all of their skill and stamina to keep it from sweeping me off my feet and carrying me up into its lair.
“Remember the launch position: Lean forward, put your hands up, and look straight ahead.” The voice on the radio crackled and startled me back into reality. It was Avi, our instructor, on a mission to teach us to defy gravity and soar—and most of all to land safely. As he was fond of saying, “Launching is optional, landing is not.” I reassured myself that all was well, remembering their perfect safety record: zero accidents.
It was the last day of our three-day paragliding course. All the theory of lift and drag and attack we had learned and been tested on over the last two days had little relevance unless I now took the leap off this hill to fly. I mentally reviewed my instructor’s counsel: “Keep calm and follow instructions.”
An earlier flight, the first one of the day, in fact, had proven the effectiveness of that advice. The novice paraglider had radio troubles and couldn’t hear the repeated instruction to “pull the right brake,” nor did he remember the given flight plan. Instead of turning smoothly from right to left and back to the center to land gently at the designated landing area, he only went in one direction—left. Because he heard no instructions, he did nothing, afraid to disobey. He continued to drift left until he could no longer correct his course, and ended up landing high in the limbs of a mango tree, having barely missed a power line. Fortunately, he came out of the mishap with only a few scratches and a deflated ego.
Now it was my turn. As I stood poised for launch, an eagle soared effortlessly overhead, whirling in circles. He barely flapped his wings as he caught a rising thermal. That reminded me of a verse: “They will mount up with wings as eagles.”1
If he could do it, why not me? I thought.
Cause you are not built to fly! My subconscious survival instincts replied.
To muster up courage, I remembered a few other mantras I had picked up in the past, like, “Ohhh, what the heck, do it anyway,” and “No go, no show,” and everything else I could pull out of my bag of mental tricks, not to mention lots of fervent prayer for protection.
“Are you ready?” my trainer asked.
I nodded, took a few deep breaths, and tried not to panic. What had Avi told us? “Panic is one step before an accident. When you panic, your subconscious starts taking over and you start following your natural instincts of survival, which in this case is dangerous.”
I don’t want to go there, I told myself, so where do I want to be?—Soaring safely, peacefully with the eagles, so let’s do it. What’s the alternative, anyway? Quitting now isn’t an option.
Hands back, my chute caught the wind, inflated, and pulled me back. I bent forward looking up. Now, I was committed, there was no turning back. I knew the next step was to run—air speed plus wind speed equals ground speed. Like life, if we lack energy to move toward our goal, circumstances will begin working on us and against us. If I lost speed, the glider would begin its own journey sideways. I had to tell it what I wanted it to do: “Fly! Land me safely.”
Avi shouted, “Run!”
Two steps and I lifted off the ground. It was more like riding a ski lift than a plane, and easier than I had thought. I was airborne, flying high, enjoying the majestic view—blue mountains over a clear lake. I pulled gently on the brake to turn right; mustn’t overreact. It obeyed, then left and right again and in for the landing and touchdown. Not so gently, but I knew it would be better next time. I turned and killed the chute. I’m alive!
I started critiquing my landing and telling Avi how I would do it better next time. He benevolently chided me, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. All safe landings are successful.” Still, it looked so much more graceful when others landed. Not to worry, it would come.
Everyone clapped. I did too. We cheered each person as they landed. We were now a “band of brothers,” bonded in the fact that we had all faced our fears—our dragons—and had won.
After savoring the moment for a while, I struck up a conversation with the instructors and founders of this company—actually, the pioneers of this sport in India. Now they are the leading paragliding training school in the country. I wondered how they got there.
Avi, the head instructor, and his wife Anita both had lucrative corporate jobs that they gave up to follow this dream. It was not easy going at first. It required a lot of capital and there were no takers for this unknown, risky adventure sport. I asked Anita what the breakthrough was.
“We had to make people aware. We told them, ‘We aren’t trying to sell you anything, only make you aware of this possibility. We want to share with you the joy of flying.’” I asked her what she felt was responsible for the success of this new endeavor. “We burned all our bridges. Failure was not an option. It was do or die. And we weren’t interested in the die part, so we had to do it. Everything depended on it.”
I learned that it took them several years of slogging, often giving 15-minute presentations at corporate lunchrooms or anywhere they could get an appointment. A few brave souls tried it. From there, news spread by word of mouth, and now they are booked just about every day.
I found that both Avi and Anita also had a deep spiritual side to their characters. It was more than just an adrenaline rush or a risky business venture. It was a form of inner flight for them, and they wanted to share it with others.
“Paragliding is like life,” Avi said. “We have to overcome difficulties and face challenges in both scenarios. Everyone has their personal journey. Though we might get help from a guru or from our friends, ultimately we have to proceed on our own and develop trust and faith.
“Flying from the slopes of majestic hills and mountains is nothing short of a pilgrimage for us. Our gliders are a means to help us fly, to be free from our worldly ties and taste oneness with the wind and the sky! Though we are with friends and teachers, our journey is also within, and alone. We have to face our fears and let go of our doubts and just fly!”
King David had a vision of God riding on the wings of a heavenly being: “He rode upon a cherub, and flew; he flew upon the wings of the wind.”2 It made him want to fly as well, as he mused in another Psalm: “Oh that I had wings like a dove! For then would I fly away, and be at rest.”3
“You never forget your first solo flight,” Avi assured me, and I certainly believe him. That unique sensation of soul, spirit, and body uniting to soar for those few moments will continue to be a source of inspiration that I can draw from in whatever new venture I put my hand to do, all the days of my life.
1 Isaiah 40:31 KJV
2 Psalm 18:10 NKJV
3 Psalm 55:6 KJV
Read by Amber Larriva. Music by sindustry(CC). Copyright© 2013 by The Family International