I wanted to write something for all of you about my Colorado River trip by raft from one end of the Grand Canyon to the other. I wanted to tell you, of course, about the majesty of the place, the many birds and animals, the joy of simply being outside day and night for 13 days, and how I could tell that my sensitivity added so much to the experience.
Then I had to face that what might be most useful to you could be some honesty about the darker side of the trip. Some of you might have struggled with the discomfort, lack of privacy, and expectations to be gregarious, all part of it. But I could manage them, especially because the outfitters worked like slaves to make the trip easy for us. No, my highly sensitive baggage was my anxiety, as huge as the canyon.
Why focus on that? When I do a workshop for HSPs, I like to have them vote on the topics of most concern to them so that I know where to place my focus. At the large workshop at Kripalu last spring, anxiety/worry was at the top of the list. We talked a great deal about it, but I did not speak very much from personal experience. I thought I had largely weeded out of my life the things that cause me unnecessary anxiety. But, ah, I was wrong.
Hello, River People
“The best things in life are dangerous.” That’s what our waitperson’s t-shirt said when we sat down for dinner in the Resurrection Café at the Marble Canyon Lodge at Lee’s Ferry, just fifteen miles below Glen Canyon Dam, and Mile Zero for rafters. The walls of the café were adorned with what we came to realize was a favorite photo genre on the River: A before of an upright raft on a huge wave, and an immediate after of it flipping over, people falling into the water, arms flailing.
If I have a motto, it might be “The best things in life make me feel secure.” It seemed I was stretching my comfort zone again. I was going down a river with a lot of white water, for thirteen days, in an inflated oar raft. Not a raft in which we would paddle, thank goodness. It was a larger, heavier oar raft that a skilled guide manages with two oars, and we are happy passengers, as in passive and secure—secure as you can be on this river.
Ever since I had agreed to the trip, a full year before, I was worried, but put it out of my mind. It was a long time in the future (but the future has a way of arriving). It’s supposed to be very safe. Still, as we learned during our lengthy safety lecture the first morning before we got into the boats, they can tip over. This is not a disaster we were told, but one must know what to do, and “what to do” turned my anxiety up from 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, to about 9.5.
Here are all the comforting instructions. If you tip over and you end up under the boat, you have some air, so you “walk” to the edge and slip under and up to more air, then grab on. If you are not under the boat, you should hold on to it, although of course it will be tearing through rough, rocky waters. If you are too far from it, swim to it. If it is way too far away, you should still try to swim, try to save yourself (“Look out for Number One, do not try to save anyone else”). Or if you are the helpless type, lie on your back, feet first so they hit the rocks rather than your head, and your feet are not dragging and getting caught in other rocks. (Actually, there are very few rocks in this river’s rapids.)
There was even more. If the guides point to something, swim to it. They are not pointing at the danger looming near you. If you are okay, pat your head. If you are not, make a huge cross with your arms. If you are only a little hurt, make a small cross. If you are too messed up to make hand signals, they will come. They will throw a rope if they can. Do not put it around your neck or it may choke you. Do not put it around your arms, as they may want you to let go suddenly if… Put it over your shoulder and let them haul you in backwards. Etcetera.
All of this was explained with the hearty humor of a typical river guide. But you can see why I start here. This was one of the big moments of the trip, because I was hearing the details of why I was so afraid. I love being in and on and around water, but not rapids. So why was I here? Because (a) a friend asked me and my husband, as she did not want to go alone, and my real motto is “Do not cause anyone any trouble,” and (b) I thought it would be beautiful. More on that later.
Wherever You Go You Take Yourself, Your Sensitive Self
Again, not every HSP would respond in the way that I did to rafting the Grand Canyon, and I do not want to scare anyone away from a truly profound, life changing event, which it was for me. The essential point, I think, is that HSPs do not like risks. This feeling about risk arises from the full combo of depth of processing (weigh the odds well), emotional responsiveness (the chance to feel really good or bad, which drives the processing), being easily overstimulated (threats, losses, pain, etc. are more overstimulating for us so we try to avoid them), and sensitive to subtle stimuli (we see opportunities and dangers others miss). This is why we make good gamblers. We put all our money on what we can see will be a sure thing, and back off from big risks. We especially dislike uncertainty, which is always involved in a decision, or there would be no decision. Uncertainty when the stakes are high? No thanks. “The rafts rarely tip over.” Statistics are not much comfort when you are the statistic.
The problem, of course, is that even lying in bed at night entails some tiny risk of something dreadful happening to us. Get up in the morning, drive somewhere, and you are really at risk. And so on. What’s too big of a risk? Here our experience comes into play. Some of us were taught to feel secure, that nothing bad will probably happen. Some of us were taught or learned from experience that something bad very well might happen.
In my case, I found myself revisiting myself as a sensitive child. A large part of that childhood was about fear, simply because no one bothered to get me over my fear. Highly sensitive children are naturally cautious, but they can be helped to overcome the caution, or they can be plunged into deeper fear through their careful processing of direct fearful warnings and comments, of things they overhear everywhere about accidents and deaths, and especially through their own imagination if they do not have experiences to counteract their vivid visions of possible scary outcomes.
One of my greatest fears was of falling. This is a natural fear in infants, and perhaps it was aggravated by some scary experience. I do recall at about age two being passed around in a circle of strange adults during a skit of “Patty Cake Patty Cake” with me the cake, and being terrified. This fear of falling has stood in my way all my life. As a child I loved to hike, but was afraid of every little narrow spot on hiking trails. I loved the water, but was so afraid to put my face in (a type of letting go or falling) that I did not learn to swim until I was 13. Same with learning to bicycle, and I never learned to skate, either kind. It’s pretty hard to be a normal kid in the neighborhood when you can’t even follow the others when they bike off somewhere. Oh yes, after my first horrific ride on a roller coaster, I would not join others on most amusement park rides either.
Worst of all, I adored horses, but was so afraid of riding. I feared falling off. Why didn’t anyone help me get over these fears? I think it was convenient to have a child that afraid, as I required less watching. It still makes me angry, frankly.
In this case my fear was of falling out of the boat or simply the feeling of the boat falling over the low falls that were the rapids. But there were plenty of other fears, each with their own history. I recall being fascinated by the words of some psychologist that we fear what has already happened. I don’t think that is entirely true, but trauma is so effective at teaching, especially sensitive people.
So here I was afraid again, unlike the others in the group apparently, who were outdoorsy types who had white water rafted before and loved it. Meanwhile, my fear was almost ruining the trip. A quote from my sketchy journal, Day 5: “Wish I felt more than fear and anxiety, about doing everything right, my feet getting blisters, choosing the right boat to get into in the morning (safest, luckiest), choosing the right spot each night to lay out our bedding (no fire ants, not too sloped, etc.), being careful not to fall. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.”
There were social fears, too. The others on the trip were all very, very nice, and I became fond of a few of them, but it brought up all those social primitive fears to which I am especially prone, and perhaps almost all HSPs are. Do they like me? Do they like Art and me? Did they notice when I made that mistake? Why don’t they ask me about myself? I see them all talking together, but don’t seem to talk with us that much–are we being left out on purpose? Or are we just too boring, old, intellectual…?
Then the introvert roars in. Yet do I really want to talk with them? I will probably never see them again. We have so little in common.
Then the critic: But what about opening my heart? Isn’t that one of my highest priorities? But I just want to stare at the canyon. I don’t want to have to talk or even listen. Well, no wonder you feel left out then.
What’s the matter with me? I stare at this canyon but don’t seem to FEEL anything. If I had to write a poem about it, nothing would come at all.
Circling my tail, biting it to pieces.
Get Over It–Not the Fear but the Fear of Fear
Looking back, however, I do actually smile at all this. This is what I would like you to learn to do, too. I do not mean to be glib, and perhaps it is my age, but I am through with trying to get over my rough patches if they don’t hurt anyone else. Of course I brought myself along, my best parts too, even if they went largely unseen on the River. As for not feeling enough, I felt the beauty more later, and still do. I take solace in the words of the mighty romantic poet, William Wordsworth: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” The powerful feelings that were happening in the canyon, that I did not feel consciously at the time, will never leave me–and the fear has.
Although, I don’t know that I could get myself to go back, much as I long to, and I envy those who do go back, some of them year after year. Alas, I still recall that complete dread as the prow of our boat edged towards the drop into Lava Falls. Of course this is just me. But if some fears are you, too, it’s just you. Let’s smile at our fear, and, yes, take those risks we think are worth it.
I kept this quote from Meister Eckert with me the entire trip, written on a slip of paper for me by a beloved friend. It was soon water stained from the rapids. “Blessed are the pure in heart, who leave everything to God now as they did before they ever existed.”
I’m still working on it, Meister.
What Matters Most
“Was it beautiful?” people ask. I must resort to the old line that it was, is, always will be beyond description. I can see view after view of that seemingly endless multicolored canyon, sometimes looming over us and sometimes seeming to stretch to the horizon in row after row of cliffs and mesas, with blue sky and clouds playing over it all.
The rock we floated by at the bottom was my favorite, the Vishnu Schist. It was once sediment, but then pushed down beneath tectonic plates and boiled pure, pushed up into mountains higher than the Alps, leveled to a plain, and then gouged out by the River. It is dark, shiny grey like graphite. Through it runs the Zoraster granite, usually a soft pink, glinting with crystal. The “dykes” and “sills” of this pink running through the dark grey could be an inch to many feet thick. The soft shapes created by the water turned this section of the canyon into an endlessly pleasing sculpture garden, perhaps especially featuring the works of Henry Moore.
I just stared, soaking it up, not wanting to talk or do anything else but stare. I still watch the canyon going by, like a slide show, and it makes me gloriously happy to see it again. I can’t say more than that. It really was beyond my words. I can say again, however, that I think that my sensitivity added a deeper appreciation to what was already infinite.
Later I found a metaphor at least. The Canyon was like an ancient great-great-great grandparent ancestor of mine, so old it no longer moves or acknowledges me or even has a gender. Yet it is alive, and it received me into its depth. It embraced me, welcomed me, and was pleased by my coming to see it and by my courage in doing so. Does it love me? I thought, yes. Would it have taken care of me? Definitely no. Why? The rock at the bottom is 1.4 billion years old. The canyon says without a sound, “My child, do not trouble yourself about living a ‘long’ life.”
Okay, There is Something Here about the Movie
Someone told me that the trip down the River would be an initiation. But an initiation into what? My old, old great-great-grandparent had nothing to tell me about such trivia, and I had left behind everything. Especially the documentary about high sensitivity that I had agreed to. Like the River, I am doing the film at the invitation of a friend. Otherwise I would not have even considered it. For the beauty of what I will see? I hope. I have entered something that I can only escape at the end. Walking out would be a killer. (We went for 13 days because a shorter trip required hiking in or out of the Canyon in 110° heat.)
As with the River, I was afraid to let go into the unknown of making this film with these people using crowd sourcing, and like the River, I have really underestimated how much this project would require of me. (I still have not recovered from certain bodily changes due to the trip.) I hope that, as with the River, I will be proud that I “made it.”
Finally, perhaps I was taught, again, about “eddying out,” which I need to do even more than ever with this movie buzz all around me. Eddying out means allowing yourself to drift into one of the quiet eddies the river creates just after the rapids. The eddy takes you gently towards shore. You eddy out just to relax, to eat, to regroup mentally, and above all to check and see if those around you are making it safely, too.
I invite you click the comments link at the top of this article and talk about how you as an HSP have learned (or not learned) to handle your fears and dislike of risks. As you know, I will not be able to respond, much as I would like to, but as always, I invite you to discuss with each other.