From Fear to Panic to Awakening: A Diving Story

by bryan maynard

diverIt was a mid-October Saturday morning and I was standing with six of my fellow-student divers about eight feet above the water on a rocky, flattened out shelf that overlooked a flooded rock quarry. The wind was spraying crystalline air on my face and hands and it felt like tiny needles stinging my skin, delivering a cold burn to my bones. I shivered, but not so much from the cold. I felt a vague weariness from a week-long nervousness. For days I endured intrusive images and nightmarish emotions of my face mask filling up with water at 60 feet below and my air supply running out . My mind was fighting itself, swinging from panic urges to Zinn self-talk about the stuff I write about in this blog. I was truly scared.

Standing there on the high edge above the water, I held an inhaler in my hand, a little extra help from my doctor. I was hoping like hell it would ease my breathing me when I faced my fear of the monster below. I took two puffs into my lungs and held the medicine in as long as I could. The water is glassy smooth I thought as I exhaled. I could see the clouds and the tops of the hills mirroring off the water’s surface. I felt myself relax a little.

That’s when my eyes picked up something moving about 80 yards out. It was moving toward the steep rock-facing beneath our feet. Are you kidding me? Today?! It was a snake and it swam right up to the edge and stared up at us. He’s just curious about us someone said. I watched it move to my left toward a class of student divers already in the water. This snake is quite curious…even aggressive I thought.  All eyes on the snake now, it eventually turned and moved back toward us, disappearing into an opening in the rock wall-facing, right below where we were about to enter the water. This is just great!


Losing Mindfulness Under Pressure: Panic Takes Over

Most divers who drown do so because of panic. And, for this good reason, diving classes place students in controlled danger to teach them the art of doing life-saving skills under pressure.  One week earlier to the day, I was with my same class-mates in the ‘safer’ environment of a closed water pool and I made the mistake of not wearing enough layers for the hours we would spend in 85 degree water.  I pride myself on being a tough guy, so I decided it would be okay. Pride goes before the fall! No need to get out and put on more layers to warm up the body. That’ll slow down the class. You got this! Down we went and the fun began.

Hypothermia messes with your mind but it’s one of those gradual things that sneaks up on you, especially if you are proud and ignorant. I ignored the signs and I started shivering with cold about 45 minutes into a dive that lasted 90 minutes. Standing one knee in a circle at the bottom of the pool for most of that time, I wasn’t moving my body and I was getting colder by the minute! Being cold is hard for me, but being cold AND managing a long-nervousness is a really bad combination! When we started the next training drill, an uncharacteristically angry frustration shot through me. Come on! How much longer under here! I’m turning into mental and physical jello here! I witnessed one female student’s primal panic and in one convulsing move, watched her attempt to bolt to the surface. But the instructor held her down under the water! to give her a moment to experience her primal insanity and to see if she could recover herself and execute the skilled movement. Crap! Crap!! My ribs and muscles were not shaking anymore; they were earthquake spasms that violently torqued through my abdomen and up into the interior flesh around my spine and neck. I was jerking from every spasm and a paralyzing mental fog was turning into a full blown eclipse of a fading rational light. Whoah! Come on! Get a grip, man! But no amount of self talk was working. My chest closed in tighter on me and with more shaking I tipped over the edge and fell off into the darkness of a mind that had stopped thinking clearly. The instructor swam around behind my buddy to my right. I was next. My buddy took off his jacket, sank to the bottom and struggled to keep his air regulator in his mouth. One thought consumed my whole being: I can’t breath! I can’t breath! I gotta get to the surface. Too hard to breath. Can’t breath. I was so lost that I lunged forward toward my instructor to tap him on the shoulder. I extended my hand out to touch his shoulder but, suddenly, he moved away from me in the opposite direction. I missed his shoulder by less than an inch and I guess the movement jolted me into a moment of temporary sanity and I pulled back to my position in the circle.

Regaining Mindfulness Under Pressure: Going Beneath the Experience of Panic to the Real Me

Not making contact with instructor’s shoulder startled me enough to automatically pause.  In the pause, I instinctively took in a long, deep breath and then another and another, and I noticed that this breath was deeper and fuller than my breaths moments before and I had a flash of insight:

Okay…your body is experiencing cold.  And, you are not allowing yourself to breath the way your body needs you to breath in this cold condition…

…What is at the Root of All This? 

With this question, the answer that came was a complete, wonderful surprise. All morning, my instructor had been calling me an ‘air hog’  after comparing how much air each diver used during the first dive of the day. He re-referenced this fact throughout the dives, and I felt ‘outed’ as the flawed one in the bunch. My response to this criticism was to make a point of restricting my breathing. But, with my dropping body temperature, not breathing fully was only making my body and mind more sensitive to the cold and to the message that I was not measuring up to the instructor’s expectations (or the other classmates who were ‘better’ at this than I!).

The Root Experience: A False Self Caused Me to Panic

In those scary moments under the water, I noticed a deeper experience underneath my panic: I was feeling like a failure for using too much air.  What is this failure feeling beneath my panic? In a flash of insight I knew I was watching an old, familiar life-message doing its work on my mind and body: Be strong enough to take care of yourself by being great! Don’t fail, ever!  And no one will be able to control you or threaten your well-being. 

In his book The Unfolding Now, A. H. Almaas says that we learn to match the outer noise of the world with inner noise in the mind and the mind thinks this inner noise is reality. This ‘noise’ in the mind always buries our real selves under images and projections of what our true self is.

Under the water that day, the reality in my mind was that I was failing. After all, the outer world was telling me that I was failing and so my mind acted according to this ‘reality.’ But the reality in my mind was not an accurate reflection of the reality of my true nature at all. In fact, my mind’s reality was all wrong and the false self missed everything about reality:

1. My mind missed what I was experiencing, what I was feeling

I could not feel my experience of being cold and simply let it mean that I was cold and that I only needed to adjust my breathing to help my body relax. I was too preoccupied with my false image management to be present to my body and mind.

2. My mind was missing my true self buried beneath the lies of a false self held together by shame and dark emotions. 

Because my mind was doing what I had trained it to do: judging, comparing and measuring my true self against the false self-concept that wanted to establish myself as a ‘success’ at diving, I forced myself into a denial of my body’s needs for air, an outright denial and suppression of living in an openness and awareness of the present moment. A false self hurt both my body and my mind that day by ripening the conditions that made panic more likely.

Two Practices that Keep Us Real

I learned from this experience the practical value of two very important practices.

1. The Practice of Being Aware of Where We Are:

Almaas teaches us that being a peaceful person begins with learning to experience what is happening in this moment.

“I am sitting in this chair…I am hearing the sound of cars passing by…I am feeling bored…The point is not to notice everything because no one can do this. The practice is noticing one aspect of our experience and allowing one thing in our experience to occupy the focus of our attention. When we do this, we will begin to feel our way into our experiences and this fullness to our awareness will lead us to the second practice.

2. The Practice of Following Feelings Like Anger and Anxiety and Depression to Our True Self:

Eventually, learning to pay attention to one thing about where we are will guide us down a trail to the deeper experience of connecting to our real self.  My false self of being a non-failure in the eyes of my instructor was uncovered because I allowed my feelings of panic and fear to lead me to the source: a false self. By feeling the absence of my real self via the panic generated by my false self, I could discern and better access my real nature that was simply waiting to be noticed under all that pressure and pain. But, it was the pain of panic that helped me realize that I was being a false self to begin with. Were it not for being aware of my feelings of the panic (Step #1 of being aware of my experience) and were it not for following those feelings to the real source (Step #2), I would have bolted to the surface and made some excuse about being too cold when the truth would have been that I was driven to panic by a big fat lie about a false self.

It is okay to struggle with feelings of fear and panic and to embrace them. What is skillful, additionally, is allowing these emotions to take us further to the uncovering of who we really are.

May you learn the skill of being where you are

May you find rest in simply arriving where you are

May you know the freedom of being you in each moment

Peace and more peace!