Taking Risks

This past weekend a good friend (and soulmate) of mine assembled a group of his closest allies to join him in celebration of his sixty-fifth birthday. It was a gathering more than a party, an opportunity for a trusted few to convene around a fire for a quiet moment of shared time and reflection. My friend, at this juncture of his life, was looking forward toward his remaining years and asking for help with taking what he called “a leap”.

Seven men–most of us psychologists or therapists–sat under the starlit San Antonio sky, while the neighbor’s dog gnawed on an old bone behind us. Amidst the crackling of embers and murmur of night sounds, my friend started our conversation by offering the following topic: I’d be curious to hear everyone share a story from their own life in which they took a great risk.

One attendee spoke of leaving his high-paying corporate job to pursue a career in social work. Another told of his calling to purchase a lakeside home that “felt right” despite deep-rooted doubts about being able to afford it. A third shared about the risk it took for him to face his drinking and enter sobriety. Me? I didn’t know what to share.

It wasn’t that I was short on stories. There were plenty of times in my life when I felt like I was taking a risk. There was that love letter I wrote at the age of 15, or traveling alone in India, or the moment I quit six years of studying Chinese medicine to start graduate studies in counseling, or my giving a TEDx talk despite a terror of public speaking. These all felt like risks at the time, but, in the context of last Friday evening, none of these seemed, well, like risks to me in hindsight.

As I sat there listening to everyone’s stories, part of my mind was lost in private thought. I calmly wondered, How are we defining risk? When we speak of risk, what is it that we think we are risking? Is it financial security? Life and limb? Our emotions? Our identity and sense of self? What compels us to view some actions as risks? Is risk even real? Or is it just an illusion, a reflection of our fears and misunderstanding about who we really are? 

In that beautiful moment, among the trees and bugs and surround of tender-hearted peers, I felt so completely unattached to a personal sense of separate self that vulnerability–risk–seemed like an unthinkable concept. What I am is not “I”, but All.  I am the sky which can take no risk, the waves and the winds and the stones which can take no risks, the minuscule and monumental movements of infants and orbits, beyond time, immortally connected in the intimate dance of all being. I could no more be injured than an individual cloud, an individual raindrop, or an individual song hummed by a traveler upon a mountain trail. This is the true nature of self, the self that cannot be injured, the self that is never at risk.

Our hearts and minds may often hold us back. They mean well, but are not always wise. When fears arise to tighten our reins–warning us of so-called risks–maybe it would be helpful for us to take a moment to consider what it is we are really risking. If we are led by love and hope, a deep inward calling, compassion (even to ourselves), and spirit of selflessness, then we can trust; we can surrender to action with gentle courage. Love is the wisdom within us, the truth of who we really are (and are not). Love is our invincibility.