On Caving and Courage

I’ve mentioned before that one of my hobbies is caving, speleology. Very literally going into caves and exploring what is underground in the dark. It’s classified as an extreme sport, and it really is extreme, wow, the things I’ve done, I hardly even believe it myself, I even had to buy a separate insurance for it. Blind rappels into the darkness, 300 feet or more, you lose sight of the beginning and the end of the rope, it is only you, a little piece of rope, and the darkness. Crossing on top of an underground lake suspended on a little rope, walking along walls of tunnels that have no floor, ohh and there was that time I almost fainted on a steel cable on top of a massive collector (picture a huge flushing toilet the size of a basketball court, tons of water spiraling down a few yards under your feet, thundering like a jet engine, I could feel the sound in my teeth).  Cave tunnels are formed by water, but usually the bottom of the tunnel is too narrow for people to walk on, so we oppose against the rock on both sides and walk/slide/push along the top of the tunnel.  Sometimes you lose sight of the bottom. It is unbelievable and terrifying at the same time. The cave formations are a gift for the senses, beautiful and imposing sculptures all made by trickling water. Free climbs are also part of caving, it is not unusual to free climb up to 20 feet, first down, and then back up. Often the potential fall is much deeper than the climb. There are tight spots called pinches, tight tunnels, they make a rescue very difficult, not impossible, but very hard. Simply put, don´t have an accident in a cave.

Caving is a rush of emotion even for the cold rational types, so what is an empath doing in a caving club?

I’m doing a study on fear. I’ve battled emotional fear for years and years, I have trouble sleeping, I’m afraid of sex, the list just goes on and on. I’ve tried to start on it in a mental way, meditations and such, made some advances but not much. So I decided to tackle the matter in the physical side of it first. Place myself in situations where I will experience physical fear, and learn to deal with it. Caves are perfect for that, usually the biggest part of the fear -panic- strikes about 3 hours and many feet -miles even- into the cave, at that point there is an intense desire to just be out of there, you simply don’t want to continue doing it. However, you know that if it was that hard to get down, it will be three times as hard to go back up, (it´s like going on a mountain climb, upside down) so you just have to shuck it and do it. Just do it. There’s nothing else to it, you just have to do what needs to be done to get out, there is no quitting, no one to do it for you, it’s just you against yourself. You learn emotional management in a hurry, because you have to, out of survival instinct.

I´ve come to understand that things affect me much more than they do the other cavers. I also feel their emotions as we go on the cave. I need to deal with my own fear and those of my teammates. Believe me, panic is contagious even among regular types. Even though I’m an empath, and sensitive, I’ve always been able to maintain a grip on myself and do what needs doing. Once or twice I’ve felt paralyzed in fear, usually over a deep pit, and then instinct and adrenaline kick in. In one cave, my body was failing me, when I almost fainted above the collector I mentioned above. It took all I had to maintain consciousness and make it through the horizontal rope traverse, and then up another rope to a little tunnel at the top of the gallery. At times, I’ve stopped the thinking commentary and just gotten on with it on instinct, and then forgotten the difficult climbs over gaping pits. 

What´s more, I can feel the energy of the caves. There are two or three caves where they take ‘adventure tours’ and boy scouts very often, this means that they are all beginners and as beginners they will be very impressed by the cave. They leave an imprint of fear in the cave. There is one in particular, it is rather easy to navigate compared to other caves, but it feels charged with yellow fear, even when there  is no one else in it. The deeper, less visited caves feel very peaceful, the rock has it’s own energy, and being deep in the earth there are very, well, earthy and pleasant vibrations. There is most of the time a feeling of foreboding, the earth knows that this is not our natural place to be, we are only visitors, and the cave does not give itself easily to prying eyes. We shine our lights in rock that likes the dark peace, we hang our ropes, we tread mud, and we bring all our emotion with us. Of course, we are but ants inside the caves, earth has the power to absorb and neutralize all that emotion.

Through caving I’ve learned a lot about emotional management under pressure. Not just my emotional management, but that of those around me as well. We had a problematic teammate, very negative, always complaining, and self defeating. I think she is sensitive but she has gone the wrong way, full of spite and hate, has trouble with everyone she meets. Anyhow, she was there for the ride, and we had to deal with her. I had to make a big effort to block out her self defeating thoughts, she even included me in her complaints, ‘we can´t do it because we´re shorter’ and blah blah….We were doing a particularly sporting cave, big pits, a lot of tunnels opposing over depths, free climbs, I could feel her draining me. I was of course also scared, but at times it gets hard to determine what feeling is mine and what is not. I made a big effort to block her, stopped giving her support, cut her out of my intents.  Then she turned to yelling at another teammate, when she is afraid she gets angry, when she is tired she gets angry. I had to make a big effort to block her, and to rein in my own insecurities. Panic is the biggest enemy in a cave. I’ve tried to help her, but she is out of my reach. I’m usually good at making struggling team mates feel better, in the last cave I did a couple of nights ago, a rather large sized teammate was stuck in front of me in a particularly tight vertical squeeze (we had already gone down it and were on our way to the surface again). He just couldn’t go up, he was draining and bruising himself trying again and again, then he was apologizing almost crying, and I just said ‘there is no problem, take a few breaths, think about it, and try again’. I said it in a calm voice with the intention of passing that calm on to him. I also let him stand on my knee. Somehow it helped him, he had tried standing on me before and hadn’t made it. Of course, he did it himself, but I like to think that I helped him decide that he could do it. I smoothed his angst so he could push up and forward.

I also learn about all the stages of trauma, going to a cave is like experiencing them all in a short period of time. You experience the trauma, the breaking down of the self, the awareness and alertness required to survive through it, the triumph of survival, and afterwards the denial of the dangerous situations, complete with the post traumatic processing. Surprisingly, I’ve also experienced the after trauma, or the post traumatic stage (when it is chronic it is called PTSD). After the first cave I did, I did it ok, I came out ok, got home ok, took a warm shower, and then completely crashed. My muscles bunched up in painful spasms, I could barely move my neck, I got cold so cold, turned up the heating, ate soup, covered myself with blankets, and I was still shivering. I forgot a part of the cave until a few days later when someone said ‘wow the newbies did the waterfall’ and I was like, wait, what waterfall?. For a few nights afterwards I was dreaming of dark holes, and pits and being cold and scared.  I wrote about it in another post:


A caving trip can take anywhere between 3 hours and 10 or 12 hours. The usual is around 5 or 6, but true deep cave explorations can take days. I haven´t gone on any true boundary explorations, I know I don´t have the level yet, but maybe one day, I’d like to see what staying underground for a few days does to my energy (plus you get to see really cool crystal and quartz formations). Needless to say, when caving, you reach levels of exhaustion you didn’t even know were possible. And then you still have to keep going. This is a super interesting moment, when you hit the physical limit and reach exhaustion. Will power and determination are essential to keep going at this point. But the interesting thing is that you learn how to move with efficiency, you are so tired, so tired, that you cannot afford to waste energy through futile movements. The body relaxes, finds it´s own natural steps, falls into it´s instinctual rhythms. You learn to walk the walls like the panther climbs a tree, you learn to go up the ropes fluidly and gracefully. You learn the true elegance of moving with instinct, moving with balance, efficiently and effectively. You tap into energy you didn’t know you had, you learn that your limit is way beyond what you thought it was, you push the boundary of your limits, both physically and psychologically. You learn focus, you learn grit, you learn to deal with pain. You will be cold, wet, bruised and exhausted in the dark, and yet you will not be miserable. The thresh hold for misery increases significantly, you learn that feeling discomfort in the body does not have to mean discomfort in the spirit. You learn to be in pain and just be ok with it. You learn to be afraid and just be ok with it. Physical fear of falling is instinctual, the one fear we are born with.  The pain doesn´t go away, the cold doesn’t go away, you’re still just as muddy and bruised, you still fear falling into the depths,  but you’re no longer identifying yourself with it. You´re even enjoying the experience, yes, there is joy in caving.  You keep going until you reach the top, you keep going no matter what, you keep going in spite of yourself, you leave a part of yourself behind,  and finally you reach the wide open sky.

It’s like a deliverance, or a pilgrimage, you get to know yourself, you see a nasty weak side of yourself, you leave a part of yourself behind, find new energy, and come out a stronger person than you were before. I started caving to study fear, and believe me, I’ve seen a lot of it up close, but what I really learned was about my inner strength, about courage and about instinctual motion.

I’m a more courageous now than I was before, so now I am diving into my inner psyche with more determination. I’ve learned to face fear, physical fear yes, I’ve developed inner tools and strength to face it. I’ve learned to flex my courage muscles. Courage is really just determination in disguise. Now I can face this unseen fear of the soul, my dark night of the soul, I’m ready.

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