Tom Board freediving in Gili Trawangan, photos courtesy of Mike Board. All photographic rights reserved.

How to pursue a goal that scares you: lessons from learning to freedive (and some neuroscience)

Meta-description: Relaxing in the face of fear seems a paradoxical idea, but it’s how freedivers learn to push deeper. This is what I learned from British champion freediver — and world number 5 — Mike Board. Disclosure: he’s my brother :-)

Fight or flight is a defence mechanism. It evolved to keep us safe from harm, and so it surfaces whenever we perceive a threat. So it stands to reason that the key to facing fear lies in altering our perceptions.

Starting by starting

British neuroscientist Beau Lotto studies how the brain learns. As he says of his research findings,

“Every new perception starts with a question.”

In October of 2018 I travelled to Gili Trawangan, in Indonesia, to find out how freedivers learn to face their fear. My brother Mike Board owns FreeDive Gili, a freediving school and yoga resort about an hour’s boat ride from Bali.

Before taking up freediving, Mike had served in the UK’s Royal Marines as a Captain, and so he’s no stranger to the thoughts and feelings that afflict people who feel threatened. He qualified as an instructor trainer in the PADI system of diving, and is qualified to teach technical (mixed gases) diving to those who want to go much deeper than the PADI system’s 30 metre limit. So he was familiar with the feelings of depth.

Whilst I was in Gili, Mike was interviewed for the Freediving Cafe podcast by host Donny McFarlane. He explained that his original motivation to start competing was the marketing of his new freediving business. Looking at the current depth records, he decided to set his sights on 67 metres in order to become a British depth record holder.

Today Mike’s record is 111m. That’s taller than the height of Big Ben.

I’ve had many discussions with Mike about diving, but this is my first time doing it. Understanding from experience is different from the intellectual sort of knowing (and nodding at a dinner table).

So I was a bit nervous and excited in equal measure.

Fast forward to the present, and we are six months down the road. I’ve had a lot of time to reflect, and to see if the learning I took away was more generally applicable than freediving. My take-away is that there are three ways to change your response to things that scare you.

Key number 1 — Don’t pay attention to the goal

In freediving, you face your fear as you dive deeper. As you do so, you have to attain — and sustain — a state of physical and mental relaxation.

If you tense up, it creates problems in the body such as finding it hard to equalise the pressure difference between the air in your airways and the increasing water pressure at depth.

The simple act of looking down the safety line towards the end of the line can cause your attention to shift from what you’re doing, towards where you’re going.

Thoughts like, “my goodness(or more colourful language), look how far I still have to go” can send your mind racing with anxiety. And the physical result is tension.

This simple shift of attention, and tension, changes everything. Your mind loses touch with your senses, as it tries to think it’s way out (or more literally, up) from the current situation.

The thought processes in action are very subtle.
Just the fleeting thought, not even expressed in words, that “I’d like to breathe now” will send your mind to the surface! And you body will swiftly follow, before you even realise what’s happened.

So the first trick you have to learn is to be aware of your mind’s attention. Where is it?

To remain relaxed whilst you are feeling threatened, and learning a demanding skill, takes conscious effort. You struggle to keep your attention in your body rather than on your thoughts. And the more you struggle, the harder it gets.

Where is the tension in your body? When you notice it, you try to relax. You try to keep your focus on relaxing, and try not to panic. So you have to stay with how you feel in that moment.

As Mike said to me, “as long as you feel good, you’re okay to continue.”
By ‘feeling good’ Mike is referring to the feelings felt in the body. Which is not the same thing as a lack of fear or anxiety in the mind, which is perfectly normal.

In goal theory, the latest research findings shed further light on a more general problem with being too outcome-oriented (and less present). Studies have shown that whilst stretching goals increase performance for highly skilled people, they do the opposite for people lacking the required skills. So the take-away is simple: put your learning goals before your performance goals.

As every athlete knows, the path to success involves a lot of small wins against smaller, achievable learning goals. Setting these training goals requires a delicate balance between pushing yourself, and building your self-belief and confidence.

Key number 2 — Accumulate positive experiences

As Mike told me, to dive deeper a freediver has to learn to get more comfortable with the feelings of diving to depth. And the only way to do that is by accumulating positive experiences.

I will never forget my best dive during those three weeks. It felt amazing. The memory of those feelings is still so vivid, as though it happened yesterday.

I can feel the warmth of the water, see the safety rope in front of me, recall the sense of belonging and my wonder at the ocean and its vastness. My mind is calm.

Such positive experiences re-calibrate your perceptions and senses. They move the goal-posts, and tell you that more is possible. We rewire our brains and nervous systems, as we become more familiar with the previously alien sensations. What was once frightening becomes familiar. And with familiarity comes a sense of ease.

But these positive experiences only accrue if we consciously manage our mental and physical state, during the learning stages. We do that by being mindfully present in the moment. If we let attention wander too far, a small mistake can quickly turn into a painfully negative experience.

Key number 3 — Train your attention to “Look In”

What is attention? Freud made a helpful distinction between conscious attention, and what he called our pre-conscious.

Conscious attention is that small slither of conscious awareness that results from where you point your mental gaze. Or in other words, what you are focusing on.

Your pre-conscious is everything else in your present environment that you could pay attention to, but have chosen not to.

Of course, your subconscious mind is still paying attention to much of the pre-conscious. In fact, it is helping you decide where to place your conscious attention.

One thing that will draw your gaze, for example, is a perceived threat. Even if that threat is an imagined one, it will use up precious mental bandwidth, and hence the reason focusing on goals (key number 1) draws us out of the present moment.

For freediving, attention needs to be focused on the bodily sensations that are a freediver’s guidance system. The training teaches you where in your body you need to place that attention. At first you can only do so with a lot of effort. But with practice, it becomes instinctive.

If you are thinking that this sort of inward attention is unique to freediving, then you are only partially right. When it comes to managing fear of any kind, the guidance system is located in your body.

The first warning signs of fear are physical: things like your pulse, your breathing, and physical tension in your body. So if you are not attuned to your body, you will not notice the unease you feel. And you will not be able to loosen the grip of fear before it is too late.

As neuroscientist Joe Dispenza says,

“your subconscious mind lives in the body.”

In other words, physical feelings and emotional sensations tell you a lot about what your subconscious mind is thinking (ie pre-verbal, unconscious thought).

So our attention can be trained. In Professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang’s book “Emotions, Learning and the Brain” (see book link below) she describes how the brain has two neural networks that govern our attention.

Our resting state is known as “Looking In” and is the neural network we use when we are relaxing, contemplating the future, imagining different future scenarios and outcomes, and reflecting on our experiences. It’s our learning mode.
Our goal-directed state is known as “Looking Out” and is the neural network we use to pursue goals. It is scanning the environment and working to achieve things in the real, external world. In this state, we don’t have access to the neural networks of deep learning. It is a doing mode.

Since we can’t use both neural networks simultaneously, we have to toggle between them. With some reflection, you will probably notice that you have a tendency to use one or other of these networks. Or that at different times in your life, you have over-used one in favour of the other.

“Looking In” is the attentional skill that facilitates learning. As Immordino-Yang’s research shows, meditation is an excellent way of wiring our brains for introspection.

Mindfulness is the skill of being consciously aware of the present moment, whilst engaged in the world at the same time. It brings a different quality of experience that is akin to the flow state that athletes and top performers recognise as their optimal performance state.

Conclusion

By now, you may we wondering how applicable these insights are more generally. The freediving trip was nearly six months ago now, and my learning has stayed with me.

The focus of Immordino-Yang’s book, and work, is to study the role of emotions in learning. She reveals that eighty percent of our brain’s thought processes are what neuroscientists call “emotional thought.” This includes all of decision-making.

Her work shows that people who lose the emotional centre of their brains are unable to use what they know. So if a hypothetical freediver were to have a brain injury of this sort, you would be able to have a perfectly rational conversation with him about the theory and practice of freediving. But if you went diving with him, he would be unable to use his knowledge in practice.

The reason is that our emotions serve as a sort of emotional guidance system. Without them, we can’t act on the body’s knowledge of the situation and our feelings about it.

We encode what we know with the help of our sensory experiences and feelings. As we learn things, experiences with an emotional charge are much easier to recall. We can access such feelings and sensations with our “fast” unconscious mind.

So when I feel the urge to push towards a goal, I have learned to pause. When I feel the urge to push, I try to relax. And feel my way forwards.


Above: a NeuroJitsu Video Essay on the fight or flight response, freediving, and the role emotions play in learning.

Book link: Emotions, Learning and the Brain by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang
https://amzn.to/2W5of0H 
(Amazon Affiliate Link)