Erik Weihenmayer (@ErikWeihenmayer) is the only blind person to climb the seven summits. He also solo kayaked 277 miles of the Grand Canyon. He has done all of this and more, blind. Weihenmayer, who lost his sight at 13, suffers from a genetic disease that eventually took his vision. He talks about what it takes to mentally and emotionally overcome his challenges and what motivates him to engage in adventuring that many sighted people would find near impossible.
Erik’s book about kayaking is called “No Barriers,” and is a must read. Commander Divine and Erik get into what it takes to take the first steps to live a life without barriers. Keep listening after the interview for a brief out-take regarding Erik’s upcoming trip to the Himalayas and Mark’s Spartan 300 march in Greece.
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Discussing Doing the Impossible With Erik Weihenmayer
Hey folks. Commander Mark Divine coming back at you with the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Appreciate your time today. Hope everything’s going well. Hope you’ve been training hard, staying focused, feeding that courage wolf. Today we have an awesome episode with someone who feeds the courage wolf pretty much every day. And has done some pretty interesting things.
But before I introduce Erik Weihenmayer, let me remind you that if you haven’t rate the podcast, it is very helpful to rate the podcast, because then other people can find it. So that can only be done on iTunes. You can’t really rate it on our website. So you find it on iTunes, then you can rate it there and if you like to listen to listen to it from the website, you can go back to unbeatablemind.com/podcast.
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All right. Having said that let me say I’m super-stoked to talk to Erik Weihenmayer today. Erik is a mountaineer. He’s climbed all seven of the seven summits. He’s climbed seven summits. I’m going to ask Erik as soon as we get on if that’s the same as the 7 sisters. I’m not really sure.
He’s also solo kayaked close to 300 miles of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. He’s climbed El Capitan. And all of that… you know, we’ve talked to a lot of other extreme athletes and elite athletes. It’s all very impressive if you have all of your faculties. And we assume most people have all of their faculties and Erik certainly has all of his faculties, but he’s missing one of the key senses that we rely on and that’s his eyesight.
So that is an incredible thing to me, and for us at Unbeatable Mind, I’m really excited to talk to Erik about how he cultivates imagery and navigates the inner domain, right? Cause one of our core tenets here is to master the inner domain to develop the potential to succeed in the outer.
Erik, thanks so much for your time today. I really, really appreciate you coming on the podcast and chatting with us.
Erik Weihenmayer: Awesome. I’m really excited as well. It’s great to meet you.
Mark: Likewise. Likewise. So you’re out in Colorado right now? And you said you’re in the middle of a snowstorm?
Erik: Yeah, that’s why I love Colorado. It’s May and there’s a blizzard happening out my window. And everybody’s going to go up and ski, back-country ski this weekend. That’s what’s so…
Mark: Oh man. I am actually officially jealous right now. That is so cool. I actually love Colorado. I used to own some land there and then we never went to it. It was down near Telluride. And we never went to it. It was just too hard to get to from California, so I let it go. But I pine for it. I pine for it.
Erik: Yeah, Telluride’s a little off the beaten track, for sure.
Mark: It is. You know what it was? If you fly in there, it’s like you have a 50% chance of coming out alive at that airport, you know what I mean? It’s like you’re flying into a cliff…
Erik: Your planes flying right into that deep valley…
Mark: (laughing) Yeah. It’s insane. Scares the shit out of us. Here I am, a Navy SEAL saying I get the shit… You know, I made it through 20 years as a SEAL, but flying into Telluride scared me.
Erik: No, I hear ya. I’m an adventurer, you know, but I don’t see myself as a crazy risk taker. I’m very careful about risk. So I 100%… I told my wife the other day… I said, “Hey, come and sit in the hot tub with me, because I need somebody to partner with me in case I slip in the hot tub and I bang my head, and I drown.”
And she’s like, “Are you kidding me?”
Mark: (laughing) Maybe you shouldn’t be doing hot tubs.
That’s really funny. I actually…
So… I love this. We want to come back to that notion of… That’s an important point. A notion of you can take what appear to be unbelievable risk, but if you do the risk management and the planning and the execution effectively and use the crawl-walk-run approach in your training, then those risks are dramatically reduced, right? They’re very calculated.
So talk to me and us about… what was it like growing up? Cause what I understand from my producer Allison is that you actually had full eyesight until the age of 13. So you grew up as a normal kid. Was that in Colorado? And tell us about that early childhood. What were your influences and kind of what was that transition like for you? When you got your disease? Your eye disease?
Erik: Well, I did… I grew up in Connecticut. And I could see a little bit… I could see well, but believe it or not I was legally blind, so that means that I could see from… you could see at 200 feet, what I could see at 20 feet. But the reason what you’re saying is accurate is because I lived a totally normal life. Like, I could read books and print. I could see things. I could see the board. I could run around. I rode my friend’s motorcycle, his little YZ50, or his 80 around… we’d fly around through the woods and I was the one maybe bleeding a little bit more, cause I’d trip more and I’d slam into trees more.
But, yeah, jumping off of rocks into piles of leaves and just having this incredible childhood. And my dad noticed that my eyes weren’t tracking very well. And so that led to a series of doctor visits and then the doctor… finally found one who was a retinal specialist. Said I was born with this incredibly rare genetic eye disease. It’s like winning the lottery… it’s sort of the opposite of winning the lottery. And I’d be blind by teenager and there was no cure. And I just blocked it out. I just completely…
You know, and I’m preaching to the choir here, but I mean the brain is so powerful and no matter what the evidence is, the brain can convince you of whatever it wants to.
So I just went into full denial mode and even though I was losing my sight through middle school I just found a way to make excuses and then about a week before my freshman year in high school, I was blind to the point where I couldn’t see to take a step.
And I was like, “What do I do?” And that’s it sort of like… you feel like you get hit in the head with a sledgehammer.
Mark: Yeah. So you knew… or you were told, even though you went into denial… that it would deteriorate and you’d be ultimately blind.
I guess that’s very different than just thinking that you’re eyesight isn’t perfect and maybe someday, it’ll be correctable.
Erik: Yeah. I knew it was going to be… I knew it was going to go, but people were like, “You’re going to go blind. You need to prepare yourself.”
And it was like… Not to be too dramatic but it was like somebody saying, “You’re going to die.” And you’re just like, “Well, I don’t know what to think about that. What does that mean?”
So my brain… it was too much. It was overwhelming. So overwhelming that the easiest thing for me to do was just to deny it. And I could see a tiny bit out of my right eye for a little bit of time, and I was just like falling off the docks. I didn’t want to use my cane. I was super-stubborn. I didn’t want to learn Braille. I didn’t want to… cause that would mean defeat. That would mean I’m blind now. And I was like, “Screw that. I’m not going to be a blind person. And even though my eyes weren’t working…
Mark: Right. Was there any point in time that you took on kind of a victim attitude? Where you’re like, “Why is the world doing this to me?” Where you had any kind of defeatism? Or were you always kind of in front of it, saying, “I’m not going to let this ruin my life,” kind of thing.
Erik: So, yes and no. So yes, I felt upset. I felt angry. I felt frustrated. And a couple of months ago I came out with this book “No Barriers,” and that was one of the things I was fascinated by. I wanted to find out how people–when things happen that derail them, how do they react? And I found that most people I met who were really, quote-unquote “successful” people, who have done really pioneering things. They’re like me. They got frustrated. But they didn’t get bitter to the point where they felt like the world was this terrible place.
And that was definitely the case for me.
I felt angry but that anger was like a fuel. And that becomes a good fuel.
It’s a reckless fuel, right? It’s kind of unsustainable in the long run. Eventually it has to be replaced by something else. But anger is a good fuel to get you out of that hole. And so unfortunately though, there’s repercussions to that fuel. Because you alienate people, like, people try to help me and I’d just… you know… I wouldn’t let them. So I was dark and I was in this sort of crevasse and I couldn’t figure out how to get out of it. So definitely that anger was like a fuel that wanted to sort of figure out what I could still do in the world.
Mark: I love that, and I have often had people ask e about whether anger could be good. And I always tell them, “Yes, to some degree. If you use it properly.” Anger can be very focusing. I have a sense it’ll really focus you.
And I love that notion of it as a fuel. It kind of is. When you’re stuck in a rut like that, it really is great fuel to break inertia. But like you said, it is a dark… it’s a negative energy so if you linger in it for too long, it can do more damage than good. So you have to figure out a way to get out of that anger and kind of like find it into determination, or purpose.
Erik: And I also had fear, right? Fear was like powerful. I know in Star Wars, Yoda say, “Fear is the Dark Side.” But I had fear. And I remember sitting in the cafeteria one day after being led there and sitting there. And all my friends are across the cafeteria, like, having food fights, and telling jokes and laughing and just having this great time just immersed in what it’s like… supposed to be like in freshman year in high school.
And I’m sitting there at this table by myself, listening to all this excitement that I’m not a part of, and I swear, that was just intense fear of like, “Is my life gonna be this prison?”
And it’s partly, like, I knew somehow it was a partly self-induced prison. And I just had no idea how to get across that cafeteria to being in the thick of things.
Mark: And neither did they.
Erik: They didn’t know either. They’re just kids. They don’t know how to bring me in. I was so uncomfortable with myself. Like, “Don’t help me.” And so they’re like, “Okay, I won’t help you. But I don’t know what to do around you.” So, yeah, it’s not their fault at all. I had really good teachers and really good parents. I was super-lucky, because they just hung in there and somehow intuitively knew that maybe I’d get through this period of my life.
Mark: Yeah, you know, it’s not for kids to accept help. It’s not easy for adults to accept help, is it? You know, I remember… this is a vivid memory of mine from 4th grade. ON the playground, there was this local kid who was just really struggling. He was just a little slower than everyone else and I think I took some pity on him, and so I went over to try to help him out. And he punched me in the face.
And I’m like, “Okay, I learned a valuable lesson.” He wasn’t ready for my help. (laughing) You know?
And maybe my intentions weren’t pure. Maybe I did feel pity and he picked up on that. And you didn’t want anyone to pity you.
Erik: Yeah, so ego is the problem. And so it all gets wrapped up in there. Yeah, cause I didn’t want to be… The way I wrote about it in the book is you feel like you’re an egg that’s been cracked and you’re this gooey, disgusting egg, laying in the hallway. And everyone’s kind of stepping around it. Nobody wants to step in this disgusting thing.
And you’re like, “Hey man, I wish you could see to something deeper than what you’re seeing on the surface.” And so, yeah, you’re ego just gets completely wrapped up in there and that puts you even further, even deeper in that crevasse.
Mark: Wow. That’s fascinating. I can relate a tiny bit. I don’t tell this story very often, but when I was 17… So I was 3 years older than what happened to you… I was diagnosed with Melanoma cancer and they told my parents that it was stage 4, metastasized throughout my body and I had 6 months to live. And so they didn’t tell me that right away, but I soon had the entire community coming and basically paying their last visit to me, you know? It was the strangest thing, but my mind didn’t believe it. My mind said, “No, that’s not me. That’s not right.”
And so I went into that denial that you were talking about. And I never felt like a victim. I actually just felt like that it was wrong. That it wasn’t accurate. That I was whole. And fortunately, I was right.
Erik: Yeah. But, yeah, you’re right. There’s certain things, I think, and this… I know I’m jumping around, but like they guy who… one of my kayaking guides, Harlan, he’s this incredible kayaker. Just this amazing, world-class kayaker and he guided me on a lot of rivers including The Grand Canyon.
And when he was 7 his dad died. He found him in the bathtub. And he was just like… his brain was overwhelmed. Like, how does the brain process that? Seeing your dad, lying face down in the bathtub.
So yeah, he turned into a chubby kid for a while, then he… You know, it’s just the brain gets overwhelmed and that happens. And so how you get unstuck… how you get the brain unstuck is just like a fascinating thing you devote your life to.
Mark: Right. Yeah. Frankly that’s what it’s all about. You have those early childhood influences… some not as traumatic as what we’re talking about… but then you spend the next 50 years trying to unwind and figure out what it all means. I heard a quote once… I think my wife told me cause it comes out of the psychology profession that the first 5 years determine or define the next 95.
And you could actually probably say the first 15 years define the next 95. And especially for you, you know when you had to learn how to literally not… you had to learn how to think clearly. How do you…?
It’s hard enough for people to see clearly when they have their eyesight. But without your eyesight, what strategies did you begin to kind of adopt to be able to see clearly your way through the world? And obviously using your inner vision.
Erik: Well, I think at first, I just wasn’t… I didn’t want to be in that prison. I just didn’t want to be there. And that was scarier, like, okay, I could see blackness and that was okay.
I wouldn’t see beautiful things anymore. I wouldn’t see people’s faces. And yeah, I’d miss all those things.
Mark: You had a lot of memories of things though. So did they stay with you? Were you able to nurture those or did they start to kind of go away?
Erik: No. I mean, the brain captures some of it. I know what colors look like and so forth. But like faces, they’re really complex if you think about it. Like where exactly the eyes are, and the nose and the cheeks. And the teeth and everything.
So yeah… you know, so that’s one strategy right there that I had to sort of say goodbye. I had to kind of like have a funeral for it, you know? And just say, “Okay that is dead in my life.” Say goodbye to that. Like, people get stuck in this suspended animation and they’re stuck. They can’t go backwards, they can’t go forward. They’re so stuck. And eventually, you know, you gotta kill the thing that is holding you back. And that was my brain wanting to see. And I could still… we can talk about all this, my brain still sees internally, but externally I was not going to look at a Rembrandt painting and get joy or beauty from that anymore. I had to say goodbye to that.
I also had to… I wanted to have excitement, and I also found this with all the other people that I looked at in this exploration of “No Barriers,” which was I wanted the world to be hopeful. I didn’t want to think this journey was this awful journey where terrible things happen and you just… you wind up, you know, in this prison. I wanted to feel. I wanted to trust that this journey was good. So, like, I call it… with my kids now, I call it the “open-heart policy.” And I know it sounds a little cheesy, but it’s the greatest thing I’ve tried to do. And I struggle to do it all the time. Just trying to keep an open heart. Like, saying “Okay. Shitty things happen, but you gotta keep your heart open.” Otherwise you’re just done. You might as well just be done.
So I got this newsletter in Braille of a group taking blind kids rock climbing. In New Hampshire. And I’d been blind for a year and I was learning Braille finally, and I said, “That sounds so stupid. Blind people can’t climb mountains.” I signed up, cause I wanted to see for myself, you know? I wasn’t done yet.
And so I went rock climbing, and that was… obviously that changed the trajectory of my life.
Mark: Right. What was the first experience like when you got onto the rock? And you could feel the hand-holds and sense that you were okay? That you could do that?
Erik: Well, I remember going there… And, the rehab center had hired guides so these guys had volunteered. We were in good hands. So you trust these guides, and yeah,
I started feeling my way up the rock face. And thrashing and bleeding and grunting my way up this rock-face. And I loved it. I loved it so much.
Because I couldn’t see, and I wasn’t worried about that. Like, you gotta get over the fact, “Okay, I’m working way harder than a sighted person.” Or doing things differently than a sighted person. That’s okay. You know, we all do our own thing to achieve the things we want.
So I had to feel it with my hands and feet, and use them as my eyes. And sort of unlock this puzzle in the rock. And it was so cool because I could feel my way up the rock face, and kind of put my body in all these crazy positions using leverage and strength and balance and I got to the top of this thing and I could hear… I was only probably 100 feet off the ground, but I could hear over the trees. Blind people use echo location. I could hear the echoes sweeping over the valley and I was way up high. I just grunted and bled my way to the top of this thing, and I felt so great. It was… honestly, the only way I can describe it was a rebirth.
Mark: Yeah. I can see that. Did you feel and experience your other senses expanding as your eyesight went away? Or did you just kind of notice it later on? Or did you not notice it at all?
Erik: Yeah, I mean blindness communities used to debate this back and forth. Do your other senses get better? And I think they’re finding now that, yeah, through neuroplasticity… something I’ve studied as a non-scientist… Yeah, 100%. The part of your brain for instance, that processes vision… your visual cortex. It doesn’t just die. It just gets replaced by other information. So I’m listening to things, I’m touching things. And that’s actually going into the visual cortex of my brain, and creating pictures in my brain. So I can actually… I’m “seeing” like right now, I’m looking at a computer screen and I’m touching it. So I am envisioning it in my brain right now.
So, yeah, your brain really never stops trying to sort of grasp the world. What it’s like. But you’re using other things to that. You know, like, if somebody dropped a quarter or a penny on the ground, I could tell the difference. I’d know what it is. Because my brain is paying attention to those things. So, yeah, you use things, you get better at it. That’s all.
Mark: Now here’s a question that is just bouncing around my head right now. And again, it’s kind of like about the brain and the mind. The difference between brain and mind.
I can see myself or imagine myself how you could imagine a laptop because you were able to see a laptop before you went blind. But in your peer group, some of the people that you’ve hung out with who were blind since birth, can they imagine a laptop?
Erik: No, I don’t think if you could never see, I don’t think you have the sense of vision, so you miss some things. And even me, like I never saw that well. I could see okay. I couldn’t see well enough to like, understand a river or a mountain. The only mountain I remember ever seeing when I could see a little bit was the one in front of the movies. The Paramount movies. Artesonraju is the peak. I actually went and climbed it a few years ago.
Learning and getting out of your own way
But I remember things like that, but, yeah, as a blind person it’s hard to learn things. You have not only the barrier of blindness, but you have the barrier of not really… it’s hard to comprehend things. Like, how do you explain a river, with eddies and holes and boils and whirlpools and vortexes and… Like, what the heck? How would you even grasp at all, any of that?
So, yeah you sometimes have to as a blind person, put yourself into that experience and learn kinesthetically.
Mark: Yeah, and the mind will form images of it based upon the kinesthetic experience and the audio experience.
Erik: Yeah, and I think people blind from birth, their brains form an image, but it’s not a visual image. That’s the difference.
Mark: Yeah, that’s fascinating. It’s a different type of intelligence. And we would probably call that intuitive intelligence. You know, when we experience things through our kinesthetic intelligence or a combination of audio-feeling-sensation we call that intuition. For you, that’s just reality. That’s just the way things are. That’s fascinating.
Erik: And, you know, obviously the habits that you form. Like learning how to kayak, for 6 years I trained to kayak big rivers. And I had to build all that into my nervous system in a way.
And I’m not the first person to talk about this, but I’m definitely confirming this idea that eventually in that learning process, the brain starts to become an impediment. It goes beyond the brain, and you gotta feel this stuff. And you gotta connect with what you’re doing. You gotta connect with the river. And be a part of it in a way, cause your brain just slows you down. But the brain’s really important in that thrashing and bleeding, learning stage. But then eventually it actually becomes sort of cumbersome.
Mark: Yeah, I would refine that and say it’s not so much the brain that slows you down, it’s the thinking aspect of the brain that slows you down. You can’t think your way down a river.
Erik: Uh-uh. Things are happening so fast.
Mark: I was talking about this with Jimmy Chin. We talked briefly before the show and… Because Jimmy was a martial artist, and I’ve been a long time martial artist. And there’s the… most martial artists don’t… I’ll make a bold statement here anyways and I don’t know if everyone will agree with me, but most martial artists don’t conflate the mind to the brain. We experience the entire body and even the energy around us to some extent as the mind. And the ability to receive and put out information goes well beyond just that little fleshy thing behind our cranial housing group.
And I have a really cool martial arts book that I’ve been poking my way through that came out of India. And it’s from the oldest martial art kind of known to man. And the title of the book is “When the body is all eyes and ears.” How cool is that as a title? “When the body is all eyes and ears.” Or something like that.
Erik: I think that’s great.
Mark: Yeah, isn’t that cool? And so that’s kind of what you’ve experienced, but what you’re saying is it’s really an incremental process. Like, learning how to climb a rock. First, it’s just the tactile experience, but over time when you’ve been on the rock hundreds of times, it’s a whole body experience to find your way up. And same thing with a river, right?
Erik: Yeah, in fact, you thrash and bleed and you’re so overwhelmed and then sometimes, you know… Like I did this one rapid. I’ll never forget it. It was called “upset.” And it’s got a giant hole in it.
And you don’t want to go in that hole. It’s just a place you don’t want to be. And I was pretty nervous, and my guide, Harlan, told me, “We'[re going to scout it. And don’t go into that hole. You’ve gotta stay left. It’s very counter-intuitive.”
And I slowed down my breathing; I just like tried to push that fear to the peripheries. Tried to just count the space between breaths. Slow everything down. You go into this experience, and yeah, you’re going right, smashing through these giant waves. There’s a huge canyon wall on my left that I can hear the waves just completely exploding against this wall. And collapsing back at me.
And to the right there’s this massive hole, just like this guttural sound…
Mark: Like a black hole trying to suck you in…
Erik: Sucking you down. And I’m squeaking the line right between these things. And I got through that. And I just remember feeling so part of the river. There wasn’t really like me separate from that experience. I was in that river. I was in the waves. It was full immersion. And I think that’s what you’re striving for. And some of these… I mean, it’s a little addictive. I mean, you literally work for 6 years to get a minute of this sort of thing.
Mark: That feeling, yeah…
Erik: And that afternoon I was just glowing. And it’s like I sat there on the beach. I wanted to have some quiet time and I think that’s what certain experiences do. They strip away all that crust, all that stuff that’s on the outside. All that armor. And they sort of connect whatever that internal light is to the world. And when we feel that light connecting with this sort of universal experience, I feel like that’s what humans are sort of striving for. It’s our little glimpse of eternity or spirituality, you know. And you just feel it because you’re connected.
Mark: Yeah, well said. I mean, you just basically defined enlightenment for the modern warrior/athlete. I’ve been a yoga aficionado for 18 years or so and Patanjali, who wrote the kind of the definitive text on yoga 5,000 years ago said that essentially suffering is caused by people separating from what they’re observing. Right? So the separation between the seer and the seen, or the witnesser and what’s being witnessed is the root cause of suffering.
Now he doesn’t mean that you have to merge with it and become a river. What he means is that the experience of seeing, experiencing the river and the river all arise simultaneously in your present moment awareness. Which creates this experience. And when we separate from it, that’s what causes attachment and suffering.
But when you merge with it, like you just experienced, when you allow yourself to be just radically present in that moment. Allowing the river and you to be kind of 1 in unity, that’s enlightenment. That’s bliss. That’s flow. That’s a radical experience. And so you want to come back to experience that more and more.
Erik: Yeah. And I don’t think you have it. I wrote about this, this idea that like after I experienced that rapid, I thought, “Okay, now I have it! I got it.” And then I go into the next rapid and I got my butt kicked. Just destroyed.
And I was like, “Wait a second. I thought… I thought I had this thing now.”
Mark: That’s the fun. If you try to find it, you’re not going to find it. But if you just surrender to it, it’s there for you.
Erik: Yeah, exactly. So I had to sort of go back and think about how do I connect back again to this thing. And I think it’s like something you’re always striving for.
But, yeah, it’s not like “Okay I got it. Now I’m done.”
Mark: Right, yeah. I’m graduated. On to the next thing, right? (laughing) We just disappear from the planet. Poof.
Kayaking the Grand Canyon
Mark: So tell us about the Grand Canyon. Cause you just described one moment. Like, a minute. And I can see how like, you’re on the other side of that black hold of an eddy that literally is a death trap.
And then, in the case of the Grand Canyon, you’ve got another 200 miles to go. What was that experience like?
Erik: Well, so I’d climbed Everest and I’d climbed the 7 summits, the tallest peak on every continent, like you had mentioned in the beginning there. So at 40 years old, I found myself on the side of a river listening to this massive roar beneath me. And my friend’s teaching me how to kayak. And I remember just feeling so overwhelmed and thinking, “I thought climbing mountains was supposed to prepare you for this thing,” and I certainly didn’t feel prepared. I just felt scared and on the Grand Canyon I would call it “dry heaves and toast.” I would just get so nervous it would affect you physically, you know?
And so, I had to learn a ton of things. I had to learn how my guides would guide me. And what kind of radio system we could use to communicate in these massive rapids, and how to… What kind of communication system would my friends be yelling at me? To try to maximize precision? And what kind of team would I surround myself with to minimize that risk as we talked about?
So there were tons of things. And then it was so different from climbing because I had to change my mind. In a way, climbing was a lot of boredom cause you’re hanging out in your tent. And then you go into these… you’re sort of climbing step-by-step up the mountain. There are moments of sort of terror. There are moments of adversity like you’re coming down the mountain in a huge storm and you have to sort of take that uncontrollable situation and bring it under control in your mind.
Controlling may be the wrong word, but sort of a sense of trying to bring things under control.
In kayaking, there’s control, sure. You’re influencing you’re situation. You gotta get in the right position. And you gotta make certain moves.
But other times, you’re riding this massive energy that’s so much bigger than you, so there were times where you almost had to let go and say, “Okay, I’m just going to ride that storm.”
And that was different for me, because it was sort of like letting go in a way. It was equal influence and letting go. And I’d never experienced that before. Just going into this thing and I know for the next 90 seconds, insane things are going to be happening to me. And I have to react and respond and if I don’t respond and react right, then I’m gonna draw all my friends into a rescue. They’re going to be over in that hole trying to like get me out of that.
And so I felt a lot of weight on my shoulders at first in kayaking. I would say it nearly, sort of, crushed me mentally.
Mark: I bet. It’s like learning how to dance or Aikido. Aikido, you know, there’s times where you’re in control and there’s times where you just have to let go and flow and surrender to it. And so I could see that with the river. You have to own the river when you’re getting around a dangerous spot. But then you just gotta go with the river for large swathes of it. And that could be… that’s really hard to learn.
Erik: And Harlan, who I thought was like this guru of the river… he’d been down the Grand Canyon more than a hundred times… he would say the same thing that I would say to myself when I was going blind. He would say, “Don’t see the river as this terrible demon that’s trying to destroy you and crush you. You’ve gotta see the river as a good thing, right? It’s an uncertain thing, but you’ve gotta sort of trust that this is a good journey. And if you don’t, if you go in thinking that the river is this evil menace that you’re fighting against, you’re really hurting yourself. You’re damaging your own ability to flourish in that environment.
Mark: Yeah, I agree. 100%.
You mentioned controlling your breath earlier. That’s one of the skills that we teach is breath control to really slow down and trigger the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system so you stay physiologically calm. But we also note is that it has a profound impact on the brain and its ability to emit a lower or a more balanced energy. So that results in the experience of being more calm and being able to make clearer decisions under pressure. Do you have a specific practice around breath training yourself?
Erik: Well, the most important thing I found for kayaking–and I would do this for sometimes the drive up to a river, for an hour, just sitting in the car–and I would breath. I would work on my breathing, sort of conscious breathing.
I would breath in really slow, hold it in for a while, let it out slow, and just sort of really work on slowing things down. And then I found that it was a massive advantage when I would get to the river because my brain and my mind was just slower, calmer. And also actually, physically, I had sort of pushed a lot of oxygen into my lungs. I could hold my breath a lot longer, which is really important in kayaking. Cause you’re sometimes holding your breath for a minute under something that’s just chundering you around.
Mark: That’s interesting. So that’s… you just described a version of our practice we call box breathing. And it does have those really nice benefits.
What about self-talk? What kind of internal dialoging do you use when you’re in those kind of tight spots? And also more routinely to keep yourself positive? That positive momentum instead of getting stuck in a rut?
Erik: Well, I’m jumping around a tiny bit here. But I’ll tell you something…it does have a point for me… So I brought my son home. His name’s RJ and we brought him home from Nepal.
So we brought him home when he was 5.
Mark: You adopted him?
Erik: Yeah, we adopted him.
Mark: yeah, I have an adopted son. That’s cool.
Erik: That’s so awesome. We’ll talk about that.
He’s a great kid, and he learned probably in the orphanage that it didn’t really matter if you cried. If you fell down and bled and you cried. Nobody’s there to get you, so you can…
So he didn’t cry. He also would sort of freeze sometimes. And, you know, I get it. There’s sort of… in that early stage of life we talked about, there’s things that happen that create sort of trauma. And he had some self-doubt. We all do.
And we were racing one day up this sand dune on this river trip my family was on. And RJ stopped halfway up the sand dune. And I was like, “Come on buddy, you can beat me! Fat old man, you can beat me!”
And he stopped and I thought, “What the heck?” That’s not like the Rocky movies where he’s supposed to speed by me at the last second, and win and be jumping up and down. No, he stopped. And I thought a long time about that.
I was a teacher for 6 years and I remember this study where it talked about kids with self-doubt, they… a facilitator would give them these really positive messages. The kids with high self-esteem would do better. The kids with low self-esteem would actually not do any better. And it was… and I think they found it was because these kids thought… the high self-esteem kids were like, “Yeah, he’s talking to me. I can do better.” The low self-esteem kids said, “He doesn’t know me. He doesn’t know what’s inside of me. And so why would I go through the Hell of trying so hard, when I’m gonna fail anyway.”
And I think that was what was going through my son’s brain. “Why would I go through the Hell of trying and getting my hopes up, when I’m just going to lose anyway?” And so RJ and I have been on this journey together, trying to work on this. And he’s come eons. It’s just so awesome as a dad to watch him grow.
Killing the Ego
But I always thought… I was the opposite. I was the guy who like, won. And I’ve rallied a lot in my life. And I realized though, you know what, ultimately, when I went into a rapid, I was afraid that I was going to go into a hole, of course. And maybe drown or whatever. Course that’s a fear that you have. But what I was more… honestly, I think I was equally afraid was that I wouldn’t respond and react the way I wanted to. That I would let myself down, I would let my friends down and I would not live up to the illusion of who I wanted to be in my own mind and my own ego. And I felt like that was the biggest fear I had. And I thought, “God, me and RJ, we’re pretty much the same.” And so, what I had to do was to let go of that in kayaking. Let go of, like… if I had stopped on Everest, I could have just said, “Okay, I’m that studly blind guy. I don’t have to worry about it anymore.”
But no, I mean, starting over with this new thing, I realized that…
my fear was that I wouldn’t live up to who I wanted to be.
And so I had to let go of that in kayaking.
And I think that’s sort of my attempt to answer your question. Because that was the biggest thing for me. To say, “You know, like, I’m okay with shattering that image of who I really, desperately want to be.” And once I could let go of that–man–the whole weight just lifted up. And I was such a better kayaker.
Mark: That is really interesting. Yeah, I love that.
You almost–like you said earlier–you have to kind of kill different aspects of your personality in order to kind of grow to the next level. You killed another aspect of your personality. That needs to be something. That’s kind of like the martial arts saying, you have to kill your ego. That doesn’t mean you have to lose your personality or who you are. You just kill certain ideas and belief systems that your ego’s kind of clung to.
Erik: Exactly. So that was a great lesson for me. And I’ve worked… “No Barriers” our organization, we work with about 5000 people a year. And we work with people that they’ve had horrific things happen to them. They’ve gone off on this journey and they’ve had horrific things happen to them. If anyone should crawl under a rock and say, “this world is really terrible,” these people should be the ones doing that. And they don’t.
Some do, of course, and then they’re stuck. But others don’t. They keep their heart open and they maintain this sort of hope and this open heart, and they don’t get stuck just thinking, “Okay, the darkness is the familiar place, and I’m just going to stay there.”
And I found that the similarities that tie us together are way more profound than the things that make us different.
Working with a lot of these soldiers and a lot of these kids with trauma and so forth, we’re all part of this big club.
Mark: Yeah. I love that. And that really reminds me; we recently started an organization called the “Courage Foundation.” It sounds to me like our missions are very aligned. In “courage” we’re trying to bring resiliency and mental toughness training and concepts, primarily through the Unbeatable Mind philosophy–to people who really kind of desperate. And so we started with prison populations, and donating… my goal is to donate literally as many books as possible into the prison systems. I think we’ve gotten like 2000 in so far. Through the Prison Fellowship.
And then also working with vets who are really suffering. Like, PTSD, suicidal type vets. So trying to figure out how to work into that community.
It’d be fun to talk about collaborating on something together.
Erik: I’d love to. Having written a book and getting to talk to really cool thought leaders like you, I’ve found that we’re sort of all in this big club together We’re all kind of doing similar things, and…
Mark: Just trying to make a difference.
Erik: Just trying to make a difference. And it’s really cool. Cause I love being in that. I love being a part of people thinking about ways of making massive impacts in the world. It’s really quite fun.
Mark: Right. So do you do any speaking?
Erik: I do do speaking. You know, as like a professional adventurer–blind adventurer. Nobody’s throwing a lot of money in my direction, but yeah, you make a living. As a speaker. And writing. And I’ve produced a bunch of films–documentary films like Jimmy. And, yeah, it’s sort of a piecemeal existence. Some endorsements, things like that. Fun, modern existence.
Mark: yeah, it’s amazing that what we can do with the internet and podcasting. I mean, it’s created all sorts of opportunity. If this was 20 years ago, it’d be a different story for you I imagine.
Erik: I started… I was a teacher for 6 years and in 1997 I wanted to make an opportunity to climb full-time. I’d been climbing in the summer. I was a weekend warrior and I thought I could make a life. And I figured, “Hey, if I can’t do it then I can always go back to teaching.” Which I loved. I could have done forever.
So I’ve been doing this thing for… coming up this summer will be my 20th year of doing that, so…
Mark: That’s awesome.
Well, I would love for you to come speak to our tribe at our annual summit. I mentioned that Jimmy Chin came last year. It’d be awesome to have you out, if you can swing it this year. It’s the first weekend of December. If not, then maybe next year.
That’d be fun. I’ll have Allison follow up with you on that.
Erik: Thank you, yeah.
Mark: Yeah. That’d be terrific.
So, your book–we gotta wrap up here, cause we’ve been going for a little while. Your book is called “No Barriers: A Blind Man’s Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon.” It’s more than just… is it more than just the journey itself? What’s the focus of the book?
Erik: Yeah. I think I would have been bored writing about just like, “Here I am, kayaking.”
Mark: (laughing) Mile 27 this happened…
Erik: That’s so boring. In a weird way… the kayaking is like really wild and pretty furious and so forth. But in a way it was just the vehicle to telling this story. Because I love rivers, I love mountains. I do experience the view through my hands, through my ears.
But I think, in a way, learning to kayak and going and kayaking 277 miles of the Grand Canyon was in a way my chance to kind of immerse myself in this experience of “No Barriers.” The way I look at it is, it’s sort of the process that we go through that we’re all trying to be on. And looking at the elements along the way–what are those elements that we have to confront? That we have to harness? And if we do that, we can better equip ourselves so that we emerge on the other side not broken, not surviving, but having grown, having changed. In a positive way.
And so I wanted to experience that. And I also wanted to write about other people that experience this as well. And so it’s not people I’ve read about. It’s all people that I’ve come into contact with through my “No Barriers,” programs and experiences. From my friend Mark Wellman who’s a paraplegic. First paraplegic to climb El Capitan. Doing 7000 pull-ups up the rock face.
To a friend of mine who’s a deaf musician. Who’s just crushing it. She cannot hear herself sing. She feels the vibration through the stage and she sings in perfect pitch. She writes her own music. It’s insane.
How all the way to soldiers, friends of mine, like my friend Paul Smith, who got blown up as so many soldiers got hurt in the different conflicts. And came home and his life sort of spiraled. And he had… and the physical stuff was… he could live with. But he told me, just the fact that he had come home early, and he felt like he had let his team down. He was part of this experience where people relied on him. It just turned into shame. And it spiraled in his life. Anyway, but last… a year ago, we were up in the Rocky Mountains together. Climbing peaks. And he was celebrating all this untapped potential in front of him. We sat down together before the summit and he said, “Erik, you know, I feel like I’ve wasted a lot of time in my life. But I feel lately like I’ve awakened from a dream and I know I need a life of purpose.” And he’s made these massive changes. He checked himself in. he got off painkillers. He moved his family out to Colorado for a healthier life. He’s working on fitness now with his family.
He climbed 1 of our 14,000 foot peaks addiction free in the fall. So just I love working with people who tap into that light. They need a catalyst. They need tools. But really, they just want to grow that thing inside.
And ultimately that’s what the book is about. Celebrating these real people. Not like, the Kardashians or fictional books and movies that almost kind of steer you wrong. But real people who are struggling and flailing and bleeding to find their way forward. To me that’s inspiring.
Mark: That is incredibly inspiring. You should do a movie about the book. That would be a terrific screenplay. We’ll just put that out there to the world.
Erik: Nice. I like it.
Mark: Awesome. Erik, it’s been a true honor. It really has. I can’t wait to meet you in person. Hopefully… either at our summit or in some other venue. Maybe through the Courage Foundation we can organize something to do with vets or something along those lines. I really think you’re doing amazing work. I honor you for your courage. So thank you.
Erik: It was awesome to be with you.
Mark: And thanks for your time. I know everyone listening to this is going to really, really appreciate it. They can find you… Do you have like the normal Twitter sphere stuff?
Erik: Yeah. And then go to touchthetop.com and they can also learn about No Barriers through nobarriersusa.org. And we encourage people to get involved and be a part of this movement that so many of us are trying to build.
And it’s really fun. It’s all active and fun and family friendly, so learn more about us.
Erik: That’s it.
Mark: Awesome. Don’t go away Erik. Let me close the show. Thank you very much.
All right, everyone. Go support Erik. Read the book. I’ve got the book. I’ve thumbed through it, I just… it got buried; I have to admit, in about 150 books. (laughing) Erik’s laughing. I literally have… my wife just basically arm-barred me to get a Kindle, so I stop buying physical books. I have this weird addiction. I have piles and piles of books, and I read 5 at a time. And I finish the equivalent of a book every 3 or 4 days.
But yours got kind of stuck on the bottom. I honestly was hoping to read it before this episode. But at least I’m honest.
Erik: It’s a long one, though. It’s sort of different from the trends of everything… my publisher was like, “Write a short book.” And 400 pages later I finished up, so you gotta commit.
Mark: No kidding. Writing is a big project. I’m in the middle of a couple book projects right now. It’s not easy. It takes a lot of energy, a lot of focus. So I commend you for that.
And I’m going to dig it out, cause you really…
Erik: I call it torture. The writing bug…
Mark: (laughing) It is a little bit of torture. But that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right?
Mark: All right, everyone. So let’s go support Erik. Go check out his foundation nobarriersusa.org, touchthetop.com. I highly encourage you to read his book “No Barriers.” And hopefully check our… get on our email list so you can find out whether he’s going to speaking at our summit. Because that would be really neat if we could get him out here from Colorado to California. And the Unbeatable Mind summit is the first weekend in December, so go to unbeatablemind.com and check that out.
And as usual, do the work daily. Show up. One day, one lifetime. Get on your mat, get on the bench. Practice your big 4 skills. And be unbeatable.
Coach Divine out.
Mark: Erik, thanks man. That was terrific. Super-cool to meet you buddy.
Erik: Yeah. I’m sure we’ll get to meet in person.
Mark: yeah, I look forward to it. If you can do that summit…I’ll have Allison reach out, but either this year or next and I’m going to connect you or whoever you ask Allison to connect with to my Executive Director for the Courage Foundation because I think we could do some cool things there.
We have a… oh this might be interesting to you. We do have… one of my initiatives this year in September is we’re going to hike 300 kilometers along the trail that King Leonidas took with his 300 Spartans to go fight King Xerxes. And impede the Persian invasion of Europe. Do you know that story? How cool that is?
Mark: So we’re going to hike that same trail. We’re going to go about 30 clicks a day. And…
Erik: Now, when is that again?
Mark: It’s in September. Like 2nd to 3rd week… like 10 days in September. We’re doing it as a fundraiser, you know, so we’re asking people who want to go to raise some money for it, but if you have any interest in going with us, that would be really cool. Cool adventure, too.
Erik: I love… you’re speaking my language. I love adventures like that.
I’m heading to the Himalayas I think, in early October.
Mark: Are you?
Erik: Kind of a big commitment. I have 2 teenagers so it’s going to be a hard one. I’m talking about it with my wife, but she’s usually really cool. But it’s a 7 week expedition going up into this unexplored valley between Tibet and Nepal and climbing these… They’re 4 6000 meter peaks that have never been climbed before.
And any climber has a dream of first ascents, you know? Like Jimmy, so I’m probably going to head off for 7 weeks and eat rice and lentils and get skinny. Which is all good. I wanna get skinny actually.
Mark: (laughing) Yeah, yeah. That’s a side-benefit, huh?
Erik: (laughing) Yeah, it’s a side-benefit.
Mark: Wow, that sounds terrific. That’s so cool.
Erik: The guy leading the expedition has stage 4 prostate cancer and so he doesn’t know how long he’s going to be around. And he wants to go have this really profound experience with a good group of people in the time he has left. And I thought you can’t beat that experience in life, so I think I’m drawing towards making that decision.
Mark: Wow. That sounds terrific.
Mark: You should do that, man. If you did that, then the 300 would be out, cause that would be another 2 weeks…
Erik: I know, I know…
Mark: I’m finding the same thing. It’s like life is becoming just this series between cool and cooler.
Erik: (laughing) Cool and cooler. Right. Exactly. That’s good. That’s… you’re lucky if that’s the case.
Mark: I totally agree. We are blessed in a lot of ways.
All right, Erik. Thanks very much buddy.
Erik: Good to talk to you. Thanks.
Mark: Look forward to seeing you in person. Bye-bye
Erik: All right, see you.