I worked as a zip line tour guide for 5 years at the largest zip line canopy course in the world. Our course had over 100 zip lines, some that were 15 stories high, and some that reached speeds of 75 miles an hour. Rope bridges, many that barely met the definition of a bridge, swayed freely through the tree canopies. I worked around fear. I’ve seen many grown men cry. I’ve seen people so terrified they forgot where they were. I’ve even seen mothers and fathers abandon their young children in the treetops to reach solid ground.
But the scariest thing in our arsenal was called The Power Free Fall. The Power Free Fall is a machine hooked 100 feet in the air to the side of a tower. Mechanically, it’s a glorified air-brake, designed by the Germans to get people out of burning buildings in less than 60 seconds. You’re put into a full body harness, hooked by your back, and asked to step off a platform into 100 feet of nothingness. It’s a simulated free fall until the machine eventually slows your descent, and it of course works every time. It’s actually really hard for it not to work. There’s very little that can break, and it almost totally relies on physics, which doesn’t stop working.
But don’t let me fool you, it’s absolutely terrifying. Even though guests are fully aware there are no refunds, only about 50-60% of people actually jump.
This is where we saw true human nature; this is where you could witness your animal instincts overriding the rational capacities of the brain.
Let me venture off into a slight tangent so I might best explain what happens to your body in this situation.
We all have a voice inside our head, that inner monologue of sorts that tends to narrate our lives. We know it best when it tells us we’re not good enough for something. Psychologist Dr. Aziz Gazipura refers to it as our inner critic.
Believe it or not, this inner-critic has a purpose: It’s supposed to keep you safe… safe from embarrassment, safe from guilt, safe from social exile, safe from harm in general. Neuroscientist, Robert M Sapolsky says it often arises from a part of the brain called the amygdala, which we think is most responsible for fear and anger. This voice most likely arises indirectly from the amygdala, as a way to communicate with the rest of the body.
Evolution is a crude process, and we should not expect this clumsy defense mechanism to always work in our benefit. Surely, evolution never expected that we could ever safely leap from a 10 story building. Evolution never expects anything; it’s simply a process of improvement based on one thing: the mistake. And surely, it’s a mistake to jump from a 10 story building. That’s at least what your inner-critic tells you.
…Until you don’t jump from a 10 story building. Then, your inner-critic decides to punish you all the way down the stairs. You’ll look down at your friends, all whom landed safely on the ground, not a frown in sight, and you’ll feel that voice in the back of your head. “You must be a coward. Look at all of them down there so happy. You should feel ashamed. Look at what you’re missing out on.”
Again, it’s a clumsy defense mechanism; it just persuaded you not to jump, and now, 30 seconds later, it has already doubled-backed on its own arguments. Would you ever listen to someone so confused in any other circumstance? Of course not, but you listen to the dissonance of your inner-critic every day.
So my job was to convince people not to listen to their inner-critic. It’s hard to convince people that the voice inside their head is not really their own, that they are not the author of their own thoughts. It’s simply the body responding to stimuli, and these thoughts and feelings arise into existence outside of our control. The goal is to see through these false impressions.
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls the human brain the man riding the elephant, where the elephant is your automatic, instinctive responses and the man is your logical capacities. In any stressful situation, the elephant wins.
So let me walk you through how I face The Power Free Fall…
The Power Free Fall is an incredible experience. Every time I do it I land laughing my ass off. I’ve probably done it over 200 times. But every time, I have to go through the same process…
So I walk the 145 stairs to the platform, and this is what I see.
Immediately, my heart rate increases, there’s butterflies in my stomach, I start to shake, and I start to lose the ability to make rational decisions.
Every fiber of my being is telling me, NO. You don’t have to do this. You can do this another day. Step back.
Every tour guide is of this same consensus: “The Power Free Fall still gets to me, no matter how many times I do it.” This is the natural human response. Humans would not have made it very far if they were completely comfortable leaping from hundreds of feet in the air.
But that’s not what I’m thinking when I’m up there, at least not at first. I’m not really thinking anything; that conscious part of my brain has been overridden by my more basic instincts. My body is telling me, in every way that it can, that I should not do this. This is where you really understand how much control you actually have over yourself… not very much.
But then I remember to breathe.
There’s something very special about breathing. On one hand I can control it, and on the other hand, I cannot control it. And there’s something about slowing down your breathing and taking notice of it, that allows you to gain a little more power over yourself. It’s like gripping the reigns of the elephant. It’s at that point when I can simply witness what’s happening to me, and see things as they actually are. I can feel the fight or flight response kicking in. I can feel the redirection of blood from the gut to the arms and legs, and it causes a weirdness in my stomach. I can feel my arms and legs shaking. I can feel my heart beating faster to make up for the adrenaline dump. And I realize that I’m not doing any of that. It’s just my brain responding to what’s happening; it’s just brain signals. And what do I care about signals? How is it that I somehow feel connected to these critical bits of language and emotion that are arising in my mind. They don’t seem to be speaking on my behalf. I want to have fun, and they’re preventing that. The Power Free Fall has never hurt anyone, and I know I will be safe.
I feel the fear, and I do it anyway.
As soon as I step off my insides rise to my throat, putting pressure on my lungs in a way that expels all air. Every muscle in my body contracts. The machine is doing its job now, and I now feel resistance in the opposite direction. I can breathe again, but I’m still 20 feet in the air. There’s still another second or two until I reach the ground. I land with the same force as if I were to jump off of a chair. I’m laughing now. I always start laughing.
This process of simply becoming aware can be used to fight all fear. To see things as they actually are weakens their control over us. Find your breath and take notice of it. From there, simply witness what is going on in your body, and understand that it’s simply doing its job. And then you may finally use reason to overcome those fears.
We may not be total rational creatures, but we can reason away our fears. If your friend were to pull out his/her pet snake, your immediate response would come from the amydgala, after all, we are instinctively afraid of such animals. But our neocortex, a set of brain tissue responsible for our rational capacities, can hinder the amygdala’s production of stress hormones once it reasons that this snake poses no threat.
Use this to your advantage. First, find something that is in your control, (the breath is often the easiest). Witness your breath, and then witness all the other feelings arising inside of you. See them for what they really are, just the brain responding to circumstances. Then find your reason, and let reason guide your actions.
Remember that those critical thoughts and feelings are not your own, they’re just defense mechanisms, they’re not your fault, they’re not permanent, and they’re not important. With enough practice, you can learn to disconnect yourself from those emotions.
The goal is to get to a point where you’re chasing the butterflies in your stomach, just so you can properly deal with them. But don’t think you can ever stop being afraid. No one is brave because they’re not afraid; being afraid is the only time you can be brave. Feel that fear and then do it anyway.
My best moments working at Historic Banning Mills was when I witnessed someone face their greatest fear. Watching that progression from someone who, in the beginning, was so scared they were crying, to the end of the day, when they rode down a 75 mph zip line. “Watching that gives me goosebumps,” my boss, Tommy, would say. It’s a rewarding feeling.
Here’s a video of someone facing The Power Free Fall like a champ, with my good buddy Nick Wortman hooking him up.