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Entering a Cave is Scary and Exhilarating

March 16th, 2015

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”–Joseph Campbell

Hi there.

If you want to be uncomfortable and exhilarated all at once, enter a deep, dark cave.

I hope you’ll read this post to the end. In it, I’ll cover 3 things: 1) I’ll share about an exciting local caving adventure; 2) I’ll share why I think it’s scary – and important – for us to enter caves; and, 3) I will share thoughts from a blind person that provided discoveries for me that will hopefully serve as insights for you.

I live in Lander, Wyoming. Nearby Sinks Canyon State Park is home to many caves. The one I am most familiar with is the Boulder Choke Cave. My family has embarked on the adventure, and I have taken a group of women I was coaching into the cave. Most recently, I’ve been taking turns going with my sons’ classes when they explore the cave as part of their science curriculum. About a month ago, I went along as a helper with our 7th grader son, Hayden, and his classmates and teachers.

To start the caving adventure, we hike from an area called The Rise to what is an unassuming hillside. It is here, in between a few small boulders, that we’ll enter the cave. One by one, we carefully maneuver down through the tight “entrance” of the cave – a series of boulders that are by nature, stacked randomly and vertically. Entering the Boulder Choke Cave is a psychological experience. After all, you go from being above ground, out in the open, illuminated by bright sunshine, to deep underneath it after only a few strategic moves. If not for our headlamps, we’d be in total darkness almost immediately.

Crawling deeper into the cave.

Once in the cave, we start on all fours, crawling for a stretch before we can stand up and walk and examine the cave all around us. A highlight is a section where we swing on a big rope to get down a small chute. Otherwise, this crawling-then-walking-then-crawling continues for most of the one-hour exploration.

For this year’s tour, though, there was new side trip added, which meant not only a belly crawl, but a belly crawl in a very tight tunnel that goes for about 25 yards to a little pool where we were fortunate enough to spy and watch a cave fish. This little side trip was such a tight tunnel that I had to remove my thin backpack or I would have gotten stuck.

As I crawled, my face smashed against the dank dirt of the tunnel’s floor, I imagined I was an inchworm. I used all of my body to scooch myself forward and slightly uphill as I followed a student in front of me, whose feet were pretty much in my face. During this stretch, my breath kept hitching, meaning I kept making little gasps. Aware of my anxiety, I stopped and took some deep breaths and coached myself to calm down. I won’t lie – I was looking forward to getting this part over with. Two things made it even worse: Finding out during this crawl that this was an out-and-back side trip that meant doing this not once but twice, and also, realizing that no matter how uncomfortable this was, I had nowhere to go to get out of it. To make matter worse, I imagined what it would be like if someone above ground decided to lock the cave’s entrance gate, locking us in. Good times…

Why do most of us avoid and fear caves and otherwise tight, dark places? I think it’s because we can’t see, which means there is a lot of unknown territory when we enter a cave. Not only can we not see anything, but the darkness that causes us to not be able to see our surroundings is scary in its own right. We often think of dragons and snakes and bats and spiders and other sneaky, nocturnal creatures. There is also a feeling of not knowing if you’ll be able to find your way out, or even if there is a way out.

When Joseph Campbell said “The cave we fear to enter holds the treasure,” he meant we ought to dare to explore the dark, scary places of our lives. The corners and edges of our beings. And that in doing so, in exchange for our being uncomfortable and brave, we will make a discovery and in fact even be rewarded with a treasure – “the treasure you seek.”

A fan of Joseph Campbell’s work – particularly the Hero’s Journey, which I use as a template for my Epic programs – I often dare the people I coach, who are feeling “stuck,” to identify the caves in their lives. These caves can be a particular relationship or past event, a bad habit, a way of being or coping, a place of pain and heartbreak – anything that would require us to be vulnerable and to enter the unknown for purposes of exploring it and trying to release its hold (and limitations) on our life.

Campbell argued the trips into our caves are worthwhile ones. “The goal of the hero trip down to the jewel point is to find those levels in the psyche that open, open, open, and finally open to the mystery of your Self.” He said, “It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life…. The very cave you are afraid to enter turns out to be the source of what you are looking for.”

Still, exploring our caves is a tall order. When we enter a cave, sometimes we have to belly crawl through passages to see where they lead. Sometimes we have to slay dragons. But often, it’s just a matter of entering the cave and sitting – being – in its darkness for some time, learning, before exiting and using the experience for the journey ahead that is your life.

Right now, take a minute and try to identify a “cave” in your life. I wouldn’t ask you to do something I’m not willing to do, so I’m thinking about my cave(s) too… Entering our caves is terrifying, but if we really value our life, it’s important that we do the work.

But back to my real life caving field trip. Alas, that little exciting side trip did eventually end, and after returning and regrouping at the “lunchroom” section of the cave, David Lloyd, the 7th grade science teacher, instructed us to turn off our headlamps and to sit in silence.

My favorite part of the caving adventure is this brief moment when we sit in silence and total darkness. Even as a mother of three energetic sons, I am fortunate to experience silence often. But total darkness? If not for these caving adventures, never.

Sitting in total silence and darkness is an experience I can’t find words to describe. All I can say is in this total darkness you cannot even see your hand in front of your face. Your eyes don’t adjust like they do when you’re at home at night and “in the dark.”

After one minute of silence and total darkness, we were instructed to turn our lights back on. After we did this, I could hear Mr. Lloyd and some students talking about the total darkness we had just experienced, and Mr. Lloyd asked, “I wonder if it is like that all of the time for people who are blind?” or something to that effect. It was a great question, and I wondered about it, too. Curious, I made a mental note to reach out to my social networks later in the day to try to connect with someone who is blind in order to ask them that question.

Upon my return from the caving field trip, I logged into Twitter and asked my followers if any of them could connect me with a blind person. Within an hour, a contact from eTourism Summit (Laurie Farr), replied saying she would introduce me to her sister, Wendy Poth, who has been without sight for 52 years.

After an email introduction from Laurie, Wendy and I scheduled a phone call. Once on the phone, I asked Wendy, “As a blind person, do you live in total darkness?”

Her responses to this question, and others, were surprising and fascinating.
“I am without sight, totally blind. I can’t see a bloody thing,” explained Wendy, who is 60. When she was almost eight, a genetic defect that causes others to become near-sighted, caused Wendy to lose her sight.

But just because she can’t see a bloody thing, doesn’t mean she can’t see. Wendy explained, “My camera is broken, but there’s nothing wrong with the film. My visual tape is constantly running. Seeing is really a brain activity. It’s not a virtue of the camera – the eyes – at all. What I cannot do is see nothing. Because my visual cortex is active and alive and firing… I’ve constantly got a picture in my head.”

Wendy added that a person without sight not only does not live in total darkness, he/she will have a harder time experiencing total darkness than those of us who have our sight. Wendy explained that when she walks into an unfamiliar place, “I can hear that the room is tall and long and not that wide, and I hear people standing around talking, and I hear sound bouncing off a chandelier or I can hear people talking at a lower level so I assume they’re sitting down, if there’s three, they’re on a couch… I constantly ‘fill in.'”

Because she’s used to filling in empty spaces, Wendy said she’d have a hard time imagining total darkness. If she were in a cave, she’d be filling in information she senses. “I struggle to see nothing,” she said. “When I want to allow myself to do that drifting… I have trouble giving up my visual cortex.”

Wendy’s generosity and sharing with me provided an insight into people who have no sight – people we refer to as blind. For one, it might be better to refer to people who have no sight as people who have no sight, rather than blind people.

It wasn’t easy for me to reach out and talk for the first time to someone who cannot see, and to dare to ask questions that would fulfill my selfish curiosities. But the treasure of going into that cave was learning, gaining new understanding, and making a new friend.

Near the end of our phone call, Wendy said something that really struck me: “Black is something. If you think about the color spectrum… black is the opposite of what people would intuit. Black is not the absence of all.”

Perhaps this is why when we enter a cave, be it a literal one or one of the emotional caves we fear to enter, we can’t see anything, and yet we can feel that something is there…

Thank you for reading my blog. As usual, I’d love to hear from you below in the comments. Share an experience or ask a question – whatever. I’m just happy to be connected to you. Thanks again.

  • Martin says:

    Great post Shelli. I love the discussion with Wendy. So much to think about on that one 🙂

    Caving… Love caves, but claustrophobic in the super tight places. I felt myself getting ridiculously anxious when you describe the belly crawl so tight that you had to remove your pack to avoid getting stuck. Ahhhhhhh.


  • Lynette says:

    I loved reading your blog. Thank you for your willingness to share. I remember in my younger years, I loved exploring caves and climbing trees and sitting in quiet meadows, just me, my thoughts and nature. Now, I often make the excuse that I don’t have time to do such things or I’m too tired. Such a shame to not make time to do the things that fill us with so much. Note to self, quit making excuses and make the time! It was really nice to have those memories come back. Thank you

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