As part of enacting my life philosophy of trying as much as possible, engaging in exploration, and pushing the limits of what I’m comfortable with, towards the end of 2012 I spent two idyllic months on the tropical island of Gili Trawangan in Indonesia. ‘Hang on’, you might be thinking… Admittedly this in itself does not sound particularly challenging, especially when you consider I know several people who think the Gili Islands are hands down the best place on the planet, but in fact I was there was to explore the fascinating world of freediving.
Now I defy any non-freediver to watch a You Tube video of William Trubridge elegantly descending to 101 metres below the surface of the sea on a single breath, and not be left with a gaping wide mouth and the thought ‘how the frick is that even possible?!’. After I saw this I just knew I had to try it for myself.
Freediving is essentially the art of holding your breath. Within the sport this is then performed either diving as deep as possible, swimming horizontally underwater, or by floating face down in a pool for as long as possible. For those interested in meditation, mindfulness, and the workings of the mind, to study and practice freediving is absolutely fascinating and I probably learnt as much about the tendencies of the mind in those two months as I had done in years of meditation.
Now if you can be bothered, try holding your breath now. What’s the first thing that happens? Perhaps unsurprisingly you really really want to breath again! This is known as the urge to breath, and it is strong. Once you’ve learnt the basic physiology of breathholding it becomes apparent that all you need to do to freedive is completely ignore this instinctive response. Easy hey?!
Despite the fact that you may feel like you will die if you don’t breathe, or drown if you happen to be submerged in water, it is perfectly safe to basically ignore this physiological reaction. The goal of freediving is to master your psychological response to it, through repitition and familiarity, developing the facility to choose how you react to what can be quite an extreme sensation. Essentially this is the aim when developing mindfulness too, only the intensity of holding your breath underwater offers a more initially confrontational and wetter challenge than sitting on your meditation cushion.
It is an amazingly intense examination of the way the mind responds to stress. What I experienced, particularly at the outset, was that as soon as you put your head under water there is resistance. Doubt and anxiety set in and it is hard to relax and be mindful when you have deprived yourself of oxygen. Before long every cell in your body is screaming for the relief of some air, sweet air. I ended up seeing, as though through a microscope, how the mind is always, to a greater or lesser degree, resistant to the present moment.
In our daily lives this may be manifest in profound ways from time to time, but I believe that for most of us it is present even in at least a subtle way all of the time. I think that this influences much of our behaviour, from the food we eat to the television we watch and the internet we binge on. In freediving this resistance to how things are ‘right now’ is felt more acutely because a powerful survival instinct is triggered when we hold our breath.
As you hold your breath you pass through different stages; if you can make it past the initial urge to breathe, diaphragm contractions follow which can be quite disconcerting, but again this can be safely worked with as you develop your capacity to mindfully endure the experience (at first most people won’t be able to hold their breaths for long enough for it to become dangerous). The more relaxed and practiced you become with freediving the later these responses kick in and the more your ability to deal with them improves.
Freediving is mindfulness in action. As well as using physical exercises to increase physiological fitness and lung capacity, it shares much with the meditative practices in the way a freediver strengthens the mind’s ability to respond equanimously to the subjective experience of holding the breath. Practice sessions holding the breath underwater are extreme versions of sitting on the cushion.
What I discovered shocked and amazed me. In my longest underwater breath hold my relaxation exercises and years of meditation really paid off; I entered a quiet, still and blissfully peaceful world where time did not exist. I floated face down in the pool in a calm I’d rarely experienced before. Later on the contractions started and eventually as the urge to breathe grew more intense I relented, lifting my head above the water and into the sunlight, gasping for air. I had no idea how long I’d been under but assumed it was a couple of minutes. My time was four minutes and fifteen seconds!
This was a real eye opener for me and I believe it tells us much about the human condition, as well as hinting at the untapped potential of our minds and by extension, our lives. What is clear is the potential power of the mind to be able to genuinely choose how to respond to its experience, no matter how extreme this may seem. It tells us that as humans we have a latent and extraordinary ability to achieve what we think should not be possible. It says that we do not have to be defeated by the self-sabotaging tendencies of the mind, and that with discipline and training every single one of us can do great things. Finally, it demonstrates the power of mindfulness as a practice of genuine transformation.