Today I tried to count how many minutes of the last two decades I spent holding my breath.
Decade one of freediving competitively where I would train several five minute breath-holds a week with a maximum of just over six minutes every other days. Hundreds of dives down to 20 then 30 then 50, then 60 metres and more ranging from 3 to 4 minutes at a time. Recent years inspired by relationship not time, depth or records. How long do you need to be down for an oceanic manta ray in Ecuador to start accepting your presence? How many turns and twirls and shimmies before a dolphin wants to play at depth? Floating at the surface just above a singing humpback whale not daring to breathe, being beyond still as the vibration and hum of a sound so foreign yet so familiar completely inhabits your being.
For two decades I have danced the dance of the living non-breathing. Teaching myself to be comfortable with the discomfort of being encased in a human body in the throes of relearning the way of water. Every breath-hold, whether it be for a deep dive breaking a record or a prolonged time of interacting with a great ocean giant, every breath-hold reaches a point of discomfort. Oftentimes a discomfort so great that every cell in your body shouts for change. For escape. With my lung volume any breath-hold beyond four minutes is extremely uncomfortable. My body screams for oxygen as my diaphragm starts to contract trying to force me to breathe. Through training stillness, relaxation and mindfulness this state is now familiar. Not pleasant, but not frightening. I have become comfortable with discomfort. I know that even though this is not comfortable, it is not dangerous. I have coached hundreds of people in breathwork and deep freediving. I have seen people overcome this addiction to the known in just a couple of sessions, the growth from this one moment infiltrating unexpected areas of life as resilience finds a foothold. But this is not the norm.
The last hundred years humanity seems to have been waging a war against discomfort in all its’ forms. With mobile phones we don’t even need to commit to a coffee date anymore, if on the day it challenges my comfort to make it, I can just text you and we reschedule. All the way from UberEats to online travel bookings (who still remembers sitting opposite a travel agent for hours?) We have efficiently eliminated discomfort and disruption. Well, we thought we did. We arrogantly believed that we were as in control as our technology promised us that we were.
I am writing this from my couch in Cape Town in our first week of nationwide lockdown. In China they are slowly coming out of widespread lockdown, in Italy and Spain lockdown has progressed into grieving and in the US certain leaders are reluctantly accepting the seriousness of the situation. The world is reeling. It is highly highly uncomfortable. I have not been outside my boundary wall for days, beaches and the ocean has been closed for use over ten days already. I am worried for our I AM WATER team and the majority of my countrymen and women based in communities without the privilege of a boundary or a garden space. I watch as the first world with all it’s wealth and resources come apart at the seams while India, Africa and other at-risk regions hold their breath to see if this beast will wreak the havoc on vulnerable communities we as of yet can not even dare imagine.
My body and mind have endured decades of deep discomfort training. I have voluntarily put myself in situations of risk physically and mentally. I have a strong grasp on what is far enough but not too far, I have a small army of highly trained risk assessors who live in my brain and responds when needed. One of my best friends is a freediver as well as an alpinist. On the slopes of Ama Dablam, Everest and the other six of the Seven Summits Annelie honed her ‘discomfort comfort’ to levels I can only imagine. Months in icy tents steeped in uncertainty, days of eating ungodly amounts of fat just to keep the weight loss at bay as the cold and deathly grip of great altitude gnaws at her body. But she’s also been dedicated to years and years of Vipassana retreats, ten days of silence and painful hours of meditation, sleeping on hard slabs - deliberately developing a resilience and acceptance of discomfort. We speak often of the invitation to be challenged, to grow… seems we have been heard.
For many of us around the world right now, there is great anxiety and a stripping of freedom we’ve come to take for granted. We are collectively deeply uncomfortable. A state most of us are fundamentally unfamiliar with. We have been lulled into believing our technological prowess, our faith in the systems holding up our governments and economy will keep us safe. We are starting to see very clearly the lies in this promise we have bought into and we are woefully unprepared.
But we are not without options. Think of the times you’ve willingly embraced discomfort, risk or the unknown. For many that might be thinking back to a childhood of climbing scary tall trees or surfing your first ever wave, or maybe even falling in love for the first time and experiencing that vulnerability.
The help we need at this time for our mental health and those we love is not out there anymore, our safety nets and the systems are not what we believed them to be. It has to be on the inside. We have to find that piece of ourself that is comfortable with being deeply uncomfortable and invite her to stay. You don’t have to be a record breaking freediver or extreme alpinist to embrace discomfort and still find peace. Now is as a good a time as any to learn. Adaptability, resilience, mental strength, mindfulness and of course empathy are the superpowers we now need and this crisis is the ultimate teacher. We have that strength of water - to be soft and strong at the same time. It’s in our very cells.
First published as a column in Oceanographic Magazine 2020