What places will we go to find ourselves? Motherhood in midlife raises new questions: Is this who I’m supposed to be when I grow up? What are my core values? What kind of example am I setting as for my kids?
I have been seeking out new experiences that can I try within the reasonable constraints of daily life: I have a husband and kids, I work, I volunteer, I have a budget, and so on. You can stretch yourself and satisfy your curious without dropping everything and escaping to a remote mountaintop or living in a jungle treehouse for a year. There are ways to shake up your awareness right here in San Antonio, and still make it in time to pick up your kids from school.
Recently, four experiences have stood out for shaking up my awareness. First, I spent an hour in a sensory deprivation tank. Later, my kids and I went caving. Most recently, I visited an indoor skydiving tunnel. And over a period of weeks, I spent time with a life coach. All of these experiences have shaped me and helped me grow.
FLOAT Sensory Deprivation Tank
The first time I heard of sensory deprivation tanks was as kid reading Tom Clancy’s Cold War thriller The Cardinal of the Kremlin, in which the KGB used a sensory deprivation chamber to torture a spy into confessing secrets. That didn’t dissuade me.
It’s easy to go online and book a session, building in some buffer time before you have to re-enter your normal life. Once you arrive, check in, change into a robe, and spend a few minutes unwinding in a massage chair before you enter the float chamber. After your session, plan to stay and experience the sensation for a while.
Wondering what to expect? FLOAT has a tour video to introduce their space:
I’ve talked to other team members about their float experiences, and it’s a little different for everyone, but here’s how it felt for me.
I passed over the tube-shaped pods for one that’s shaped like a big box. Once I got inside—totally nude—the door closes, and there was dim light and soothing music. The water was warm like a summer swimming pool. It had so much dissolved Epsom salt that the density pushed up on my body. There was a faint salt smell in the air. Once I found a place to settle your arms—either on my chest, behind my head, or spread out to the side—my face floated above the level of the water. Gradually, the light and music faded away. The tank is pitch black.
Without the sensations of light in my eyes, sound in my ears, fabric or furniture on my skin, my mind felt like a blank canvas for our minds. My phone was put away in a locker, and I was trusting other people to be on call if the kids need something; I had no way of knowing how soon the hour would be over. Without the distractions of daily life, where would my mind go? If you stare long enough at the abyss, does it stare back?
Trying to think about nothing always seems to backfire; something will always pop into my mind. As part of learning to manage depression, I have developed habits of curating and cultivating positive thoughts in my mind. Those habits served me well during float time. There were times when fears and doubts crept into my mind, but I also felt sensations of joy, excitement, and possibility. If in your everyday life you feel like your thoughts are managing you, rather than the other way around, then spending an hour in float might be a challenging experience. However, it might be an opportunity for insight that leads to your building meditative and mindful practices into your daily life.
After the float, my body felt rubbery and relaxed. I spent a few minutes lounging on the couch and noticing how I was feeling before going back to the dressing room and re-equipping myself for daily life. I can still access the float sensation in my mind. I want to go back and experience it again, and knowing better now what to expect, I think I will get even more benefit from the hour of quiet contemplation.
FLOAT is amazing place because one moment you are parking at a strip mall, and a few minutes later you are having a mind-expanding spiritual experience. A few hours later, you get back in your car and drive back into your life, but you’re leaving FLOAT a slightly different person than when you came. There is a little ball of golden energy held inside your chest that you carry with you into your life and your relationships.
Robber Baron Cave
In fantasy literature, a wainscot society is a parallel culture culture that exists in and around our own, without our even noticing it. A famous example is the wizarding world of Harry Potter. That’s how I think about Robber Baron Cave, a network of tunnels under the streets and homes of Oak Park—Northwood, a midcentury subdivision between Alamo Heights and the airport.
About every 18 months, the TCMA holds an open house and welcomes the public for tours. (At other times, Bexar Grotto, a local caving group, also has events at Robber Baron Cave for members.) Along with my kids, F.T. (age 10) and G.N. (age 7 at the time), we walked up and signed up for the self-guided tour. Some visitors reserved their time slots online in advance; adults and teens can take a more challenging guided tour. Our tour would start in about an hour, so we walked to Starbucks for cake pops and hot cocoa, wearing our grubbiest clothes.
Our tour began with a walk down a ramp into a sinkhole with crumbling caliche walls. Experienced cavers outfitted us with helmets with lights, while volunteers with clipboards carefully tracked who entered and left the cave to ensure no one was left behind.
The self-guided tour followed a loop through the best-known tunnels of the cave. Unlike Natural Bridge Caverns, Robber Baron is a rough cave, with centuries of wear and tear, but it’s still like stepping into another world. The air is warm and humid, and bats and spiders live inside. Some spaces were high enough to walk in, but others were so low that we crawled on our hands and knees.
The final stretch of the tour was the exit crawl. G.N. went first; she is small, fast, and fearless. F.T. went next. He’s a big kid, almost adult-sized, and risk-averse. I brought up the rear.
F.T. had to slither on his belly through the exit crawl. Partway through the tunnel, F.T. called out in distress. I saw his helmet light stop moving. I called out to him, “Keep going. You can do it. I’m right behind you.” He started scooting forward again, while I questioned my parenting decision to bring him into this cave.
A moment later, I raised my head to check on F.T., and my helmet banged on the roof of the tunnel. I tried to twist my torso but my shoulder hit the rock. I felt panic in my chest, but I took a deep breath and told myself to keep going.
When the kids and I reached the exit and stood up, I felt relieved. We walked out of the sinkhole and volunteers checked us off the clipboard. G.N. was playful, but F.T. was sad and angry at me for putting him through the exit crawl. As I’ve shared before, F.T. is on the autism spectrum, and I encourage him to do things that make him uncomfortable. I hope that’s good parenting, to help him prepare for life, but sometimes I doubt myself.
On the surface again, I talked to the volunteers about the experience: that feeling of crawling through a tight tunnel and making it out into the open air again. It’s an adrenaline rush, and I can see why some people get addicted to caving. I’m proud of how F.T. and I kept pushing through the exit crawl.
iFLY Indoor Skydiving
What else could I do to test myself while staying within the city limits of San Antonio? iFLY invited me to try two complimentary one-minute flights at their indoor skydiving tunnel located at I-10 and Loop 1604. How would it feel to go skydiving without jumping out of an airplane? Would I feel afraid, or would I experience the freedom of flight?
To prepare to fly, put on athletic clothes and sneakers, braided my hair, and I checked in and got a barcoded wristband. My flight instructor, Thomas, showed me a training video that covered key facts like the proper body position and what hand signals to use in the tunnel, where wind is the only thing you hear. I suited up with a flight suit, goggles that fit over my glasses, and a helmet.
I walked into the enclosure and sat on the bench, feeling the anticipation build inside me. I tried to clear my mind and relax. Fans started running below and above. Thomas got inside and signaled me to walk in. I put my arms above my head, bent at the elbows, my hands almost meeting in the middle, and my fingers spread out. I leaned forward from my hips, and Thomas guided me into the stream of air. He used hand signals to remind me to straighten my legs and point my feet.
At first I was thinking a lot about how to hold my body. My arms started to feel tired from pushing down. The wind pushed in to my mouth and nose. I didn’t feel a sense of falling; instead, the air felt like a strong force lifting me up. I remembered Thomas’s instruction to relax and noticed the sensations on my body and the feeling of being surrounded by air on all sides.
Each flight was a minute long. One minute sounds really short, but it’s actually a long time to be up in the air. Being in the tunnel is not a passive experience; I was always adjusting my body to stabilize in the wind, and I felt the work in my body’s core.
On the second flight, as you can see in the video, Thomas and I started out near the bottom of the tunnel, but then we circled around near the top of the tunnel. My achievement was to stop overthinking and enjoy the freedom of flight.
The feeling of flight was liberating. I already bought a set of passes to come back with my whole family.
Building My Dream with a Life Coach
Sometimes our lives change because of a social media serendipity. Vidya Ananthanarayanan is an old friend who had mentored me in the past, but we hadn’t seen each other face-to-face for a few years. Vidya posted on Facebook that she was starting an entrepreneurial venture. I commented words of encouragement and she messaged me that she would like to tell me more.
Vidya is a life adventure guide. I signed up for a series of coaching sessions. We’ve been meeting for several months now, and I’m confident that my experience will have a lasting impact on my life.
My life is in transition right now. My kids are becoming more independent and need a different kind of guidance: They don’t need someone to tie their shoelaces, but they do need someone to create opportunities for them to grow. My nonprofit work is taking off: My daughter proudly says “My mom is a CEO,” and I’m starting to believe it myself.
Here are examples of some of the obstacles I have been trying to overcome. I don’t want to sit down at the computer to work, but feel so overwhelmed with a hundred thoughts that I don’t know where to start. I don’t want to feel afraid of the reaction I get when I publish a controversial post. When something good and unexpected happens, I don’t want to assign it to luck—I want to feel like I deserve it. When I get invited to a stand on a bigger stage, I don’t want to feel like an impostor; I want to feel like I belong.
Life coaching can address these problems, but it takes work by the coach and the client. I still struggle with old habits of thought that keep reasserting themselves. There is power in imagining something that seems totally out of reach and impossible under your current circumstances. When you start thinking about it in specific detail—such as, what shoes will I be wearing when I stand on that stage to give the big speech?—it gets real. Even if that specific outcome doesn’t happen, the dream will move you in the right direction. That is the power of thought and belief. The universe is complex and moves in ways we can never understand; the best we can do is to appreciate the vastness and glory of it.
What else should I try? My friend Jennifer Jones has set herself a challenge to try something new every month this year. She started with synchronized swimming and has plans for belly dancing, whitewater kayaking, paddle board yoga, snowboarding, race car driving, trapeze, a pottery wheel class, and a cooking class. Whew!
What experiences have you sought out recently to learn more about yourself?