Yesterday Caterina was talking to a coworker about outdoor activities and vacations past. Apparently she was once quite the outdoorswoman, doing a fair amount of rock/ice climbing and mountaineering. In describing the appeal of those activities she managed to articulate something I had always hoped to explain in simple terms.

She said something roughly like this:

I have one of those minds that's always jumping around and thinking about new things--never idle. But when your life depends on every one of your next moves, you become incredibly focused on the moment. It's very calming.

(I apologize for likely butchering what she actually said in my attempt to capture the spirit of it.)

I thought about it for a few moments and realized that it's the same sort of force at work when I'm flying. Even though I'm multi-tasking in the sense that I'm considering lots of constantly changing variables in the sky, I'm also focused on the single task at hand. There's little room for daydreaming or getting interrupted by unrelated issues.

That is, in a strange way, quite calming on the brain.

It's a bit overly dramatic to say that the threat of death brings forth this peace, focus, and mental calm. But there's a grain of truth to it. Whether scaling an icy cliff or flying a few hundred feet off the ridge tops, the ultimate responsibility is in your hands. So you better pay attention to what you're doing. The consequences are non-trivial.

Posted by jzawodn at June 01, 2006 07:38 AM

Reader Comments
# Mark Maunder said:

Interesting. I've had similar experiences - I used to paint large crane booms and clean skyscraper windows hanging from a harness for extra cash.

In my experience, nothing focuses the mind like risk. I think the above applies to entrepreneurial risk taking. When you leave your day job and go it alone, a certain survival instinct kicks in and you become very difficult to distract from the end goal.

on June 1, 2006 07:53 AM
# Erik Fantasia said:

No doubt! I've had that exact same feeling flying, especially instrument flight, such as trying to hold on a VOR intersection in IMC at night while descending. No time to daydream then.

on June 1, 2006 08:45 AM
# Jason Fesler said:

This is totally true. Flying, well, I'm still n00b enough that I call it fun, not calming :-). Motorcycling is my other hobby, and there's nothing like pushing your machine (and yourself) to the limits technically to help clear the mind.

on June 1, 2006 09:36 AM
# Kevin said:

Given recent enlightenment about the risks of cycling (see Incidents here: ), I certainly have felt this feeling during my years riding bicycles.

on June 1, 2006 09:36 AM
# Abu Hurayrah said:

Could this be the same concept as applied to someone when they are "in the zone"? For example, we've all had moments in our lives when we can claim we were experiencing far greater clarity & focus than usual, correct? Is it solely a factor of risk/imminent death, or it is something more general of which the risk factor is only one case?

For example, people seem to experience this same "zonedness" when those dear to them are similar in a great risk. Or, perhaps, those that claim they work better "under pressure" are likewise perhaps experiencing something similar to what is being described.

My belabored point being, it may not just be risk of death that brings this out, but rather some kind of an extreme - or perhaps even something more general still.

on June 1, 2006 09:44 AM
# hack said:

If you think flying focuses the mind, you should try crashing. I've heard that being in a crash is really awesome.

on June 1, 2006 10:03 AM
# Vijaychandran said:

Qn for thought ? Is there any way we know which move decides what ( I am thinking about it !!!)

on June 1, 2006 10:29 AM
# Dan said:

I have a very similar experience when flying. There is something about being in the moment, where your life is literaly in your hands, that focuses the mind. All the petty and not so petty distractions of life melt away. The modern life can often cosy, you can live a life with very little risk, it is nice to add a little. There is something about overcoming risk and potiential danger that makes you feel alive.

on June 1, 2006 10:39 AM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

Vijay: Experience is your best guide, I suspect.

on June 1, 2006 11:05 AM
# Kevin said:

I clicked your 'Add to Google Toolbar' button, and got:

The custom button cannot be installed
A semi colon character was expected. (line 7 column 83)

Verbatim. I took liberties with the spacing. Sorry for being off-topic. Mahalo!

on June 1, 2006 11:24 AM
# chris sivori said:

I'm not so sure it's totally a death thing as much as it is activity experienced within the expanse of nature and the natural world. Human brains are attuned to the natural world. You often experience this same stillness even just by walking around in nature, especially if there are expansive vistas and the ability to see long distances.

on June 1, 2006 11:38 AM
# Martin said:

Anyone who meditates regularly could talk about this same feeling through the practice of meditation ?

on June 1, 2006 11:38 AM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

Chris: maybe. But I seem to have to force myself to pay attention to my surroundings if I'm more of a passive observer.

on June 1, 2006 11:53 AM
# AHFX said:

I absolutely agree. I taught rock climbing for a number of years and it is amazing how "relaxing" it is. Even though you might have a thousand things on your mind when you get there, once you start climbing, there is nothing else on your mind but how to reach the next hand hold. It was my stress reliever for many years.

on June 1, 2006 12:39 PM
# cloneofsnake said:

I agree w/ Abu, this sounds like the "in the zone" thing... the same mental state where u feel that time had somehow slowed down, your mind is extremely sharp, the control of your body parts are very accurate and almost in a "cruise control" mode b'coz your brain is so fast & so far ahead... You can feel this way in most competitive sports... basketball, martial arts, racing, or playing the piano.

on June 1, 2006 02:03 PM
# MiddlingY! said:

I can reproduce the same feeling/zone by playing guitar (especially infront of an audience). :) I also rock climb, and the feelings are comparable. You're in the zone, so to speak.

on June 1, 2006 04:16 PM
# Jeffrey Friedl said:

I've been in the car with co-workers whose driving made me feel "the potential of Imminent Death", and did not feel anything close to peace, focus, and metnal calm!

on June 1, 2006 04:33 PM
# Sayam Khan said:

You might enjoy reading "Flow: Psychology of Optimal Experience".

on June 2, 2006 07:17 AM

I used to rattlesnake hunt. Have caught several full-grown wild ones bare-handed. Not the cooled down, slow snakes you see these "wankers" on T.V. set up for the cameras. Believe me, if you imitate them with a natural, wild, warm rattlesnake, you're going to the hospital with a load of shit in your pants & a good chance of being called "stumpy". Extreme adrenaline, focus, patience, and single-minded purpose is needed for your human brain to out perform a rattler's natural defense mechanisms. Life or death by choice against a wild killer will focus you.

on June 15, 2006 04:24 PM
# roger lucas said:

The peace and mental calm in facing Imminent death also comes in when you have experienced a serious injury. I was once shot in the neck and at first there is the thought "Am I going to be okay?" You have a good reason to think death is imminent. Then suddenly the sensation of mental calmness and peace washes over you, the fear and pain are gone and you feel very peaceful.

on December 31, 2007 01:35 PM
# Allex Morris said:

Hi Roger.. I quite agree with your thoughts and immediate gets along with one of my fear factor even today when i use to drive on a society lanes.

The incident took place some where four years back when i had my set of wheels from my own pocket. And the instinct to get fast on the track was always on my mind when ever i get on the road. But one day i got a accident with a vehicle carrying the inflammable liquid from left side, remembering those days even today i get to shiver of the memory's. Some how i got managed to escape the death. But frankly speaking i still use to imagine those silent feet of death walking towards me.

But then life is all about winning your inner threat's and get going. What i would like to say to conclude is that take every moment as a lesson to carry forward your future.

on March 8, 2008 05:11 AM
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