Be Careful, and Fall Down the Stairs

I’m a Roman warrior standing on top of a huge stairway during an epic battle in ancient China. Facing my enemy below, I’m wearing a full suit of armor and cooking in the blistering summer sun and movie lighting. “You!” Alan, one of the stunt directors from Hong Kong, says to me. “We say action, wait signal, we shoot the arrow, you fall down.  OK?”

“Fall down the steps?” I ask. It’s about two flights down.

“Yeah. Be careful-ah” Alan tells me, adding some flavor from his native Cantonese. As usual, I had next to no time to think about what I was doing, which was probably for the best.

“3… 2… 1… Rolling… Action!” I’m looking mean but weary. Alan makes a motion of firing arrows from behind the camera, which will get added in later with CG. I’m hit! I scream in terrible pain as the imaginary arrow pierces my lung.  I fall back,and roll down the steps. The armor is soft, and the stairs are covered in foam – it’s not the most dangerous or painful stunt. But there’s a lot that can go wrong rolling down two flights of steps.

If I was trying to be careful in my habitual way of thinking, I would probably avoid rolling down staircases altogether. Working as a stunt man, Alan taught me a new way to be careful. A braver way.

Celebrating Alan’s birthday (center) with the stunt team during the filming of Dragon Blade. I’m on the right, next to the dude in the red shirt.

Being careful is important, but sometimes I conflate being careful with being comfortable. If did that in the above scenario, I would never have shown up on that movie set, and missed out on one of the most amazing experiences of my life. But I don’t always have the courage to separate safety from comfort.

In fact, many missed opportunities in my life come from an addiction to comfort and absence of courage. For example, I had a huge crush on a woman when we were both single. I ‘played it safe’ for too long, and by the time I admitted I had feelings for her, she already had a boyfriend, but confessed she’d had a crush on me at the time as well. Similar things have happened more times than I care to count or admit.  And I will certainly continue letting my fear get the best of me.  I’m writing this post to remind myself to cut that shit out.

Safety is important. If I wasn’t careful falling down that staircase, I could have broken some ribs, or ran into someone else and broken theirs. But for me, wanting comfort is usually just an excuse for a shortage of guts.

Being a stunt man taught me it’s possible to be safe AND brave. If I know I’m going to fall, there are techniques to minimize the chance of injury. In most scenarios, if I think about it, I can usually think of a way to mitigate potential danger, or I can find out ways. And if I’m being honest, in most scenarios, the potential for danger is over-inflated by my mind.

So instead of thinking of a million reasons for why I shouldn’t do the thing I’m afraid to do, or say the thing I’m afraid to say, I want to think of Alan. I want to remember to “be careful-ah,” and then do the thing before I have time to make excuses.


  • Being careful does not mean being comfortable
    It is possible to be brave and safe
    When I’m afraid to do a thing, my goal is to be as safe as possible, without using that as an excuse to not do the thing

Note – I was introduced to the idea of safety vs bravery by this article, which is in the context of social justice and diversity: “From Safe Spaces to Brave Space”

Getting Out of My Head

When it comes to personal and spiritual growth, it’s much more effective for me to process things I learn about myself non-cognitively. That is to say, process through feelings rather than thoughts. I find that when I slow down and digest new ideas in this way, they’re much more likely to stick and influence my actions.

As much as I’d like to believe my rational brain is running the show, it probably isn’t.  As Elliot Aronson said. “Human beings aren’t rational animals; we’re rationalizing animals who want to appear reasonable to ourselves.”

I think it’s possible to learn in a non-rational way. This is what my meditation teachers* call non-cognitive processing. Here’s my understanding of how that works. The thoughts of which I’m conscious are the tip of the iceberg of subconscious thoughts, emotions, physical sensation, and other deep mysterious shit. Behind every thought, there is some kind of a corresponding physical sensation, which can be felt directly. Ignoring the thought to feel the physical sensation is the key to non-cognitive processing.
If I only pay attention to the thought and ignore the physical sensations, I will never have that deeper experiential understanding. I call this ‘being stuck in my head.’  I’m stuck in my head much more than I care to admit – so this is something I’ve been working on for a long time.

If I’m stuck in my head when I eat a taco, I am only focused on the thought ‘Tacos are delicious,’ and miss out on the celebration of flavor happening inside my mouth, as well as the rest of my body’s reaction to all that gustatory glory. I believe this is what Bruce Lee was talking about when he said, “Don’t think! Feeeeeel.”

This applies to more than just tacos and high kicks. I like to apply this most often to learning about myself, or helping others to learn about themselves. Here’s how I’ve been trying to do that: when I have some kind of insight, I pause. Typically, a cacophony of thoughts begin to arise – in other words, I start going into my head. I ignore those thoughts. I take a deep breath. And I sit with whatever sensations are arising. I bask in those sensations – even the painful ones (especially the painful ones).

Clients often ask me, “But how do I feel those sensations?”  I respond by asking them, “Do you have a left hand?”  They say “Yes.”  I ask, “How did you know that?”  Before the cognitive mind kicks in and says, Yes, I know I have a left hand, something else happens.  My mind somehow puts its awareness onto the hand and feels its existence.  The annoying truth is that we all know how to feel – and as soon as we start thinking about it, we’re not doing it.

The bigger the realization, the more time I spend basking in its associated feels. Sometimes I can pull this off, most of the time I can’t.  When I do this, I’m much more likely to remember what I’ve learned, and act in accordance with that knowledge.  When I don’t do this, I stay the same and don’t grow.


  • I’m not rational
  • I learn more effectively when I do so non-cognitively
  • To learn non-cognitively, don’t think – feel

*Carol Blotter and Matt Flickstein