During 5 days of Free Diving training in Koh Tao, Thailand 2017, I learnt how to face fears of drowning, hold my breath much longer, slow down my heart like a dolphin does. This taught me how to be mindful even in extreme situations.
I have loved to hold my breath underwater since I was a young child. Aged 8 I would practice in the bathtub staring through my goggles at my waterproof watch. There is something comforting and womb-like about floating in the enclosed warm water. I had no idea about deep ‘Free diving’ until I saw the film ‘The Big Blue’ in my teens, the film about the pioneer Jacques Mayol, the first man to descend 100 metres on a single breath. This January (2017) in Thailand, over 20 years later, I was excited to embark on a formal course in how to dive up to 30metres deep using similar methods to Jacques’.
Day one – Don’t look down…
It all began early morning in a dry training room with fluorescent lights and an HD flat screen. There were four others in my class of varied experience, all male and most in their 30’s. Our instructor Morgan Guille, long hippy hair, often smiling about his passion for the dive, showed us videos of professional free divers descending to depths of around a hundred meters. Perching on the edge of plastic chairs we breathed in very deeply exhaled very slowly. An important principle was to do everything during a dive with minimal physical exertion, much like a relaxed meditation with unhurried motion.
Emboldened with new breathing techniques and impressive videos we motored out to Apnea Total’s dedicated dive boat in deeper water. We jumped overboard and huddled around a float like one of the rings you see on ships for saving lives. The class was split – I was paired with a spear fisher who had done free diving to 20 metres before. I had snorkelled to about 12meters.
Beneath our float a rope extended downwards into the void. It was 14metres long but we could only see half of it due to poor visibility. The empty murky water seemed bottomless. The lack of bearings there made me feel vulnerable and exposed.
This photo captures the scary emptiness. The lack of fish or anything else is not a photographic accident. There was nothing to see other than the rope and an all surrounding ‘big blue’.
What Morgan told us to remember as we descended:
- Do not look where we are going – Morgan told me this would be particularly difficult for me as a snorkeler. We do this for two reasons: 1) Looking for the end of the rope can stress you, and 2) arching your head upwards can be enough to block the Eustachian tubes to your ears. This ends the descent immediately when the pressure is constantly increasing. I had to trust the clear course set by the rope – hoping I would not bang my head.
- Don’t have a goal to reach the bottom or stay a particular length of time. This is not because you do not want to learn to go deeper: any goal can so easily stress you and affect your performance.
My background in teaching mindfulness for mental health professionals has taught me much about goal-less pursuits. It is easy to get anxious about getting anxious which is like choosing to double the anxiety. That’s how anxiety quickly becomes a debilitating panic – if you drop the intention to reduce your anxiety, your anxiety is less likely to escalate. A different example of the paradox of intention can be found in psychosexual therapy: dropping the intention of having an orgasm might either increase the intensity of orgasm or reduce the likelihood of premature ejaculation in men.
Today I had my most intense experience ever of how a fixed desire can immediately derail you from achieving what you wish.
Snorkelling since childhood, I have enjoyed views of fish and coral but in deep diving you are surrounded by an endless emptiness. It is the opposite to the womb-like protection of warm water in an enclosed space. Out there I feel exposed, vulnerable, bearingless, easily lost, only a cold course rope to cling to and tell me which way is up. I’ve never suffered from agoraphobia but this felt something like that. The visibility was only 7 metres so at just 9 metres I had vanished into the void, invisible to anyone on the surface. At just ten metres depth my buoyancy is negative and I’m sinking like a rock, I’m constantly pushing air into my ears to prevent pain. I arch back my head to look down the rope. I’m hoping to see the bottom but can only see an unending void, I look up and can’t make out the surface through the murky water. I feel very fragile and suffocated. My diaphragm is pumping involuntarily as it demands to breathe and I fear for my safety. That was when my ears would often start to hurt, and I would hurry back to the surface for fear of drowning. At the end of day one I made it to 13meters which was only one metre deeper than I had managed before. My spear fisher class mate made it to 15 meters. Morgan is very complimentary of how we dived and doing a great job of stopping us stress about achievement.
I always knew that is was as much psychological as a physical thing to hold your breath, but this dive took it to another level. Much as they warn about taking a hallucinogenic drug, I was taught my state of mind just before the journey affects everything. Starting in an anxious place will not get you where you wish to go. The physical pressure as I went deeper made me feel more and more squished. This was of course yet another thing to trigger my anxieties and fears. Free diving is an education in being at peace with your mind. Will you panic or will you surrender to the ocean’s stillness? The smallest doubt can send you spiralling into an unpleasant mental state, quickly leading you to a truly dangerous situation. This is an excellent way to confront the age-old idea that what you fear will control you, and that if you face that fear then new freedoms open up. In a mindfulness-informed therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy we even say ‘If there is something you can’t have (as in accept) then you’ve got it’. This is an interesting paradox and I think it is one of the most important things to understand about the human mind: if you are dead-set on not experiencing a certain fear then you will experience it even more. Imagine that you hate opera music so much that you take steps to ensure you never hear it. Before you know it your life will shrink in the number of films you can watch and the number of places you can visit. If your aversion is active enough your fear will continually worsen. In free diving this paradox is intensified because you are confronting your own mortality. Not in the sense that you will die one day, but in the sense that you might die right now if you let fear push you to make bad choices. In Jacques Mayol’s book Homo Delphinus, he even says that in deep diving “there is no space for error. If you make an error, you die.”
Day Two – how to slow down your heart
Today the dive school extended our rope down to 20 metres. I liked Morgan’s further reassurances that free diving is safe. Apparently there was only ever one death in all the competitions since they began. At Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas, 2013, Nicholas Mevoli died rupturing his lungs
after descending 72 metres in a record attempt – the pressure caused a haemorrhage. The autopsy found scars indicating he had history of this. Even two days before he died he was coughing up blood. So I should be OK when in company I follow safety procedures: there should always be other divers around you to check on you in case you pass out. Passing out is a more likely threat than rupturing your lungs. If I do pass out there will be someone next to me at all times to get me to the surface immediately.
New things I learnt today:
- If someone passed out underwater – whilst lifting them back to the surface we tilt their heads forward to stop water going down their throat!
- We humans have retained some instinctual capacities from our aquatic ancestors. It’s called the mammalian dive reflex. If you stick your head in a bucket of cold water your heartbeat automatically drops. The same thing happens in aquatic mammals as they begin to dive. Secondly, your larynx spasms if you pass out to stop water entering your lungs.
- A new layer was added to the breathing technique. We already learnt to take very long in and out breaths to oxygenate our blood thoroughly before the dive. Today we learnt to place some shallower breaths in between the deep breaths to flush out more of the carbon dioxide.
- I finally got accustomed to not looking where I was going and felt the benefits. I still get the urge to look but I am trusting in Morgan’s guidance. Most of the time I see him facing me as we descend in tandem. He smiles with tranquillity through a face that constantly reminds me of the relaxed open state I should be in. I only dove two metres deeper but it felt different – it was easier to equalise the air pressure. I am still not completely comfortable but I am less anxious. There is a softening in my reactions to the pressure.
Video of descending to 15m at the end of day two. Morgan the camera man is holding he breath too.
Day three – meditating while submersed
Today we learnt yet another breathing technique only for use on the surface. “Static Immersion” is both a competitive event and a training technique. As the name suggests, you hold your breath for as long as you can, but without moving. Movement is of course a key factor during any breath hold in that the more you move the more oxygen you consume. I also learnt today that mental activity uses up to 40% of our oxygen. Static immersion trains us to reduce mental activity. It is largely a mindfulness meditation on a breath hold. It fits well with the ‘body scan meditation’ in that you are looking for tension throughout your body. A tight neck, a tense jaw wastes precious oxygen. In the latter half of the breath hold, you will feel increasingly uncomfortable. At some point you will feel strong contractions in your diaphragm as though your body demands to breath. If I become anxious about this, the fear will escalate rapidly! It then feels like I’m drowning in panic.
The static immersion breathe-up technique is faster than that for deep diving – each inhale or exhale lasts only about 7 seconds. This has the effect of expelling even more carbon dioxide. We are told emphatically not to do this for deep dives as we need the carbon dioxide to urge us to return to the surface. Without it we might pass out without warning. This training experience helps us become more familiar with the later stages of a breath hold, in a safer setting. It is usually done lying face down in water but can also be practised on dry land. The former has the benefit of triggering the mammalian reflex response that 1) lowers the heart rate, 2) releases more red blood cells from the spleen (after multiple dives) so that more oxygen can be absorbed 3) brings on vasoconstriction to focus the blood flow to the bodies core organs. 4) Improves our ability to cope with pressure by placing more blood plasma in the lungs. Our evolutionary path prepared us to survive extended time and depth underwater. Hardly surprising when we evolved on a planet covered in water. Indeed, we are even born drowning as we transition from the fluid-filled lungs in womb to the world of air.
Another intriguing thing that Morgan taught us is that children who dive without goggles gain the ability to focus their eyes underwater during childhood. They only lose the ability as their eyes become adult. This was first studied in a sea-faring nomadic tribe in Thailand called the Moken. The researcher Anna Gislen noticed that their eyes adapt and function much like dolphin eyes. She also managed to teach European children aged 9-11 to do the same. This echoes the Victorian idea that the early developmental stages of a biological organism echo parts of its evolutionary history. For example a chicken wing in the embryo looks briefly like a dinosaur arm. And so our children’s eyes temporarily function like dolphin eyes underwater.
Our first breath hold today was done on land. I laid down on a comfortable mat whilst Morgan, coached me through the breath up. Part of the practice is to pull air into your belly area before filling the chest. Placing a hand on each of those body parts helped me focus and improve this, though I had a tendency to fill my chest too quickly and breath too slowly. Towards the end of the 2 minute’s preparation I felt quite drunk with air – as though I’d had so much of the stuff I could happily go without it.
I take my final deepest breath and feel the odd pressure of my over inflated lungs, stretched out from within. Morgan coaches me sitting to my right. He tells me the pressure on my chest will ease. He tells me to feel the air from the ceiling fan on my skin. His voice is soothing. I find this really helpful as it reminds me of body scan meditations I have done with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s, telling us to notice the feeling of air moving against our skin. This helps me quickly move into a peaceful state of relaxation. Morgan already encouraged me to choose something from my meditation experience to use during the breath hold, so I scan around my body for signs of tension. As my scattered attention finds focus, I find my feet, my hands and my neck are tense. Feeling these tensions more fully I can let them go. I feel incredibly comfortable just like I do during a breathing meditation. I don’t even feel aware that I am not breathing. The absence of breathing feels natural and deeply comfortable. Then I hear a loud bang followed by a crash. I let go of the urge to do something about it but Morgan tells me to start recovery breaths. He explains something has happened in the next room and he has to go help out. I am disappointed I don’t get to find out how long I can go, though concerned about the crash. No harm was done. From what I over hear it sounds like someone fainted while practising his breath hold sitting up. Morgan tells me that 2mins 45secs had elapsed when he told me to breath. I am surprised that I still had no urge to breathe by that time.
We all head to the beach. The rain in Koh Tao is overwhelming the island. I’m told it’s the worst they’ve had in 17 years. The foundations of buildings are washed away and the water I am wading into is flushed with rubbish and plastic bottles from all over the island. In the water I feel a little less confident knowing that breathing will not come instantly if I need it. I will be lying face down in the ‘deadbody position’ – just like the swimming pool corpses in crime films. However, the water in my face should help me last longer as it should evoke the dive reflex and lower my heart rate.
I have more bodily reactions to the feeling of water in my face and the floating sensation. I am not wearing a mask so I feel the water against my eyelids. I worry the salt might leak into my eyes if I relax too much. The floating sensation is soon relaxing but some reflex in me demands I check I am not floating off into some unknown danger. The cold water should trigger a nerve ending near my eyes and lower my heart rate. I have more tension in my neck and it takes me a while to notice it and let go. I notice the involuntary diaphragmatic contractions coming sooner, even though in that moment I am trying not to think about time. Any kind of worry about progress will waste more oxygen. Any struggle can spiral rapidly out of control, much as I have seen anxiety about anxiety turn to severe panic in therapy clients. As the urge to breath grows I have stronger urges to do something immediately about them. Morgan holds my arm in roman hand-shake: a hand grasping each other’s forearm. He squeezes my forearm gently to check I am OK. I must reply with an equal number of squeezes. This is a way to test I am not about to faint. It is how I prove I am still aware of what I’m doing. He starts to count down from ten saying we will end the breath hold at zero. After I surface he congratulates me on doing a good job of staying relaxed. He tells me I held my breath for 4mins 7 seconds. I go sit on the beach with a class mate and wait for my next turn. I discover he held his breath for only around 3mins and I start to feel accomplished, especially as he has done more training than me.
When it’s my turn again I feel less prepared – I hadn’t expected to be called back so soon. For the first occassion I had time to meditate and settle my mind. After the same ‘breathe up’ preparation I allow myself to drop face down in the water. This time I’m even more curious to see how mindfulness of the discomforts of breath hold might make me a better free diver. I open myself even more to my inner discomforts and bodily reactions. Even though I’m having feelings that I could be drowning I remember there is no real danger. Even if I pass out, Morgan will immediately lift me out of the water. My thoughts tell me to stop but I am confident I can continue. I thought Morgan would have me breathe sooner – to my surprise he actually takes me further than I might have chosen. He starts the count down from ten. He counts very slowly – midway he takes time out to tell me how well he thinks I’m doing, how relaxed I am. The bodily sensations get even more intense and what I learn from them is that I can let them be. Bringing a curious openness to them I am surprised to discover that even scary drowning feelings can quickly dissolve.
What was first a stomach-churning drowning sensation suddenly feels benign.
This is an intense experience of learning for me. My mindfulness training has taught me the wisdom of acceptance many times but this felt like a deeper level of practice. The more intense a discomfort I can face, the greater my capacity for acceptance is developed. From a metalearning perspective I hope this might help me accept other things I flinch from. If I can face the pains of asphyxiation with equanimity maybe I can stay level-headed whilst experiencing rejection from a woman I’m in love with, or the anxiety of performing a difficult piano piece to an audience.
As I surface the old air in my lungs bursts out of me. Morgan tells me to breathe the recovery breaths – deeply and quickly. Surprisingly people are reminded to breathe. The training ingrains habits in us that might be life saving one day. I am feeling the deficit of oxygen in my whole body. He tells me with his customary smile that I achieved 4mins 38secs.
I have a few days off to relax with friends – the original purpose of the holiday. However, I decide to do some practice in my hotel room. I attempt a dry static breath hold alone on my bed. I’m told this is safe to do because if I pass out, there is no water to drown me – my body knows it needs to breath even when I am unconscious. As instructed, I do not to fret about the time so I don’t even think about it until I feel a strong urge to breathe again. When I first open my eyes, the clock says 5mins 02secs and I’m not quite ready to end. I close my eyes again and do a final count down from 10 to 0, just like Morgan did. When I breathe again the timer says 5mins 21secs. I’m proud of my new record. However I do doubt my ability to relax like that when I’m 15meters under the water and I can’t see the surface! Swimming deep without seeing where you are going, and meditating on a bed are very different activities. How will I bring the peace of one to the danger of the other?
Day Four – training with lungs half empty
I’m back in same the classroom for the ‘advanced course’. There are two instructors but I’m the only student. The breath up routine gets even more complicated and it’s a lot to remember: we start with faster breaths to stretch our lungs, then slower deeper breaths that alternate with shallower ‘flush breaths’. The flush breaths are closer to natural deep breaths that you might do when you are out of breath. Apparently these expel some of the CO2 that builds up during the long exhalations. Then before your ‘final breath’ (hopefully not) you take two relaxation breaths. I also learn to squeeze yet more air into my lungs by arching my shoulders forward at the very end of a breath. This is to squeeze as much air in as possible in before I descend.
Primed with this new breathing technique I have to do what is called an ‘exhale dive’: after my elaborate breathing preparation, I have to descend with my lungs half emptied. They tell me it is ‘lovely’ to do this. I am not convinced. The purpose of exhaling is that it trains us for deeper dives. With half empty lungs you feel the same ‘squeeze’ on your lungs as at double the depth. Every 10 metres we descend our lungs halve in size due to the pressure, so at 15metres on half a breath you feel the pressure of 30metres.
Before attempting this I do other dive preparations in the water for the first time. I’m told to exhale ALL my air and then hold myself about a metre under the boat. This is to trigger the dive reflex, adapting our bodies to being without air. After just 20secs I feel quite stifled, like I’m drowning again. Another technique is to immerse my bare face (like in the Static immersion) in the water for a few minutes. I am maskless but I do have a snorkel to breathe. These drowning-like exercises should switch on the dolphin hidden within my physiology: a slower heart rate, more red blood cells and greater ease with the pressure.
I descend many times first stopping around 12 metres, then 15 metres. The pressure on my lungs is intense. It feels a lot like someone standing on my chest except the pressure is coming from all directions. Morgan suggests not to resist ‘the squeeze’, but to relax into it. It’s a shock that I have yet another body stress to deal with. I never felt an entire and vital organ of my body feel so vulnerable before. The multiple dives help me to acclimatise.
I now should be prepared for the lung squeeze of 30 metres. It’s increasingly clear that breath-holding is the lesser issue. The greater problem is dealing with the pressure. The world champions who go down 100-200 metres often only hold their breaths for 2½ -3 minutes. They know they can hold it for longer – the great achievement for them is adapting their bodies to such intense pressure in such a small time frame.
On top of the ear pain and lung squeeze I experience yet another bodily discomfort today. Oddly it only strikes me after I return to the surface: a strained feeling to the left of my abdominal cavity. I worry I am doing something harmful to myself and that I should stop. It comes after every dive I do. Morgan tries to reassure me: it’s probably just my diaphragm telling me it’s being stretched in a way it’s unaccustomed to, or that I might be resisting the pressure in a way that’s not helpful.
At the end of a day of exhale dives I am finally allowed one full breath dive. I make it to 21 metres down into the void – nothing to see but Morgan and the rope. I’m pleased that the training seems to be working – I’m getting more comfortable with the deep pressure. I have descended 6 meters deeper than ever before.
final day five – can I surrender at depth?
After the discomfort of yesterday, I am keen to bring a relaxed mindful state to a deep dive. How will I do this when I’m continually moving and responding to pressure problems so far from the surface?
In the classroom we learn a new technique for getting even more air into our lungs. The method is called ‘Packing’. Once your diaphragm has pulled in every last wisp of air that it can, it is possible to push yet more air in with your mouth muscles. To do this looks rather odd as your use your jaw and cheek muscles to collect and push air down your throat. It’s strange to feel my lungs inflate more than they ever did before. Morgan warns against stretching with so much air in your lungs. You could damage them. Packing can be used for very deep dives (counteracting the lung squeeze) or to stretch your lungs in order to increase their capacity.
We jump off the dive boat into choppy waters. The guidelines descend into the depths. The weather is even worse today – visibility is only 4-5 meters and the waves are high. Holding on to the float before a dive can be hard work against the onslaught of waves. We begin our mammalian dive reflex exercises. I am still finding it hard to believe I can trigger innate dolphin-like capacities in myself with a few short tricks. First I lie face down in the water without a mask, but a snorkel to breathe. The cold water on my eyes should trigger a nerve ending in my face, which in turn triggers the vagus nerve to lower my heart rate. When I exhale all my air and descend a meter or two to quickly induce the contractions in my lungs, I feel much more comfortable with them. Morgan tells me that the contractions are in fact my body pushing the remaining oxygen into my blood stream. The mammalian dive reflex preparations finally feel helpful to me.
I ask if I can be motionless under the water for a while to remember the relaxed state I managed on the static ‘meditation’ of day 3. I do this at around 6metres for about a minute or so. It makes me feel much more at peace underwater with that rope.
We begin the dives, pulling ourselves down the guideline feet-first instead of headfirst. Feet-first is easier in that there is more air beneath your ears to penetrate your ear cavities for equalisation.
After a couple of ‘exhale dives’ to warm up we focus on full-breath dives. I reach 17 meters on half a chest of air and feel more comfortable with the lung squeeze. Yesterday this felt disturbing, today it feels almost normal. I am at peace with the pressure sensations of this depth.
We start the full-breath dives and as I descend, I remember the relaxed state of my peaceful 6metre breath-hold. Suddenly everything feels easier, there is no rush. I know that as long as I keep moving I am not going to faint – moving at that speed will take me there and back in 2 minutes. I can enjoy the slow meditative motion and surrender to the ocean. The psychology of my dive feels transformed. When I am over 20metres down, I can feel the pressure, the lack of oxygen, the darker light, the contractions in my lungs and diaphragm and be truly comfortable. I’m not worrying about what I’m doing or how deep I am. With this new degree of relaxation I make it to 26metres without any fear. I have this sense of knowing that I can stay down, that I don’t need to hurry back like before. On the surface I notice that the strained feeling in my left abdomen no longer comes. Apparently my deeper letting go has already solved that muscle straining problem. Most likely some muscle that was reacting to the pressure and causing strain has now relaxed. In the mindfulness therapy that I teach we talk a lot about how ‘control is the problem’. Perhaps my controlling the discomfort in my abdomen caused the strain in the first place.
Metalearning Analysis – What did this experience exemplify about general learning?
My experience on dry land has definitely been different since I did this course. The most striking part of the learning was witnessing my feelings and fears of suffocation become benign. It happened in a split second, as I opened myself to the discomfort, floating in static immersion. My physicality was complaining bitterly about the lack of air, but relaxing into it taught me that most of the complaining ‘physicality’ was actually my mental and emotional reaction. This echoes the mindfulness principle that pain + resistance = suffering. The cleanest pain, bare of resistance is often remarkably tame. As you feel your way into the seemingly toxic sensation it is heartening to witness most of the uneasiness dissolve as you open your senses to that which you instinctively ran from.
Next I learnt to bring this non-reactive manner to an active dive when my mind was busier. The more activity you are absorbed in, the harder it is to still your mind and allow the uncomfortable feelings to just be. With practice you can do it though, much like any repetitive conditioning: after enough dives, the unfamiliarity fades, much becomes automatic and you can focus your attention where you need it most.
To develop equanimity in spite of fears and anxieties, is one of those practices that always has something new to teach you. Even though conceptually it sounds like one thing – it is many. There is always more for us to confront and let go of, just as there is always more we might run from. How often do we run away from something at the mildest difficulty – perhaps without even realising? In the future I will try out telling myself in a moment of discomfort – “maybe this is like a long breath hold at 26 metres – I can stay a little longer, even though I’m having the thought I can’t.”. I’ll see if I am able to relax into the discomfort. Of course, we still need to be confident we are not pushing beyond safe limits, whatever we do. We need to draw the line between automatic mental fears and physical realities. In free diving measures like the arm squeezing are always in place to keep safety judgments objective.
This experience was also a stark example of how a fixation on goals can derail you. As I descended the rope, I had no focus on depth, no focus on time, I learnt not to react to my body’s reactions which gave me new energy and a new freedom to do something I had never done before. I went to a place that was previously inaccessible to me. This is a good metaphor for true learning and development: it takes us to contexts, experiences or ‘places’ that weren’t necessarily on our path. We turn a corner and take a new road. We overcome the inner barrier that blocked us from tackling the external barrier. I was already familiar with the principle of ‘goal-less pursuits’ but I gained a lot from experiencing this in the intensity of free diving. If you are willing to get wet and face the empty depths, this is a great way to stretch your mind as well as your body. There is a chance that changing your relationship with a bigger fear will also change your relationship with lesser fears and open up new freedoms.