Observations Along the Edge
A short while ago, I was watching a video from the Red Bull Rampage – a freeride downhill mountain biking competition. The location is near Virgin, Utah on the dramatic mesas overlooking the Virgin River that flows through Zion National Park. Looking down from the top of the course is a dizzying experience. The course descends several hundred feet on a narrow spine of sandstone. On either side are near vertical drops. For the uninitiated, it is nearly inconceivable that humans would want to ride down from this cliff edge, but they do backflips, 360 degree rotations, or superman style – feet off the pegs flights into space to land on a slope of dirt, rock and sand and then drop into the next section. The video does not typically show the crashes. Watching the riders drop off the edge of a cliff is terrifying enough.
Why do people take these kinds of death defying risks? The motivation has a simple answer in that risk-taking is fun. Risk-taking with a high degree of skill is more than fun, it can provide moments of ecstatic joy and a peak experience. Abraham Maslow called this self-actualization where a person achieves a profound sense of connection and purpose in her life. Self-actualization can happen in any number of ways, but the experiences where there is the greatest risk inspires awe in people and a huge emotional payoff if the individual succeeds.
In similar fashion, people learn to employ similar strategies in negative coping mechanisms. This kind of risk-taking may involve crime, violence, or drug abuse. There is a kind of transcendent experience available when a thief pulls off a dangerous heist, a participant engages in violent encounters like “Fight Club” a takeoff on bareknuckle, mixed martial arts “smoker” fights, or an opiate user takes the supreme risk of trying a homemade synthetic heroin stronger than fentanyl. There is a theory called transient hypofrontality where the person’s executive cortical processing is halted and all of the brain’s focus is on bodily sensation and motor functions. This phenomenon explains how people can take that leap into the unknown and then do it again and again. During the act, there is an altered state of consciousness with hyper-focus and a disengagement of executive functioning. In the aftermath, there is a flood of dopamine and serotonin where the individual feels the rush. For some, the risks need to increase to maintain the same level of thrill and bliss.
There is another kind of risk-taking when people engage in therapy. Many clients harbor deep anxiety, shame or outright fear about things in their pasts. In therapy, they are asked to lean into these negative feelings and express their challenging or frightening beliefs. Getting close to this type of edge isn’t often associated with self-actualization, but it can be. When clients come to a point of realization about their presenting problems, make a breakthrough in treatment where their relationship to trauma and shame alters significantly, their experiences can be liberating, even joyful. Though there is typically not the kind of rush as in other more extreme physical risk-taking, there can be the sense of an altered state - an enlightenment experience where one’s view of reality expands dramatically.
There is also a well-known phenomenon called post traumatic growth. Imagine having a terrifying experience and having your world-view completely shifted because of the experience. After the trauma response is integrated and the fear is no longer triggered, there is the opportunity to feel a renewed vigor for life, a sense that one has “dodged a bullet”. This phenomenon is well known in recovery circles where people regularly have a spiritual experience after realizing that they no longer need drugs, alcohol, or other addictive substances or behaviors to get along in the world. The freedom that comes from not having to carry that burden can be a transcendent and self-actualizing experience.
Recently, I was mountain biking on the Dead Ringer trail mere miles from the Red Bull Rampage site. I was trying to get back to the top of the mesa where my truck was parked. Dead Ringer is not a particularly challenging trail, though it has some steep exposure as one climbs up along the face of the mesa towards the top. This would have been a routine ride except that I had fallen coming off of a jump a few miles back and fractured my seventh rib. This was not a big jump or a scary one, I just hit it wrong and the front wheel twisted sideways, the bike collapsed on the landing and I slammed onto my chest. For a few minutes, there was only the primal urge to breathe and the piercing pain of the effort. Everything was hyper real. Time slowed. The silty dust was scattering with my shallow puffs of breath with my face just inches above the ground. I could feel a drop of stinging sweat in my right eye, mingling with tears. My body was crying, but I didn’t feel like crying. I just wanted to take a deep breath. Eventually, I turned over and realized that I was OK. I hurt but it wasn’t life threatening. There was a curiously happy feeling tangled up in the fear and pain. Further down the trail, trying to avoid any bumps on Dead Ringer and slowly, very slowly climbing up to the starting point. I had another stunning thought. “I love this stuff, riding out the desert, testing myself. I can’t wait to do it again.”