Written by Alisa Burpee, PhD.
When I was a child I was afraid of the automatic pool cleaner. Later in childhood this fear embarrassingly transferred to perhaps the most innocuous of sea life: seaweed and kelp. My friends will attest, I avoid the shores of Lake Washington, and its weeds, like the plague. When I was a teenager my mom took me snorkeling and the bag of fish food we brought tore open, attracting a school of ugly, large, aggressive fish (not the pretty, dainty tropical variety I had expected) that nipped at my legs and caused me to flee the otherwise tranquil waters of the tropical bay. During the year my husband and I lived in Hawaii, while snorkeling at one of Oahu’s most scenic beaches, we encountered a blacktip reef shark. Despite being a strong swimmer and having a love for the ocean (the idea of it anyway – sea turtles, surfing, whales), all of these experiences together made me a wary ocean-goer. However, on a recent vacation to Mexico, where my husband and his father frequent Cozumel for its world-renowned diving, I decided to try scuba diving. You can probably asses how far outside of my comfort zone this idea was. I felt extremely brave and got a rush just thinking about the huge sense of accomplishment that was imminently forthcoming and would be followed by a moving Facebook post about overcoming fears. This was not how it went.
True to my ambitious (otherwise known as impatient) nature, I enrolled in a Discover Scuba class which meant that rather than spending two weeks in a pool drilling skills and building confidence, this was all going to go down over the span of about two hours: pool to forty-feet under open water. In retrospect, this was probably not optimal for gradually and tactfully building my confidence. After a twenty-minute video and about thirty minutes in the pool, we headed for the dock to board the boat that would take us to the off-shore reef. My husband accompanied me, my dive instructor, and my fleet of photographers that were to capture my impending revelation. Upon descent, my mask filled with water and panic shot through my body like a lightning bolt. My body became tense and my mind fused with the idea of imminent death. Because I am so accustomed to breathing through my nose, even though I rationally knew I had oxygen available, the water in my mask obscuring my vision and periodically entering my nostrils made me believe I was going to drown. I was SCARED and I felt completely out of control. I thought seriously about returning to the surface and ending the extreme discomfort that had set in but in contrast to my earlier experiences, this time I chose not to flee.
While my fear brain sent alarm bells, my mindfulness training snapped into place creating the briefest pause. That was enough time to make a choice – and I chose to latch onto the smallest shred of willingness to be with the experience – even though the decision was re-considered every few painful seconds. In that brief moment, I saw real live fan coral, bright purple, waving in the sea. Then my attention contracted back to fear again. My instructor coached me through clearing the mask, but I never really mastered it which meant it was a constant task and therefore constant threat. Again I thought about fleeing but realized that to flee would be to potentially risk other forms of death (i.e., lungs bursting, etc.). Again I chose to stay.
At a certain point, even though my distress was still at an extreme level, something brief but magical happened. I had a conversation with a stingray. Normally the presence of a ray would have freaked me out but I told this guy “Hey buddy, I have bigger things to worry about.” In that moment I began to make peace with the things in my life that may hurt me but that I choose to be proximal to anyway (e.g., stingrays, aggressive fish, eels, one thousand pounds of water, mac trucks on the freeway, people I love and care about and allow myself to be vulnerable with). I was also reminded of how messy life, change, and confronting our fears is. I wanted it to be clean and compact, to fit into a pretty little bento box (like Brene Brown says), and have a catchy caption or hashtag…but it didn’t. I didn’t revel in the beauty and mystery of the ocean or delight at how good it felt to finally just let go of control – in truth while I am proud of myself for doing it, it pretty much sucked. And it was okay. Things don’t always conform to our expectations or turn out the way we expect and that doesn’t mean they are wrong or bad. The more we can accept life on life’s terms and learn to appreciate the mess, the better off we are.