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’.

exhale free dive

I exhaled all the air in my lungs to make myself sink for this picture


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.

free diving rope

Looking down the rope (day one)

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