How do you jump off a 100-foot pole?

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated September 09, 2012 12:00 AM

There is a Zen koan that asks the cryptic question, “How do you jump off a 100-foot pole?” A koan is pretty much like a riddle but one must abandon thinking and embrace it holistically to get its message. And there is no one definitive message in a koan. There are many ways to be right and wrong about it. The most common way to approach it (and it is the wrong way) is to be logical, rational and mental. To understand a koan, one must sit, quiet oneself, and marinate in the koan until it reveals its secret to you. Think of its meaning as something like a territory that you enter. You can be anywhere north, south, east, west of its territory, meaning-wise, and explore it all over, and in the process you will discover shades and nuances of meaning.

This week, with the box office and critical success of the movie I Dobidoobidoo, I, and the people behind the movie, have been basking in the limelight. Honestly, it feels great. It is very validating to have one’s work recognized and appreciated in a big way. I’m sure everyone in the cast feels it too. Everyone associated with the production must be on a high. As high as a 100-foot pole.

I remember those times when I could not sleep after an APO concert. The audience reaction and the performance itself would give me an adrenalin rush that kept me awake even when I was physically tired from doing a two-hour show. I simply could not relax and doze off. It would take quite a while for the adrenalin to dissipate from my system. I would lie down, close my eyes but to no avail, and I would finally fall asleep as the sun was rising.

It felt great doing a show where all the things we planned worked out beautifully. Sometimes, my lingering excitement after a show would cause a clash with my wife who had an entirely different experience of it as a member of the audience. I expected from her the same level of involvement and appreciation of the minute aspects of the show, and I would be so disappointed when she appeared less involved or enthusiastic than I was. To her, it was just another performance that ended when it ended, or at best lingered for a short while. But to me it was about a host of other things — an act of daring, an achievement in execution, a validation of our talent from the audience.

I now have a better appreciation of my wife’s reaction. Even today, when I get too giddy and excited about the things I am involved in, she reminds me that it is only, say, a workshop, a song, a performance, or a movie. She is obviously coming from a different place. But her attitude has helped keep me grounded. Her deadpan remarks are great reminders for me to let go and practice non-attachment to those things that bloat the ego. She helps me get off the 100-foot pole.

Going back to the koan, I want to rephrase it coming from an artistic point of view and ask, ‘How does one get out of the predictable and sure formula that one is successful at? And why should one even think of changing the formula?”

I ask myself these questions quite often. My great fear as an artist is complacency, being too comfortable about my art and developing a fear of “walking on the edge” and trying new things. I always remind myself to try out new approaches, open myself to new opportunities and take risks. The older I get and knowing that I have less time to enjoy my work, the more adventurous I have become. One thing I know is, I don’t want to be a “safe” artist. I want to feel alive and I can only feel that when I practice creativity and awareness.

I admire artists like Miles Davis who started so many trends in jazz throughout his career. He made new rules and often broke them. He was always pushing the envelope. There’s also Picasso. I am not a fan of every stage he went through but I admire his playful and adventurous creative spirit.

I think it is only possible to be like that if one is willing to jump from the stratospheric 100-foot pole where the “sure thing” is kept on a pedestal, and leave behind old formulas and concepts, tried and tested templates, and question rules, norms and judgment, so that we remain open to whatever turns up. Only then can new, fearless, inspired, original creation happen.

This can be applied to all other disciplines and aspects of living, from parenting to new business ventures, surviving mid-life, trying to start anew at life, etc. There is a point when one needs to move forward and leave his comfort zone and that can be terrifying. But this comfort zone can eventually become a death zone where one stops growing and becomes content, stuck with only what he knows or understands. Life becomes static, boring, a closed set. Knowledge becomes obsolete. And one feels dead to one’s self.

When one has reached this point in one’s life, the next step is The Leap.

I met a woman who became a successful producer at a TV network. She started her working life there, paid attention and learned the ropes, worked her way up the ladder and eventually became a producer of some big shows. While it was exciting for many years, she eventually got tired of the pressure. She realized that despite her success and the money she earned, she was not happy; she did not have time to feel alive and even have a real life. She felt that if she stayed on, her life would be meaningless and miserable.

She finally resigned after nine years on the job, and after resting, she embraced baking with great passion and abandon. These days, she calls herself a baker and a chef, and by her own account, she is happy, fulfilled — and successful. And she earns enough to support herself.

Security, predictability and safety are great. But at a certain point, they can be soul killing. I think of people I have met who abandoned their ambitions, opting for security rather than pursuing their dreams and passions, settling for second best. They are generally a dissatisfied bunch. Many have stopped feeling, they have lost the capability to love or come alive. They went for security but later found themselves stuck in the sure thing that provides them employment and financial support in exchange for feeling truly alive.

I have also met people who gave up job security to take higher studies, or start new ventures, or migrate to another country. They talk of feeling so alive despite a cut in pay and a step down in status or standard of living. They feel new energies oozing out of them, guiding them where to go, what to do, who to talk to, etc.

The paradox is, uncertainty can be wonderful even if we fear and avoid it. Many times, the uncertain and unsure is thrust upon us by fate, and we discover that our road maps are suddenly inadequate and we must make new ones to survive. Some adjust bravely and successfully. Those are the lucky ones.

The unlucky ones are left alone as if fate has denied them a deus ex machina that messes things up. Nothing dramatic or unexpected shakes up their lives. No outward crisis befalls them and forces them out of their comfort zone. Instead, they go through a slow, quiet “dying” which goes largely unnoticed. Years of living without challenge or passion have made them unable or unwilling to listen to the remaining life force inside them that is crying for attention.

Sadly, they will never experience jumping off the 100-foot pole.

* * *

Attention Bohol and Cebu: I will be having a photography workshop this Oct. 20 at Bee Farm in Bohol. This is open to beginners, and to all levels. If you are interested, please write me at, and I will send you the details. I promise you a great time.

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Joe America
8 years ago

You lay the pole on the ground, step up on it, and jump.

Nice perspective. Life does not end until it ends. Therefore, it is best to fill it up. I used to be a hard working, monetarily rich executive in the U.S. and now I am an obscure blogger in the Philippines, and I am happier and richer than I’ve every been. Cheers.