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Monday, February 5, 2018

Diving, Zen and How to Tame the Beehive

Another quick post about diving and this time also about meditation and the power of the mind.  Years ago, I did a cage dive with my friend Will Mason.  We got dangled over the edge of a boat with some aluminum bars between us and some pretty big sharks.  It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life and when I got back, I wrote a long blog post that actually served as the very first entry in this whole blog thing.  Will wrote about it also and when I read his account, I realized something about myself and diving that I hadn’t realized before.  It was that diving was the closest thing to zen meditation that I've ever successfully experienced.

Since then, diving has become more than a hobby to me.  When I get to go (which is rarely these days), it's become an almost religious experience.  However, since my diving opportunities are not  what they once were, that opportunity to "reset" my overactive brain can sometimes pose a problem.  I've occasionally let stress get the better of me, so I began looking for ways to replicate what I experience underwater without having to strap on fifty pounds of gear.

One of the most successful things I've found is listening to ambient noise or white sound collages.  A good friend of mine named Eric San Juan (whose books on Hitchcock films, The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad are a must for any film fan)happens to be an excellent musician in his own right.  He makes albums of this kind of music under the name M2 and his latest release, Coming Up For Air, is available for download free on Bandcamp.  The cover image (below) is actually a photo I took from about forty feet down while diving on Farnsworth Bank on the backside of Catalina Island.

Also, below is the original post about my headspace during shark dive so you don't have to go looking for it.  I hope you enjoy both.

Personally, I haven’t been diving long, but I’ve embraced it like few other things in my life. I took to it immediately and until now, I’ve never given much thought to why that is. Reading Will's excellent take on the shark dive over at sharkfinhat made me pause and think.

Two things in particular struck me. First was that he actually seriously considered we may die and secondly, that he felt the experience of being underwater was therapeutic.

Throughout my life, I've been fortunate to have something I like to think of as good intuition. Sometimes it's a feeling, sometimes it’s an actual voice in my head but either way, it's not something I get all the time. It’s not something I can count on as always being there but when it is, I heed it. It's served me well in these first 40 years.

Unlike “Spidey-sense”, this isn’t a feeling of impending danger (although I’ve gotten that a couple of times). Many times, it's more like a reassurance. It's a feeling that says, "Yeah, this is weird, but you're going to be just fine."

 I don't want this to come off as some macho posturing because anyone who knows me knows, I'm not "that guy", but from the moment I stepped onto the boat on the shark dive, I knew we weren't going to be in any danger, ever.

It wasn't like I felt that way thanks to any safety lectures or anything (because God knows, James left out some pretty important shit in the 'safety lecture' we got… for instance, how to avoid sharks if they get in the cage). Still, there was never a doubt about our safety in my mind. I KNEW we were going to be just fine. Call it overconfidence. Call it stupidity. No matter what you call it, though, I want to reiterate one thing.

I didn't think we'd be fine... I KNEW that we would be fine.

I've had that feeling of, "no matter what, I'll walk away from this" more than a few times throughout my life. It's a good feeling to have and it's one that has come to me in the weirdest and most stressful of situations. A good example is back in 1990, I got lost on a day hike in the Angeles National Forest and had to free climb 300 feet in the dark while wearing Vans slip-ons to regain the trail. I never once felt uncertain about what I had to do or questioned whether I’d make it to the top. It was a certainty in my mind that I would get there and I was right.

In the last two years, that feeling has hit me underwater more often than not.

So after reading Will's post and realizing that I definitely had that "Everything's Fine" feeling all day, I started asking myself why. I mean, it's not like we weren't in some of the most dangerous waters on the West Coast. Every minute spent in that cage was spent looking for sharks. Giant, seal-eating, "the things movies are made about" sharks, no less.

After some whiskey and serious reflection, the best answer I can come up with is this.

From my earliest memories, my brain has been like a beehive full of trivial information. Song lyrics, work deadlines, movie quotes, the magna carta, the fact that Playboy’s Miss July 1977 didn't like selfish people… any and all of these things swirl through my head on a minute by minute basis. I'm the guy people call up at work and ask, "Who was it that ran against Clinton in 1996?" or "Who was the producer on Def Leppard's Pyromania album?" or "Who was the cinematographer on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?"

(the answers are Sen. Bob Dole, Robert "Mutt" Lange and Daniel Pearl, respectively)

And personally, I don't mind it. I've never wanted to stop it. It's like my head plays a constant game of referencing and cross-referencing the world as I experience it and that's something I revel in. However, every time I’ve had that feeling of "Everything is fine", it’s been in a situation where the beehive has stopped buzzing; when my attention and focus became laser sharp.

The one place where my brain never strays is underwater. It's such an alien environment that it demands my attention. When I'm down there, I have one job to do: enjoy a safe dive. That takes up so much of my concentration, that I tend to be at peace most when I'm beneath the surface. The pressures of deadlines, mortgage payments, school costs and everything else can't follow me down below sea level, where my focus is on my breathing, my gauges, the environment around me and my dive buddy. Many times, my stress can't even make it past the beach. I don't think about the meetings I have on Monday. I don't think about the negotiations I'm behind on at work. I don't think about how I'm going to find a way to surprise Karen for her birthday or how I’m going to juggle my schedule so Lily can get to piano class. It's like from the moment my feet hit the surf, I begin to achieve a Zen-like state of mind that I don't get anywhere else. For the length of my dive, all that exists is that moment, that place, and instead of a beehive in my head, I get a very calm, rational series of observations, choices and lists of options, none of which involve pop culture, politics or the preferences of 1970s Playmates.

The best dive I ever had was one that was for all intents and purposes, a wash out. I accompanied a friend who was teaching a student. The two of us went out and set the dive float. Then he went back to shore for his student. While I was there, the float pulled loose from the sandy bottom and I ended up spending the rest of the afternoon on the bottom, holding it in place while the two of them went off to do their underwater examinations.

I was alone except for the four purple sand dollars half buried in front of me.

I heard the clicking of dolphins. I heard the sound of my breathing and those breaths breaking the surface 20 feet above. I felt the push and pull of the tide and heard the waves pounding the shore 100 yards away. I heard the creaks of all manner of creatures climbing the reef nearby, and I'm pretty sure they heard me as I just lay there on the bottom and breathed.

I wasn't diving. I was 'being'… I was simply existing… and everything was going to be perfectly fine. It wasn't narcosis. I didn't feel euphoric. I was focused, but I was relaxed.

Being in that cage with Will, I felt the same way. It was cold as hell. The cage was rolling. The sharks were out there and my nerves were crackling, but it was okay. The beehive was quiet and there was no doubt within it that everything was fine.

I've never really thought about it before now, but for me, it's that time underwater, where my brain and I can be selfishly alone, that I cherish. I don’t get to dive as often as I'd like, but I have no doubt that when I do, it makes me a better father, husband and person. So yeah, Will’s right.

That’s way better than going to an actual therapist… sharks or no sharks.


Anonymous said...

Diving Beehive State of Mindfulness – this is a topic I can get behind!

Surrounding conditions which allow “The State” to occur are highly crucial. The environment is especially important early on when you are becoming familiar with what it is about. The elimination of distractions sets the stage; open time affords space to allow things to occur, while simplification brings clarity, and attention shows you the route you need to pursue.

You have to be built for it. There is a spectrum of aptitude. Some people spend years/decades in the purposeful practice and pursuit of trying to get to this particular reality with little or no success. Others can drop in at will, or at least do so much more easily. I can pretty much drop in at will, most of my family can also. Spontaneous manifestations of being "in state" also occur. A “switching on” was my own personal introduction to begin creative pursuits and acted as a propellant.

Being switched on agitates all sorts of interior mechanisms, which prompts a confrontation of self. This is the point, or just prior where many people turn back – because they don’t want to do the heavy lifting of dealing with who they are. Being in state stirs up all sorts of things, and depending on your own stuff it can be very challenging and painful. Most put the genie back in the bottle and the daunting task is avoided. Others try to cheat the system. This is usually done with drugs and alcohol, often with negative results. The “state” is reflective and divulging, chemicals merely obscure the view. With respect and proper intention there are rewards for the effort put in, savory nuggets like grace, humility, respectfulness, attentiveness, quiet, simplicity, passion, satisfaction, transformation, bliss, all want to jump in to be part of the composition.

Similar to introspective engagement, a confrontation of craft occurs. Going deep and investing effort is necessary to development and understanding – the work has to be put in, in a real and meaningful way. Being able to get to these optimum states of experiential reality is one of the components that helps pull you through the drudgery and repetition of logging hours, persisting in whatever endeavor is being pursued.

So exactly what is it, how is it? First off it is less common. It isn’t a runners high, being in love, sexual arousal, spiritual euphoria, empathetic, sympathetic, awareness, alertness, in tune, vigilance. It is a combination of all those factors as well as others. Some people are built to more freely switch on, some are built to thrive in doing the work, some are built for and better equipped to confront the self. I can tell you with all honesty and without hesitation – to be engaged in the creative process and to be “in state” is the most deeply rewarding and satisfying way to experience life that I have come across – and considerable time and effort has been spent sniffing around.

Even if you do not personally know Cary or other creative individuals, consider this: When your exposure to the creative output of an individual is noticeably satisfying and rich – when it resonates and sticks with you – the person/parties responsible are most certainly engaging in a state of mindful turning on, have invested in their craft, and are personally developed. When you pick up a great book like “The Wash” and enjoy the succulent nuance you can be assured that the result is due to components beyond technique and skill, intangibles, ephemeral things – Pixie Dust.

Then again, what you are talking about is perhaps not what I am talking about? Gosh, I hope this wasn't a hijacking, so easily distracted one can bee.

Cary said...

No, William. When you talked about being "in state" and creating, you hit the nail on the head. That's something that I've talked about with other authors. You get that focus that's so pure and so intense that creating becomes effortless. Time slips by unnoticed because you're "in the zone". Getting to that place consistently is something that takes practice. You have to work it like a muscle. I never realized that I was getting into that state of mind while diving but I'd experienced it at times while writing. Once I connected the dots between the two, I began playing around with ways I could easily slip into that "in state" mindset.

And you know, some days it's easier than others. Hell, I've woken up and immediately started writing. Three hours later, I realize I haven't even had coffee yet and that my stomach is growling. Other days, I wake up and no matter what I try, I can't get there. As you alluded above, there are a number of factors at play, but the good thing is that the more I work at it, the fewer those bad days come around. More often than not, I can slip into where I need to be.

How old were you when you became aware of the "in state" frame of mind? Was it something you realized you'd always done and just didn't have a name for it or did you read about it and seek it out?

Anonymous said...

What I refer to as being “in state” requires a set of components which are only fully available by a certain age. For me this started kicking in at about 19, and really intensifying at about 22. It was more of an emulsification of reality, perception, and experience put into action. In dialog with others it quickly became apparent that what and how I was experiencing things was not that pervasive in society. Looking to connect with kindred spirits proved futile, and I turned over a lot of rocks; I am pretty good at finding things and I love the dynamics of searching as well. So it was not something I sought out, but intrinsic nature.

Sexual energy is a big component, connecting with and experiencing you emotions, limiting mental noise, trust, self awareness, a good sense of timing, control, insight, making subtle adjustments, are some of the aspects involved that immediately come to mind. You cannot expect someone to carry the burden of all those moving parts at a young age since they are not fully developed. Nor can you expect someone that is like 35 or older to just suddenly achieve ignition – but I have heard about isolated cases from others. All these factors and variables can be challenging to manage, kind of like running a three ring circus. Putting it into play requires a lot of energy and purposeful effort. If I was to guess, the age to begin experiences such as this would be late teens, perhaps as early as 15 or 16 in rare cases of people with advanced development. And chances are that any spontaneous manifestations later in life are likely the result of components that have always been a part of an individual, with life conditions prohibiting expression to occur. I have no rigorous data to back up my point of view.

All those variables need to sync up and be in tune with each other, there are many detracting factors that can throw you off. There is a lot of nuance, but mostly it boils down to limiting distractions and regulating your surroundings. This is why many creative types distance themselves and isolate when they need to work. If I need to be on and it is not working out, the source of interference can usually tracked down and adjustments made so future experiences are more fruitful. This is why some days suck, and some days you are on fire, depending on the interplay between all the various factors. In my early 20’s I was doing a variety of different creative activities. What I noticed was the vibration and experience was subtly different depending on the activity. This is most likely due to employing the brain, emotions, energies, and attention in slightly different ways. The overall experience was still the same. Everyone is different though. One time I approached a professional dancer at an event and quizzed her on her experiences. She really never thought about it and could not provide any worthy insight. She was body dominate, and the mental and perceptual aspect were just not a component. She was not stupid, just extremely body and emotion dominate. People are built different, so your mileage may vary.

Anonymous said...

Many religious traditions have much in common with this topic, just a more defined set of activities and different intent and motives. One of the systems I appreciate is in regards to Hindu traditions. There are several paths to pursue and based on your personal composition the most suited practice is the one selected. Karma Marga, Jnana Marga, Bhakti Marga all have a different focus, and you can devote to one approach, or a combination. Although it may no long be in play, in the European educational system at a certain point you are assessed and get shunted off into either a trade school type of focus, or the academic route. I can appreciate that as well, but migrating from one system to the other after determinations are made is not permitted. I can consider scenarios where this has some serious drawbacks. So a red pill / blue pill type of thing. Lots of options in Buddhism traditions, martial arts, types of dance, music, so you get the picture.

You can also throw into the mix cultural variables, things that prohibit or encourage certain types of behaviors. Just like certain plants and animals will thrive within an ecosystem with its own unique set of variables, social structures create the boundaries and conditions to allow things to happen or not. Creative pursuits are a delicate fire that needs to be protected and nurtured during its development. Too many cultures are like pressure washers, annihilating fledgling thought or action – destructive cleaning. I am very happy to be born in the time and location I was. Many are not so lucky, yet still people find a way.

I was keen to write a book on this topic a while back, but came to the conclusion that there would be a very thin to non-existent audience, and most of the stuff you have to figure out on your own as you go anyhow - since it is very personal. That was shelved for other pursuits. I also felt I would need to substantiate my claims with things beyond my point of view and personal experience – this sounded arduous – sucking the fun out of that project. I also had some corporate exposure for a handful of years, acting as an outside consultant tasked with innovating. They very much want the results but everything they think and do is in extreme conflict and opposition to the creative process, so many experiences of maximum frustration were had. The only book I found that touched on this subject with merit is - Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Although he is on target and did exhaustive research, it was not based on his direct experiences, and is a scientific rigorous study. I only found relevance in the first section (about 75 pages worth), the remainder became very dry and technical. If you are interested in investigating that specific work I suggest using a public library copy for review. All the things you mention, pure intense focus, sense of time, etc. is very much outlined in that book.

Anonymous said...

For me personally, being in that state is fine and great, satisfying and all, but the experience is just a byproduct of intention put into action with engagement of the various components. Even the product or results are somewhat inconsequential and not the real primary drivers. Ideas, novelty, concepts, these things all come very, very easily. The premise of “the pen has run dry” is a completely foreign concept. Insight, development and personal evolution – those are the nutrients I am after, and the real driving mechanism. Everyone is built differently so they are all looking for different things, yet there is still much in common.

Your experiences diving make total sense, and I would actually expect this type of response. Breathe control, purposeful movements and procedure, all variables in common with meditation and some martial arts that I am familiar with. The other thing is sensory experience is altered, sound, sight, temperature, taste, buoyancy, temperature. When we are interrupted from our normal beehive of mental activity, psychological, emotional, environmental experiences there are couple potential responses on the menu. Shutdown, anxious hysteria, focused attention. I am sure there are others I am not thinking of. Focused attention is the desired state, interruption of your normal pattern is the key.