I was scheduled to speak in Cancun, Mexico, to an international dental meeting. My wife Elaine and I decided to go a week early and do some cave-diving. The Yucatán Peninsula is the world’s best cave-diving area. Resting entirely on limestone, this porous stone sucks up water like a sponge. The tropical rains get absorbed and collect as underground rivers. These groundwaters can bubble up to the surface emerging into cisterns called cenotes.
The Maya, who inhabited this land for thousands of years, believed these openings to be the gateways to the underworld, where the spirit beings dwelled. Mayan shaman explored in these caverns and underground rivers, until they became entirely filled with water and have left their marks. You can find remnants of their drawings on the walls, as well as their offerings. There are pottery shards, precious stones, animal and human bones in these caverns. The Maya are often remembered for their spiritual practice of human sacrifice and bloodletting, but they were also a civilization who discovered the mathematical concept of zero, whose astronomers mapped the heavens with pinpoint accuracy, more than 1000 years ago.
I love to dive, but I am the world’s worst dive-partner. I have a tendency to lose sight of time, and sometimes my partner, in the magical aquatic world. Cavern-diving is different from open water diving, in the ocean you can always come up if there’s a problem. In caverns you can’t because there’s usually only one way in and one way out. You have to depend on a flashlight and a good guide.
We had a great guide in Tito, he was intimately familiar with the caverns and laid down some of the lines with the directional markers that guide the way out. It’s difficult to describe the experience — awesome, incomparable — seem insufficient. It was like swimming through Karchner Caverns, there were stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, bacon strips, columns both massive and tiny. We came to a place where the salt water mixed with the freshwater; this point of convergence creates an effect called a halocline. The salt water loses its salinity, and the resulting solution creates an effect as if you’re looking through a fog. In this surreal place, it’s easy to see why the Maya believed the gods lived here. The sense of awe in this place was so overwhelming, I forgot to breathe.
Somewhere on the journey I became so entranced that I strayed long enough to lose sight of Tito and Elaine. In this trance-inducing world, you lose track of time, minutes can seem like hours, and vice versa. But when you lose your orientation in a cavern, with only a flashlight in your hand, it takes awhile to get reoriented. What felt like an eternity, was only seconds, but in that period, I had enough time to check my gauges and discover I’d used almost two thirds of my air supply. Those seconds were enough time to feel the cave getting smaller and scarier. In that moment I became aware of a different sense of awe, as I hoped and prayed for a sign to quell my rising anxiety. And then I saw a flash of light in the distance and saw Elaine’s purple swim fins.
You don’t have to face the fear monster to appreciate the awesome, but it can serve as a goose to get you to take yourself less seriously and look at life from another perspective. Seek out the awesome, it is the mechanism by which we tame the ego.