In the spring of 1976, I was a 25-year-old Montessori pre-school teacher living in Missouri and looking for reinvention. My first love had moved out and broken my heart. I was drowning in self-doubt. When a friend mentioned that he’d once taken an Outward Bound survival course and it had changed his life, I was in.
After a few phone calls to O.B. headquarters in Hurricane Island, Maine I packed some clothes and drove my little Honda Civic across the country for a three-week-long June course on an open pulling boat off the foggy coast of Maine. I’d heard the stories of being dropped off alone on a tiny island for three days with only a tarp and some water. I knew about the required morning jumps from the edge of a 75-foot-cliff into the freezing Maine water where you could die of hypothermia in 20 minutes. I was terrified and elated.
I’d never done anything like this. I’d grown up in the 50s in the conservative south where girls behaved well and men created the rules. I’d found my posse of true friends when I’d dropped out of University of Missouri in 1970 to march against the Vietnam war and ultimately to launch a dream.
Mostly disowned by our conservative families because of our alternative beliefs, we worked menial jobs, opened “health-food restaurants,” bought land, grew our food, and lived organically before that was a thing. We discussed, debated and practiced new kinds of spiritual awareness such as meditation, metaphysics and living simply. I had completely loved that part of my journey.
But the “real” world beckoned as we each awoke to the realities of financial survival on untamed land in the center of Missouri. Most of us left the farm in pursuit of more meaningful careers and the training they required. I’d pursued and become a teacher.
I’d done okay as a Montessori preschool teacher, but it soon felt like it wasn’t enough, like I was starving for something more, never having taken my true path – whatever that was to be. And when my first love, Jeff, moved out, I became untethered, without boundaries, adrift. My soul was hungry for new direction; for rebirth. I felt I had nothing to lose.
From the first moment of arrival at Hurricane Island, we were treated like military grunts in basic training, given duffle bags to stuff our few pieces of clothing into, assigned to bunk beds, run through obstacle courses and taught basic nautical navigation with compass and sea charts.
We were required to run at least three miles around the island every morning at sunrise, culminating in the morning cliff jump. I’d never run before. I’d been a dancer. This was 1976 – long before the movie Rocky changed our culture, turning us into fist-pumping fitness addicts. I was winded and exhausted from the first step of every early morning run.
I’ll never forget my initiation into cliff jumping, as dozens of cold and terrified people just like me lined up to take our turns running and jumping off a cliff that clearly lead to a hideous death far below (either smashed against the rocky shore if we did not leap far enough or drowning in the tumbling waves of the deep blue sea). I was trembling and nauseous with fear as I got closer to the front of the line. But my wise instructor whispered: “Don’t think. Just run and jump. Feel the fear and do it anyway.”
In that moment, my life truly did begin to change. I took a deep breath, opened my heart and ran for it. I was suddenly soaring over the water screaming, laughing, then underwater fighting for the surface. When I immerged, I heard cheers and felt the most immense joy I’d ever known. Pure elation. I’d done a terrifying and impossible thing and loved it.
For the next three weeks, the hardest weeks of my life thus far, I found myself overcoming fear a thousand times a day. I’d been randomly assigned to a “mobile course” – meaning that after our initial basic training on Hurricane Island, 12 of us lived together on a wooden open pulling boat with two sails and 24 heavy oars – enough for everyone to row endlessly on the windless foggy sea.
Hypothermia was a constant threat as we slept in sleeping bags thrown on top of the oars laid crosswise across the boat. We sailed or rowed from island to island – sailing through storms that left us puking and rowing through windless days for back-breaking hours. When we arrived on an island, we hauled our gear to the beach and instantly went for long runs together.
Our instructors read to us every day and night; inspiring stories of famous adventurers who’d trekked into the unknown to discover new lands or climbed unclimbed peaks in impossible conditions. The message was simple: Human potential is immeasurable and its imagined limits are always being stretched. Step up to your untapped potential. Break through limitations. Fear is simply energy. Use it to move forward.
My instructor was bad-ass and wise all at once. When I lagged behind on a morning run, he would jog beside me whispering about finding my inner strength and not being wimpy. When we rowed around an island to discover a towering 100-foot rock cliff rising straight up from the open sea, he taught us to rock climb. I felt strong and smart on my first-ever climb, with the sea to my back and the promise of heaven above, I stretched and reached and pushed like a dancer on a vertical stage. When I reached the top, my instructor told me that I was a graceful and talented natural climber, and that I was stronger than I knew. I drank his words like water.
When I began that Outward Bound course, I believed my first love, Jeff, had left me because I wasn’t good enough – deeply flawed, too insecure. I was wrapped in self-doubt from childhood, raised by a mother who never knew how to love me, and shamed in a family where my kind of sensitivity, intuition and spiritual awareness was discarded. I was the oldest, and my role was to be perfect and to raise the younger siblings – which I did until the age of 18. That was my job – especially as my mother surrendered to miscarriages and depression. I swore I’d never be like her. But leaving home at 18, I didn’t know a single good thing about myself except that I could write.
Alone for three days on that tiny freezing island off the Maine coast, nestled under a flimsy tarp strung between evergreens, as storm after storm washed through, I was terrified at night by the howling wind and pounding waves, the deep black sky, the sense of utter isolation from the world. Left with nothing but my fear and my tears, I began to remember who I was. I found my radiant indestructible soul. I was reborn into someone strong and good. Fear was now my ally. Fear and doubt became my fuel for reinvention.
After that course was over, I returned to Missouri, became an avid rock climber, and worked my way through college to get a degree in psychology and to impossibly became a Colorado Outward Bound mountaineering instructor two years later – which led me on the journey to be who I am today.
When we bravely say yes to life, open our hearts, and jump into the deep blue sea of fear, we emerge stronger than we ever believed we could be, we awaken to our true selves. We shift from ego lens to divine lens, and everything changes for the better.
From my book: Your Divine Lens