Those who have fear and those who know fear

An exciting exploration into a deep sink hole and subsequent ‘march‘ in an underground river in New Zealand. Reflections on fear.

– It takes distrust, not trust, to deal with fear –

She was near panic when we saw her the first time. She stood on a high bridge, her feet tied to a long rubber cord, and she was supposed to jump. It was in New Zealand, but the bungee-jumping fever had broken out every where all over the world. Two big guys stood around her, giving her a highly professional, slightly too often performed brainwashing: “This is totally safe! Nothing can happen to you! It’s a piece of cake; you’ll enjoy it! It will change your life!” etc., etc. I caught a few glimpses of her face, saw her agony, and was deeply moved by the scene. Other bystanders did their best to cajole her into jumping by shouting: “you can do it, go-go-go… one, two, three, go!” etc.

She made several heroic attempts to lean over the edge and jump but finally sat down, tears running down her cheeks, and decided to step down from the little platform and walk away, defeated. People around looked politely the other way, and the next customer was already strapping in and jumped without thinking twice. She looked exhausted and unhappy, and I couldn’t help but walk over and congratulate her on her decision:

“I admire you for your intention, it’s a very, very hard thing to do, to overcome fear. To back off is wise, not weak. To know fear, to investigate fear, to endure fear is the way to understand it, not to get tricked and cajoled over it. I bow to you for doing this practice”. There was a surprised smile on her face and tears welled up again, and I quickly let her go.

We saw her again, only a few days later, meeting with a little group of other tourists to prepare and train rappelling for a major caving tour. Someone had opened up a new cave only a short time ago and this was the first test to guide tourists into it. It involved a 300-foot free hanging rappel into a spectacular sinkhole and then a long walk and scramble in an underground river back to the surface. We were only 6 people. Parvin and I knew rappelling techniques well but the rest practiced all day on a 30-foot overhanging cliff, and soon everybody felt quite comfortable with it. Our bungee-jumping friend had never done it, but she did very well and beamed with excitement and joy.

The next day, we set out driving and hiking to this incredible hole in the ground, 60 feet across and 300 feet deep. In fact, we couldn’t really see much of it at the rim because it was all covered with thick vegetation. At the place where the ropes were already prepared we felt a strange, cool, moist air draft rising up from somewhere below where we couldn’t see. Only when we had put on our wet suits, helmets, and headlamps and started peering through the branches, did we get an idea of this awesome dark abyss right in front of us. Even when we set up our braking devices, clicked into the harness, and leaned over to look straight down, we could hardly see the bottom. The empty ropes just vanished into the darkness.

The walls of this chimney-like vertical channel were covered with thick fern vegetation, all the way down as far as one could see. There was a strange dead acoustic, as if sound got swallowed up in the hole.

I noticed that the guides had no ascenders or anything like it, so there would be no way to get up this rope again. But I trusted that they knew what they were doing. It took quite a bit of coaxing to get everybody on his and her long way down. The incredible vertical distance to the bottom was breathtaking. There were two ropes, so two people could descend at the same time. In order to feed the rope into the braking device it had to be lifted up a bit, and the sheer weight of the hanging length was astonishing.

When it was my turn to travel down, I went very slowly so my eyes could adapt to the dwindling light. The rope ran through one hand and you adjusted the speed of descending by varying the angle with which it feeds into the braking device. The lower I got the more the elasticity of the rope came into effect. When I was far down and stopped the steady descent abruptly, the rope became a huge spring and I was swinging up and down by 5 feet or so for a while. I did not spin much. I had expected to helplessly spin around a lot, and there would be no way to stop this because one could not reach the wall with the feet to brace against it.

Further down I began to hear the river; the space around actually expanded quite a bit and the vegetation was gone. There was still just enough light from above to see when I landed, everybody already had their headlights on, and I saw them in a little distance standing in the river. The roar of the river filled the darkness and it was difficult to talk to each other. Our new friend Nora – we had learned her name by then – sat by herself and didn’t look too happy. We were all a bit quiet and deeply impressed when we saw the narrow hole in the rocks where the river came rushing out and into which we were supposed to climb and continue.

For about 5 hours we walked mostly in the river, sometimes only ankle-deep but often up to the waist and occasionally we even had to swim. All we could see was what was illuminated by our headlamps in front of us and a few ghostly dancing light flashes the others were shining around. You barely could see the other people, just their lights; and you never could see their faces because as soon as they looked at you, you were blinded by their headlight.

The current of the river was pretty strong, in places we had to hang on to the rock walls to pull ourselves ahead. The roar of the water was deafening, and it was with us pretty much all the time. Only occasionally we found stretches where it was fairly calm, then our own splashing noises filled the silence. There were sections where the river ran through huge wide open halls, our lights would barely reach the ceiling. In one spot it had become a lake and, for a moment, we settled down and even switched off our lights to feel the intense stillness. At other places we had to squeeze through narrow gaps, sometimes neck-deep in the water, fighting the current. Most of the time we couldn’t see much of where we stepped because the light just reflected on the water surface and everything underneath was pitch dark. So we often stumbled and fell which wasn’t such a big deal with our thick wet suits protecting us.

A few hours into the trip we reached a spot that looked like a dead-end. The river came gurgling up from underneath, no other exit. Did they mean to dive down to find a passage under water? The guides nonchalantly pointed into the water and we suddenly noticed hundreds of snakes swimming around our legs. At this place there were only vertical walls around us, nowhere to run to, so we all just stood there, waist deep in the water, paralyzed, staring down, and holding our breath. No one uttered a word. They were actually eels, white eels that wiggled around our legs as if they were tree trunks. I heard someone next to me slowly beginning to scream when I tried to touch one of those beasts with my hand under water and it actually couldn’t care less about it. Finally, I looked up and just saw the second guide disappear behind a rock. When the others looked up too, there were no guides and we were lost in this water, infested with horrible biting creatures, and no way out. Someone grabbed my arm but I quickly climbed up to where I had seen the guides disappear, and sure enough there was a wide opening and they just stood there, grinning from ear to ear: “What’s the matter? Let’s go!”

When we came to the waterfall, the noise was tremendous. We had actually just been swimming for a short section when we saw the river coming tumbling down a 30-foot vertical chimney and there was absolutely no way around it, it almost filled the whole space. The guides gathered us and assured us that climbing up right in the fall was the only option and that it wasn’t as difficult as it might look.
The first one demonstrated a few crucial moves, yelled several hints nobody could understand, and was out of sight. He had been right in the torrent of falling water, completely submerged. There must be terrific holds hidden behind the curtain of water, but it looked almost unbelievable how he managed to hang on under the pressure. Now the second guide grinned and motioned to us: “go for it !”

I had seen Nora in the corner of my eye, how she retreated to the dark sidewall and covered her face. All this looked truly challenging, to say the least, and everybody was busy with himself. Somehow Nora had touched my heart when she backed off the bungee jump, defeated but with dignity. Now I knew, here she had bitten off more than she could chew.

I moved over to her. “I can’t do this!” she burst out and gasped for air. When Parvin came over too, I signaled the guide to leave us alone, and we found a rock to sit on and watched the others slowly, one by one, successfully climb up and disappear. “This looks worse than it is,” Parvin said and hugged her, and I said: ”we’ll both go with you and help you, don’t be afraid.” The guide winked knowingly and signaled that we should take our time. She didn’t cry but trembled violently. Sitting in the cold water certainly didn’t help either.

“Close your eyes and breathe consciously, very deep and slow.” When she gradually calmed down a bit Parvin tried to distract her, asking about her background, family, etc.

“Fear is a conditioned response.” I said when she looked at the fall again. “You cannot really overcome fear by force – when you couldn’t jump from the bridge you understood this, didn’t you. There is nothing in the world you can do to make this fear go away, but you can see it as what it is and not follow it, not react on it. It probably fills up your whole being right now, let it do that, don’t judge it, resent it, or think much about it. Neither reject nor accept it, give it the space it has, even if it fills the whole universe. And breathe, see that you are breathing, see that also other things are going on. Try to be realistic about this feeling, it probably doesn’t change when you let it be, but don’t overlook what else is going on. You still can listen to reason and use your intellect, use plain common sense. Fear doesn’t look at reason, but you can. There is strong evidence, as you can see now, that this is not going to really harm you.”

“And let me bribe you with another argument,” I continued, “an argument that, I know, is very attractive to you. When you go up there now and take your fear with you, as big as it may be, when you don’t beat it down but leave it as it is and take it with you – your courage doesn’t matter, what is courage anyway but clear vision? – you will gain another piece of insight into what fear really is, you will practice your capability of disobedience toward the habit of listening to fear. You will gain a little bit more of freedom. You may see that you are your own prison master, that you don’t need to be a slave. When you went out to jump from the bridge or do this, didn’t you look for this freedom?”

I went ahead, the guide and Parvin stayed close behind her, and we all climbed up. As I expected, the hand holds under water were bomb-proof and, keeping really close to the rock, let most of the water just run over your back. It still took some nerve to angle for the holds, completely blind and disoriented by the falling water mass, holding your breath and moving against the pressure.

There was no scene when we reached the top, we all just continued. There were more surprises; we found some large bones. We all got very tired. Before we saw the exit, we smelled it – oh, how smell never fails to immediately trigger our deepest emotions – then, suddenly, we saw some light around another bend and finally stepped into the open again. The sun was just about to set but its warmth was still lingering in the forest. We hiked for another hour through the jungle, silent, content. Later, we talked some more about fear, but it’s easy to talk about it, it only helps to a certain extent.

“I’m always dreaming to be fearless,” Nora finally sighed, “to be strong and fearless!”

“But fearlessness is not strength,” I said. “It’s ignorance, it’s unrealistic. Fear is healthy. And fear cannot be fought – period – it is a misconception. Fear resides in exactly the same place where your countermeasures are thought up – in your mind. To fight fear is like trying to suppress thinking, it’s impossible. But there is one thing that is possible, it is to shift your attention, to direct your awareness to another place where you don’t look at the fear but look at the mechanics of perceiving it, see not the object of perception but the process. This different perspective can reveal the completely impersonal quality of any content of perception, and fear becomes an empty phenomenon. This somehow counterintuitive “trick” is one of the most powerful strategies for working with the mystery of our existence.”

“Shifting your awareness, how do you do that?” she asked, and her face was serious and open like a mirror. When I replied it felt as if I spoke to my own reflection:

“We are all born with the bad habit to pay too much attention to our thinking. At times, this can make life a hell. But we are also born with the capacity to shift our awareness. It’s effortless; it takes not more than intention. It is so fundamentally simple that it cannot really be explained. See this continuous flow of things in your mind calling for attention and find that you can actually choose. It is like a supermarket in your head, a zillion things, one more attractive than the other, all advertising for attention, but it is up to you what you pick; and the best of all, you are free to pick nothing. We often buy things because the advertisement is so overwhelmingly attractive, but we know we don’t have to, don’t we, it’s our choice. Now your fear, there may be nothing but this fear in your supermarket – you still don’t have to buy it.

Shift your awareness away from a problem to something else; it’s your free choice to where. Don’t ask how this can be done! – That’s thinking! Don’t start thinking about it. As much as you can choose what you look at with your eyes, you can choose where to point your awareness. It’s so easy that it is “unthinkable”!

To guide your awareness is choosing what you pay attention to, it is taming the mind. To discover that this is possible is magic!

Awareness is this tool with which the mind reaches out beyond itself into reality. In awareness you seek not what pleases or what is familiar, but what is true.

In order to deal with fear you must not look at what causes the fear but at the perception of fear and at perception as such.

Fear is a universal experience. Every living thing knows fear. Fear is a reaction to seeing that things are different than we thought. It is the reaction to discovering the possibility of an error. When you don’t run away from fear, when you have the courage to look it right in the eye, things can become very clear and reveal aspects you could never see before because you were busy running.

When you are in fear you think what you believe is the truth; but belief is not the truth, belief is a certain attitude toward truth. Belief is conceptual; it is merely a thought, a product of the mind. Belief is a natural reaction of the mind to the ephemeralness, the liquidity, the emptiness of truth. When you understand the nature of fear you know that feeling it is a wonderful signal, a very reliable indication that you are moving closer to some truth.

Don’t trust your own mind when it tells you to be afraid. The real tool, the motivation to deal with fear, is not trust but distrust, distrust in the reliability of the mind. The mind always gives you a conditioned picture, not the real picture. You probably can never get the completely real picture, but to not quite believe the unreal picture helps to live easily.

We mostly believe that brave people have no fear. I think the opposite is true: brave people are intimate with fear; they really know fear and know how to deal with it.

There are people who have no fear, however, they are not brave at all but just ignorant and they don’t live long.

And then I told her a little story my Buddhist friends had told me some times ago:

Once there was a young warrior. His teacher told him that he had to do battle with fear. He didn’t want to do that. It seemed too aggressive; it was scary; it seemed unfriendly. But the teacher said he had to do it and gave him the instructions for the battle. The day arrived. The student warrior stood on one side and fear on the other. The warrior was feeling very small, and fear was looking big and wrathful. They both had their weapons. The young warrior roused himself and went toward fear, prostrated three times, and asked, “May I have permission to go into battle with you?” Fear said, “Thank you for showing me so much respect that you ask permission.” Then the young warrior said, “How can I defeat you?” Fear replied, “My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face. Then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say. If you don’t do what tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me. But if you don’t do what I say, I have no power.” In that way the student warrior learned how to defeat fear.

Be very quiet and watch. Don’t retreat, move even closer, ask what it really is you are afraid of. See yourself asking the question. Be very still and watch. Be ready to revise everything, what you thought was true. Don’t believe what you think, believe what you observe.

Then be patient and practice.”


Klaus written and revised between the 1990s and Dec. 2010

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