Zen and the Art of Not Dying: What I Learned Freediving in Thailand
Zen and the Art of Not Dying
Divorce brought me to a crossroads. Losing my family and the life I built felt like a death.
Rather than wallow in the months following the separation I decided instead to seek out and develop my Zen. I hopped on a plane and flew off to the Gulf of Thailand to read, box, and freedive.
Some people seek out beers, women, and sex shows in Thailand, but not me.
I traveled the world to find the deepest challenge I could find – the limitless power of the ocean.
Freediving (Diving Free)
No tank. No air. No life support. That’s how we begin. Face submerged into the cold water, three sharp kicks, a duck-like dive head-first ass-up into water and down you go. The end of the easy part.
Assaulting the ocean is a daunting task, overcoming your urge to breathe while submerged is even harder. There comes a point, rather quickly, after you’ve dived down beneath the surface where every bit of common sense demands you return to the safety of the open air, but today you’ve decided to conquer the ocean and overcome your instincts to prove a point.
Seeking challenges and rites of passage are a part of life. We all find ways to prove our worth to both nature and ourselves. Some of us run marathons, some of us fast for hours, some of us accept seemingly impossible tasks to push our limits and expand our horizons.
Today the horizon reaches out infinitely in all directions. There is no shore nearby, no oasis of safety, no boat, no dive partner. There is nothing but forever below and forever outward.
5, 10, 15 feet down you go. Eight minutes of breathing exercises done at the surface as you cling to a buoy hardly prepares you. As the pressure expands in your lungs the urge to breath becomes more than a desire, it becomes the singular drive in your existence.
You want to open your mouth and fill your lungs with the safety of fresh air, but all you have is your goggles, your mind, and your will to live. Blue dreams of death envelope your body: what am I doing, why am I doing this, I have to stop, I have to save myself.
The panic attacks you quickly. 20 feet down, ears closing in on your brain from the pressure, your blood rushing to your head bringing the last bits of O2 in your body to the one place it matters. Breath dummy, your body says. Breathe now. LIVE.
Today you are at war with yourself. It’s not the ocean and its remorseless ability to vanish you into the depths forever. It’s not your dive partner. No, it is your ego you’ve elected to conquer.
Few things make such an urgent demand than the will to live. Open your mouth, and the salty water will fill your lungs, dragging you to the bottom. But if you do not, your body feels like it will explode.
The irony of no air to breathe is that you feel like you’ve breathed too much. Your chest expands, the force against your esophagus builds demanding a release. You don’t consume air as much as it invades your lungs and punches its way out of you until you can’t hold it any longer.
But to get that sweet release means only one thing – the next moment your lungs will fill and you will take another step on the path to death.
This is the moment you’ve sought. You traveled around the world to paradise only to plunge yourself into the depths of danger and panic. Get back in the boat you say, get back to shore, have a beer and relax on the sand in the warm life-affirming sunshine. Forget this dark, cold, unforgiving water. What the hell are you doing?
Panic. You must breathe. Your body twitches, your head jerks upwards and fear sets in even deeper – the boat is so fucking far away there is no way you’ll ever make it. Will you quit? Will you give in? This is the time of truth. This is what you trained for. This is what you paid for.
Surrender to win
Peaceful relaxation is the only way to survive the perception of drowning. Thoughts of your training return to your consciousness. “Just calm down,” you tell yourself. You can do this.
You can survive in the depths of the ocean.
Thoughts of life and death turned upside down as you descend deeper into the blue unknown.
God bless your amazing machine of a body. It sounds the alarms well before they are needed. The safety measures kick in as the thoughts of danger arise not as the actual threat attacks.
Our bodies are built to spend extended periods of time below the surface of the ocean. We have something called the mammalian dive reflex which transforms us from land lubbers drunk with an abundance of oxygen into creatures of famine, physiologically changing to conserve every last bit of air in your body.
All the blood leaves your extremities and rushes to your central organs and brain. Your diaphragm contracts your lung cavity into a fraction of what it is on land.
And then the spasms begin.
The longer you go without breathing, the more intense they become. Like an extreme hiccup, the muscles contract forcing each last bit of air in your lungs closer to your heart. You can count them, the rhythm steady as your heartbeat. Focus on the contractions. Feel the upward thrust of your guts every second as your body switches into dolphin mode. Rather than panic at the sensation you’ve never experienced, find solace in knowing your body is taking care of you.
Instead of dying twenty seconds in, you’re now discovering 60, 120, 180 seconds later that you can not only survive but thrive.
Using your mind to conquer your body brings a sense of well-being and safety. Euphoria bleeds into your body like an oil spill creeping outwards into every bit of your consciousness.
The mammalian reflex calms you down, stress reduced in a time of near death experience. Gone is the overwhelming sense of panic and in its place is a warm comfort of a drug-induced bliss.
The panic now subsided, you return to senses and refocus on the task at hand. Where am I? What am I doing here? Your sense of mission returns.
Your body is ensconced in cold water crushing down upon you from all directions. A glance to the left shows cloudy blue nothing. A look to the right is the same. Downwards is darkness. The only object you can see is the rope descending from the surface, weighed down in place and displaying the prize you are seeking: the 100-foot depth marker.
Don’t struggle. Don’t stress. Don’t freak out.
Each thought uses oxygen you can not spare. Each shot of negative energy saps you of the one thing you can not do without.
You must find peace in the face of infinite pressure.
Push your boundaries, obliterate pain, leave your limitations floating on the surface with the buoy as you endure this self-selected journey of inward exploration.
Defeating the sense of impending death is the ultimate in mind control.
I had faced and conquered challenges of all sorts, be they business, relationships, or even a well-trained foe in the ring. But nothing prepared me for the moment of overriding my body’s most crucial instinct – the blasting message of imminent death.
Freediving is something I recommend to everyone.
Plunging deep into the ocean with no oxygen tank and only an insane urge to find the deepest place you can go, isolated and alone, face to face with the infinite is a life changing and affirming experience.
But not everyone will find their way to the Gulf of Thailand and the island of Koh Tao like I did.
After my divorce, I got on a plane and flew around the world to find the deepest farthest place I could find away from my fears of a new life, and plunged into the fears of dying.
I spent two weeks free diving in the winter of 2009.
And in it, I found life lessons I could never experience anywhere else.
Here is what I learned:
Even when you think you’re going to die, you probably aren’t.
If we can overcome the most primal urge we have, to breath life-affirming oxygen, what else can we overcome? The body presses matters urgently because it is our alarm system, it is designed to bring danger to our attention. But then our mind decides what to do. In many cases, listening to those instincts is the savvy move, but when you have to dig deep, your reserve of power and stamina will be deeper than you assume.
Those of us who can press through discomfort to find the true volume of will we possess will be surprised and empowered.
A prepared body can overcome challenges of the mind.
Before one dives deep into the ocean without a scuba tank, armed with nothing more than a set of goggles and questionable urge to challenge the sea, you don’t just dive deep and hope for the best. Before submerging, the free diver spends 8-10 minutes preparing the body through deep breathing exercises, changing the chemical balance of the blood. This conscious manipulation of the body to steel itself against the urges of the mind can translate into our daily lives. Cardiovascular workouts, weight training, and proper diet gird your human machine against the challenges of depression, anxiety, and stress. Train the body, and the mind will follow.
We are more adaptable than we think.
We are creatures of habit, and most of us find change to be stressful. Yet, the fear of change is usually far worse than the change itself. We have stores of energy and achievement hidden from ourselves, just waiting to be tapped. If we can use the mammalian dive reflex to go from landlubber to water lover, what else do we have hidden inside of us? Underestimating our real power is a common limitation. Think big, go big, and be pleasantly surprised when you are capable of far more than you imagined.
Mindset is everything.
Being submerged under the sea with no reserve oxygen is stressful. The mind resists, and panic can overtake you. Each additional layer of anxiety uses more of the very thing you must reserve, your precious air. Using the conscious mind to calm the subconscious becomes essential to survival. You must tell yourself it will be ok. You must remind yourself you can persist. You must use your brain to calm your worried body. Free diving reveals the power of the mind over both the body and the subconscious. Use your proactive will to overcome that which seems impossible. Train your mind using self-talk. Convince yourself you will overcome and succeed. Conquer the ocean and use that experience to conquer the world.
If the power of the mind is enough to overcome the panic of death, imagine what it can do in less severe circumstances?
Even if you can’t make it to Thailand to freedive, there are ways to practice this at home. Try holding your breath. Time yourself. See how long it takes before the urge to breathe kicks in. When you give up, note the time. Then try it again. And again. And again. Push through that moment of panic, ignore the pressure in the chest, dismiss the urge to taste that sweet, delicious air. Expand your limits. Find that you can overcome even the most critical conditions, that of “believing” you are going to die.
Breaking through that urge and into a new world of depth and exploration changed my life. It taught me, no matter what my body says, it is not as bad as I think. We can overcome.
We can go past the point of no return and come back.
If I can defeat the ocean, I can defeat anything, even myself.
The key is remaining calm, delivering messages of positive reinforcement to yourself, and changing your perception of the impossible.
If I can turn myself into a sea-faring mammal, then who knows what else I can become. Push past your perceived limits and unleash the animal within you.
Find your Zen and Master the Art of Not Dying.
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