What do you do when faced with life or death?
Do you know?
Do you stand there, frozen in fear? Do you collapse upon yourself, unable to bear your own powerlessness, a victim of circumstance? Do you push back, threaten, overpower?
You might experience any of these in varying degrees, but at the end of the hour, when all the leaves have fallen, you can make up any kind of story you want. You won’t know until you experience real survival, life/death survival, viscerally.
A few months ago, I set out on a 10-day white-water canoeing adventure in the Canadian wilderness. The first few kilometers were treacherous. The river was not a river yet. It was small channels of water coming from different directions, islands of stones and deceiving peninsulas littered with corpses of dead trees sprinkled with wildflowers. Glacier-fed crystal blue rivers, bone-breaking rapids with a side of wolves howling and flopping in the water for refreshment.
It was breathtaking.
The current of the river was fast. As we were paddling, my partner, Jon, and I came to a wide array of choices. Left, right, or 5 channels in between. How to know which one is which?
Although we were on the far left of the river, the right channel seemed most promising, though we could hardly see what was over there. As we paddled the canoe to the right, it became clear that most of the river was blocked by a fallen tree, hanging over the side leaving only the slightest opening on the far right. We aimed for it, undaunted. Paddling hard, we bumped into the fallen tree, and continued to paddle hard towards the opening. Meanwhile, the intensity of the current was pushing the boat lengthwise against the log. Within a matter of seconds, the side of the canoe taking the current started tilting from the pressure, and suddenly, the boat flipped.
Suspended — it seemed I was stuck. I remembered Jon’s words, “you are more important than the boat”, and repeated them to myself a second, third, fourth time. At once, I became aware that I was underwater. I pushed with my legs, squirmed, tried to come free. Upwards I swam and gasped for air. Opening my eyes, the first thing I saw was wood — I grabbed it. It felt like the weight of the world was pulling me down the river and I was hanging by a thread, hanging on to that slim piece of wood.
I looked up and relief, there was Jon, looking at me. He said, “my legs are stuck between the canoe and the log.” Fear electrified my body, coursed throughout like a current of liquid strength when moments before, I could hardly hang on myself. With great effort, I barely pulled myself out of the roaring current and onto the skinny fallen tree log. I crawled on all fours towards him, sat down and pushed on the canoe with my legs to free him.
In that moment, everything slowed down.
There I was, the river current, awe-inspiring force of nature, and me, with my little human legs. Both pushing the canoe in opposite directions.
“More, it’s not enough,” Jon said. I pushed harder, powered by my fear of the urgency in his voice. He squeezed himself out.
Gradually, I came to understand that the water was cold. Very cold. I stood up wobbling. We stood next to each other, drenched and chilled, and looked at the boat. It was mostly underwater, pinned to the dead tree. All of our gear, all of our food, underwater.
It was surreal. Like a scene from one of those post-apocalyptic movies I watched before, wondering how I would act in such an emergency. Would I be a hero? Calm, collected, standing tall in the midst of the unknown, reaching out in collaboration? Would I break down, taken over by my emotional swamp? Would I stubbornly hold on to my ideas, my proposals and try to be right?
I never had a real answer, until now.
The crash of my canoe was the beginning of an adventure that lasted 5 days. Instead of a long vacation in the peaceful wilderness filled with love, I received an adventure of survival, fierce determination, fun-collaboration, magic, and, love.
When I look back to the moment the canoe flipped, the moment I came to realize I was underwater, I see my transformation. My fear turned on. In that moment I became intensely present. Focused, clear and powerful. My attention became one-pointedly focused on: what is needed right now?
My fears arose in the moment and I was awake, ready to welcome them. My fear spoke to me. Told me when the sun was coming down, when the current was too strong, when the water was too deep, when to tread carefully, what trees might fall on me, which animals were in the surroundings, when I was getting too hungry or too cold, when I needed rest or water, when Jon was too far away, when the cliff might break and rocks might fall, when the highway came close or too far, when to yell to see if anybody was around, when to set up camp, when to stop before I collapsed.
In each moment, fear was there. It ignited my senses. It informed my decisions. It came, straight out of the Unknown, with creative solutions. It gave me fuel for negotiations on what to do next. My fear did not own me and flood me with signals of the past. I was careful, and I was brave because I had the capacity to hold my fear and feel it. Really feel it.
I discovered: fear is power.
I had been walking through brush, climbing sideways along the edge of cliffs, stepping over burned down trees from last year’s wildfires. It had been 4 hours of walking, alone. I was looking for a safe place to cross the river so I could find Jon again, and get to the highway.
Being a competitive swimmer in my youth, I so often jumped to “I’ll just swim across”. Then my fear would come, and tell me “the water is freezing cold. How strong is the current here? How deep is the river? See the tree hanging over that curve? Look at the rocks on the edge there.” Two, three times, my fear gave me precious information. I was care-ful.
As I moved along, I paid attention and scanned the river with my fear, until I saw it. The perfect place. My heart told me, and I was ready. As I was preparing to jump in, an alarm bell went off. My fear said “what if Jon has gone back to my side of the river? What if I cross, and can not find him? I don’t know what is on the other side.”
I started walking back downstream, thinking. My fear came again, and I slowed to a halt. What if he is further upstream, in the opposite direction? What if he has already found the highway and started hitchhiking? What if he is injured? What if one of the wolves found him?
Fear gave me options. I could cross the river, find Jon, and follow the original plan. I could keep going on my side of the river and find a safer place to cross. I could make my way to the highway, get some help, and come back for Jon.
I sat down on the pebble beach and drank some water from the river. I zoomed out. Here I am, alone in the wilderness, with my lifejacket and a bag with few warm clothes, an energy bar and some money. A freezing river of fast and deep current separates me from any chance of sleeping somewhere warm and safe. Should a person in my situation save herself first, and then find a way to help Jon?
My fear rose in intensity. Finding Jon is most important, that was clear. I asked my fear, “is he upstream or downstream?” The answer was clear. I stood up and walked back downstream. I started yelling, hoping he would hear. I had no idea how I would ever find him.
My fear told me to stop walking. I looked back at the crossing place I had found, and scanned the river again. My heart told me this was the place to cross. I asked my fear, “should I cross now?” I whipped around quickly while hearing a yell in the distance. My heat leaped. There he was, across the river, further downstream. I ran towards him, waving my arms, yelling and smiling and laughing.
From the other side of the river, I met him and said “I have a plan”. He smiled a tired smile “good, ’cause I don’t have any”.
I explained to him what I intended to do, shared how trusting I felt in myself this time and how my heart told me that this was the place. He nodded. I left him to walk through piles of tree corpses and thick bushes. I ran back to my crossing place, the electric current of fear still powering me. I ran through my plan in my head, looking for any faults. I secured my lifejacket and backpack. This is it. This is my chance.
I started walking in the water, my fear on high alert. As I walked in the pebbles with the current pushing against my knees, I scanned the water, sensing into its depth. My fear told me the depth would come fast. I checked myself and my stability in the current, I assessed the rate at which I was progressing, according to the width of the crossing.
The bottom fell out.
I found myself immersed in water. I swam for my life. I swam faster and better than I ever have, fear coursing through my veins, choosing life. At once I felt pebbles with my fingers, understood that I was in the shallows, and shakily stood up. I looked over at Jon still making his way through fallen logs and bush, and we gleefully cheered. The fear still coursed through my body and said “what now?”
Through this pressure-cooker adventure, I have transformed. I thought that feeling scared would stop me, make me collapse upon myself in a heap of frantic emotions. It has, many times before. Now, everything has changed.
I no longer fear my fear. I am resourceful and creative, because I am no longer owned by my past. I no longer consider myself as the nice girl, the good spiritual apprentice, the “conscious” person. How could any of those identities matter, when bands of wolves are howling 10 meters from my tent at night, and I don’t know if I will find my way out of the forest?
Now, I stand strong. A warrior amongst the wailing winds of the Nothingness, electrified and powered by fear. Riding the waves of the Unknown, navigating in only one moment.
And this moment.