Living an examined life

laos3

With Thailand on my right, and Laos on my left, I type these words while seated on-board a slow boat drifting gently down the Mekong River.

We are nearly an hour into our approximately 14 hour journey from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, Laos.

Despite my usual fears, our vessel is actually very comfortable. All nine of us on board have our own table as well as a double seat which looks to have been removed from a van or small bus. The gentle breeze, the rumbling engine, the subtle side-to-side  rocking of the boat, and the spectacular views of riverside villages have completely silenced all passengers. Some (including Marina seated in front of me) are absorbed in their book, others listen to music, while some write in their journals.

No one dares to break the silence.

There’s something quite amazing about traveling slowly, knowing that you have no hurry to get to your destination. There are few distractions. You quickly forget the urgency of life back home and settle into a more meditative state. Your mind – usually flexed with tension of looming deadlines, responsibilities, expectations, incoming emails, etc. – finally stretches out.

Thoughts of weekend plans, that erroneous cell-phone bill you need to call about, or the repairs needed on your car fizzle away to obscurity as you ponder your path in life, reassess your values, carefully recount the errors you’ve made, and focus on what you really require to be happy and content in your life.

An unexamined life is not worth living.

– Socrates

This is the gift of prolonged travel – whether by bus, boat, train, or plane. Many people embark on longer journeys with the purpose of “finding themselves”; the notion being that somewhere on the treadmill of modern life they’ve managed to become lost.

But all most of us require is some time and solitude, and the opportunity to examine our life from an aerial rather than the usual street view.

I can’t pretend that travel is the panacea for all of one’s problems; the problems you leave behind when you strap on your backpack are waiting to greet you upon return. However, if you’re feeling lost, lacking purpose, or uninspired, a sabbatical of some sort might be just the cure. You needn’t go far – maybe a staycation is all that is necessary. Just some time to break away from the monotony of everyday life.

Beware the bareness of a busy life.

– Socrates

Peter

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Skydiving in Lake Taupo, New Zealand

Skydiving in Lake Taupo, New Zealand

Approximately 15,000 feet above New Zealand`s caldera-housed Lake Taupo, my behind is firmly planted on the cold metal floor of the plane, while my feet dangle outside, being whipped around like a flag in the breeze. With both hands, I hold onto the shoulder straps of my harness, which is attached to my tandem skydiving guide, Brad. I briefly glance past my feet at the Google-Earth-like view below and realize the moment has come: I am jumping out of a plane.

“Are you ready?” screams Brad over the roar of the plane’s engine.

“Yes!” I yell back with a tone of assuredness that sounds foreign.

Just before we begin hurling towards the earth’s surface at terminal velocity, a thought crosses my mind: “Shouldn’t I be more frightened?”

As we slip out of the plane in nearly upright posture, I experience the stomach-in-throat sensation of a steep roller coaster descent. Within seconds, Brad manoeuvres his body so that we are falling in a belly-to-earth orientation, creating greater drag and prolonging our free fall.

Skydiving in Lake Taupo, New Zealand

The overall sensation of falling through the air is so foreign that only bits and pieces of the experience register in my consciousness. I can hear the gentle whistle of air flowing past my ears. My face, hands and ankles feel cold. The air resistance pushing against my palms reminds me of holding my hand out of the window of a moving car. I notice a cloud to my right and wonder what it would be like to fly directly through it. I see that the camera lens of the skydiving photographer to my left is focused on me and I wave in his direction. Below me I see the shore of Lake Taupo quickly coming into increasing focus. I realize I have yet to make a sound since exiting the plane – scream or otherwise – but decide it is too late for a hearty woo-hoo!!

Instead, I turn my head back towards Brad and yell: “This is amazing!”

As someone who has struggled with anxiety for the better part of their adult life, I am surprised by my present calmness. I have experienced significantly greater anxiety during much more innocuous activities. In the minutes preceding every one of my conference research presentations, my palms would get cold and sweaty, my heart would race uncontrollably, as thoughts of potential catastrophe swirled in my mind; “What if my research has flaws?”, “What if someone asks me a question I am unable to answer?”, I would worry.

Skydiving in Lake Taupo, New Zealand

And yet, here I am, free falling at 200km/hr from a distance exceeding eight stacked CN towers, and I am feeling merely a fraction of the jitters that usually accompany my conference presentations. Somehow the potential for slamming into the earth evokes less fear than being grilled about my research by some nitpicky senior scientists at a conference.

After what feels like only a few seconds, Brad instructs: “Hold onto your harness!” Apparently, our 60 seconds of free fall are coming to an end.

A moment later, I feel like a marionette whose slack string have been abruptly tightened, as our parachute opens, quickly decelerating our momentum.

Over the next 5 minutes, Brad and I glide in the breeze, descending ever so gently towards the ground. We briefly discuss our respective careers and other mundane matters as though we’re seated in a coffee shop. I’m surprised and yet relieved to hear that this was Brad’s twelfth jump of the day.

“Just another day at the office!” he jokes.

As we approach the ground and Brad begins working the parachute in preparation for our landing my mind again drifts to question that arose just before exiting the plane: shouldn’t I have been more scared?

Maybe it was the last-minute planning that robbed my mind of the time necessary to wind itself up into a knot of worst-case scenarios. Only three hours ago, my partner Marina, and our friend Emily were half-way between Auckland and our destination of Rotorua, in the middle of New Zealand`s north island, with no intention of skydiving that day in nearby Taupo.

Maybe it was the near-complete lack of control over the experience. Once you’re up in the plane, there’s really only one way to return to terra firma with your ego intact. And it’s not as though I jumped out of the plane, as much as I was strapped to someone who did.

Whatever the reason, those 60 seconds of freefall definitely placed my earthly anxieties in stark perspective.

Back on the ground, as I’m being unclipped from my parachute, Marina asks: “How was that?”

“Fantastic!” I respond, as we exchange hugs in our skydiving gear.

And a hell of a lot easier than a conference presentation, I think to myself.

Peter

NOTE: An edited version of this story was previously published in the Globe and Mail (read it here).

Here’s the full-length video of our skydive (email subscribers need to head over to PhDNomads to view):

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