Calling the Bluff

 Getting caught in a storm out on the ocean in a kayak. Barely surviving and reflecting on the perception of danger.

– The mystery in the moment of danger –

On a marvelous, sunny Baja day we touched the void for a moment one day and quietly walked away; not in horror, really, but lighthearted and joyful. It was pretty bad, but it was mysteriously beautiful too. We came out both safe and alive – in an equally mysterious way maybe even more alive than before.

One can analyze it and find all the mistakes, what went wrong and led to the disaster; but one should not overlook what actually went so well. Why lament: wasn’t it careless to let it come to this? Why not rejoice: wasn’t that great, how I saved her, how she kept her nerve, how we made it once again – together, the old team, tested so many times? We are usually always busy reacting to danger, avoiding danger; but is life really at its best when there is no danger? What is the strange attraction of danger?

It had been a mysterious day, right from the beginning. The sea was like a mirror. We had paddled out to an island at a remote cape and just played away the time, floating over underwater-landscapes between towering rocks, watching fish in turquoise green water, diving and catching some, and just feeling light, soft, and receptive.

We had noticed the wind coming up, but somehow the alarms didn’t really come on: ”Gee, it’s not so far to shore, we’re in great shape, and we are used to wind in Baja, aren’t we.” When we finally felt it was time to head back there were whitecaps already, big ones, and I knew this would become a good workout. I reached back to grab our life vests, and – my heart stopped – gone! My rear deck was empty; vests, paddle-float, pump, all gone. I knew I had put them there under a bungee cord when we were snorkeling.

Then it took not more than 10 minutes until we had a 25 mph wind blasting right into our faces with about 4 miles still to go. I was still not really alarmed because I knew how Parvin had really honed her skills lately and had been paddling alone in tough conditions many times. So we dug in and worked as hard as we could. Waves over our heads, spray in our eyes, we made headway, but then I saw it wasn’t much, and Parvin didn’t look very happy at all.

I moved upwind of her, watched her, encouraged her, and tried to be cool myself. The wind had come up so suddenly that a regular wave pattern had not even developed yet. Usually in heavy weather the huge waves actually create some kind of windbreak close to the surface, and a kayak has to cope with the waves more than with the wind force. But in these kinds of gusts the mere force of the wind was incredible. We were still about 3 miles off shore when it was clear to see that Parvin was going to run out of steam soon.

It was inexcusable, but we both had no life vests on, all our emergency gear was lost; we were completely unprepared, and conditions started to become serious. After so many years of paddling you think this couldn’t happen, but it does.

One of these gigantic foaming breakers crashed over me and rolled on; when I looked over to Parvin I saw her disappear in it, emerge all right, but then helplessly sweep sideways and capsize. It’s the most important rule to hang on to your boat and your paddle in such cases, but in reality things are always somehow different. She lost both, and the empty boat drifted away. Fortunately, in instinctive anticipation, I was close and upwind and ready to swing around and present her the stern of my boat to grab before I was swept out of reach too.

So there we were, Parvin in the water, only occasionally above the surface gasping for air, otherwise dumped under breaking waves every 5 seconds but desperately hanging on to my boat. And I, paddling like crazy against the ferocious wind and relentlessly breaking waves, not only to head for shore but mostly to stay upright myself, which was extra difficult with the weight of a body dragging on the boat.

In hindsight we tend to relive such moments over and over again. In retrospect we want to overcome our helplessness and unconsciously pretend to rearrange the conditions in our mind in order to act more successfully. The terror remains until we give up rerunning the show again and again and maybe, rather than looking at our helplessness, begin to recollect what went well.

I had a wide beach to aim for, but the progress was heartbreakingly slow. Occasionally I yelled back, asking Parvin how she was doing, and heard just half-choked gurgles that only made my terror grow.

Time stood still – an old cliché and yet it’s so true. There was no perception of progressing time, just moments unfolding, emerging out of nothing and disappearing into nothing. I don’t recall feeling pain or exhaustion or desperation, just the almost trivial realization that this was simply the only thing that could and had to be done. There was no fear, I knew that Parvin could drown in spite of all my struggle, that I could die too if I made another mistake. But there was no fear at all, just this next stroke and the next, my peripheral vision scanning the waves, my body sensing the motion of the boat and acting with wonderful, entirely unconscious intelligence and skill. In a way I didn’t know anything about this skill, I almost watched it with surprise.

In moments of danger there is no thinking, just action, direct action. In moments of serious crisis we are what we really are, without distraction, without the ballast of a social persona, this crippling straight jacket of who we think we must be. In crisis we lose our Self, we don’t bother with it anymore; as if we were dismissed, relieved from the nagging duty to live by the rules of a person we never met, we never saw, as if, deep inside, we knew all along that this guy was just a hoax anyway. I’m convinced that this experience of “no-self” is precisely what makes such moments so significant, what makes danger attractive, in fact, so attractive that it can become addictive. This experience that Self is only a concept, not the master at all, an unsubstantial empty phenomenon, and not the ultimate reference, can be downright ecstatic. This exhilarating experience feels like calling a bluff: seeing through an illusion, seeing that we were deluded all the time and have broken the spell. It feels a bit like death and rebirth.

There is a mystery, when I try to recall these timeless moments, an amazing surprise to my intellect. Looking back, one should expect that I was full of fear and desperation – there was a real danger of dying, for both of us (we are both not very good swimmers). But when I discard all what is only thought about it, only interpretation; what really remains as objectively true is the bare experience itself. Somehow, in the midst of it all, there was no sense whether it was good or bad or frightening; there was no judgment, no comparison, no relation to anything else. In a way, it seems intellectually quite implausible, but there was nothing wrong about the situation. The fact that I did not like it (to say the least) was only one arbitrary aspect of it, one way of looking at it. And somehow, in a peculiar and deeply liberating way, my resentment was almost irrelevant. ‘I‘ wasn’t there. In an actually not unfamiliar but still intellectually implausible, mysterious way, there was no one there to whom all this happened. It was just the experience itself taking place, Life unfolding for its own sake, unconcerned, unimpressed with something like “me”. Incomprehensible, in retrospect, but beautiful, mysteriously beautiful.

How can the experience of danger be beautiful? Is it because through danger I suddenly see beyond Self? Because I see that the end of Self would indeed be the end of a profound mistake, of an illusion, the end of a lifelong misconception? Death is common to us all. Beyond Self, death is a completely ordinary event. It is not at all something to be afraid of; we live in a dream world, and to wake up from it, if only for a moment, is exhilarating and often life-changing. When I feel death breathing down my neck it is a reminder, a wake-up call, that this life, my life, the life of my beloved soul mate, is, like everything else, only a temporary affair, that my lifelong struggle to react to danger, to stay alive and find a purpose in it, is after all something like a game, a play with ideas and concepts, a game I can play desperately, blinded by ignorance, and lost in a chaos of illusions, or easefully, even joyfully, having called the bluff. When death is looking into our eyes without looking at us we may see this truth.

We did reach the shore, alive, and the world started revolving again. Behind the beach we found some vegetation where Parvin could get out of the wind and slowly recover from beginning hypothermia.

Eventually all the emotions broke loose, finally I was crying and shivering, and finally I noticed that I was totally spent.

Later the afterglow of the day was shining in Parvin’s brown eyes when we looked at each other as we had looked so many times before when we had come home from some adventure, somewhere, sometime. Next day the seas were calm again.

Why remember the terror, why not remember the wonderful rebirth?

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

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