I’m looking down from the edge. Deep below me I see white foam where the waterfall hits the water in the lower bassin. My heart is pumping like crazy, my breathing goes faster and I can’t swallow. My easy day guide says I just have to take a big step and land half a meter from the foam so I won’t hit rock.
I’m doing what I should do. I look up at the sky. Focus on my abdomen, feel the fear and investigate it with curiosity. Feel the physical reactions of my body and focus on my breathing, in and out. My heart rate is going down. I hear a voice counting down. Three, two, one and there I go …
It all worked out fine, I managed to overcome my fear and take the leap of faith. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the power of focussing on my breathing to overcome emotions like fear or stress.
What’s funny is that I, myself was part of the learning process that I was facilitating in the group together with an outdoor guide. And it was such a strong experience and confirmed my beliefs on how to create powerful learning experiences that I wanted to share it.
Prior to entering the canyon (the jump was part of canyon trip) we talked in the group about overcoming fear and the theory behind it.
You can imagine yourself as a tree. When the going gets tough it might feel like a storm. In a storm the top of a tree catches a lot of wind and starts sweeping from one side to another. When you’re in a stressful situation it can feel like a storm in your head. Your thoughts are sweeping back and forth and going from thinking about what might happen, previous fails to future consequences. When you look at a tree during a storm you can see that the lower trunk remains very stable, you might call it the stable base of the tree. Your abdomen is your stable base. By focusing on your abdomen and belly breathing you can bring your attention from the head (the top of the tree end the negative thoughts) to the physical sensations that comes along with the stressful situation. It’s a lot easier to focus on controlling physical sensations compared to trying to control your thoughts. And getting control over your physical sensations, breathing normally and lowering your heart rate makes it easier to be in the here and the now and to let go of negative thoughts.
Nice as a theory/model/concept. But in experience based learning it’s not about theory, it’s about practice. Confucius already stated: “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand”. In learning it’s often about creating a safe environment to test and gain first successful experiences with a new way of thinking and working.
In order to have some first successful experiences in a relatively safe environment we build up hight. Start jumping from a relatively safe hight and building up to seven meter jumps and higher. No everybody does the highest jumps, but everybody manages to go a lot higher then they expected in the first place.
When we got out of the canyon we had a closing session to discuss and share experiences. Focussing on your abdomen really helps to let go of hindering, obstructive thoughts. Never the less, the fear doesn’t disappear completely. A fear for jumping from heights is a very solid, and I think natural, protection mechanism to prevent us from hurting ourselves. Having felt how powerful the solid base was is however encouraging to start experimenting with it in other stressful situations. So I’m already planning my next try out …
Experience based learning is often attributed to Kolb and presented in his experiential learning model. In this theory reflecting upon what you experienced and conceptualizing it are essential to make it a learning experience. If you want the learning experience to be something more than gaining an insight you have to bring it into practice. Experimenting with the new behavior makes it last.
For me a powerful learning proces starts with a powerful experience but is only a starting point for a next step. It provides you with the insights to get convinced it’s worthwhile to keep on experimenting with the new behavior. Sharing those experiences with others will help to successfully integrate the new behavior.
My take-away however is that emotion is everything. The nature of the experience makes that it won’t fade too fast. I can still vividly recall my experience. So take small, safe steps but do them quickly and build up fast towards a first successful but challenging experience!