Joseph Campbell is a towering figure in the power of myths. He may be best known for his collaboration with George Lucas on Star Wars and is famous for his saying, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” This metaphorical reference went literal on me on a recent trip I made to Sandia Cave.
As a kid, I wanted to be either an archeologist or an oceanographer. I remember painstakingly digging outside of my suburban townhouse until after sunset (belated apologies to the neighbors). Like many an archeologist, I left my dig site disappointed to not find any dinosaur bones or Native American arrow heads. Come to think of it, this may be when I chose to become a consultant instead.
Somewhere along the way, I read about Sandia cave, located in the Cibola National Forest outside of Albuquerque, NM. While there is some controversy, most archeologists and paleontologists now agree the cave represents an important prehistoric find with ice age animal remains from wooly mammoths and mastodons, and evidence of some of the first recorded human inhabitants of North America, dating back at least 10,000 years. #StillCool.
Forty-something years later, while in New Mexico for some television appearances, I found myself unexpectedly within a short drive of the mystery cave that fascinated me at age 7.
I packed extra water and got an early start to beat any crowds. Sipping steaming coffee, I glided down the moonlit yolk-orange lane divider line of a solitary highway, that led me out of a sleeping city in the desert and into the silence of a wilderness with mountain elevations up to just over 11,000 feet. As the black curtain of night gave way to the promising glow of an imminent sunrise, the road abruptly ended.
A sign instructed me that from this point forward the road was unpaved and cell phone reception would not be available. Traveling alone, I momentarily acknowledged that such an adventure was probably best done with a companion; and then forged ahead, coaxed on by a deep longing to be inside this cave.
It was excruciatingly slow going, with most of the trip over unpaved mountainous terrain (I’m pretty sure a turtle passed me at one point). Praying I would not bottom out, I gingerly navigated my rental sedan around rocky pits and cavernous washouts. I found myself wishing I had said yes to the optional upgrade to 4-wheel drive; though I'm not sure how much better that would have been: the U.S., Forest Service website warns that "four-wheel drive vehicles have been known to get stranded and abandoned, due to getting stuck in the mud."
Two hours into my journey though, I was now deep in the forest, and my body was brimming with excitement. Spotting a small, inconspicuous sign, I pulled the car into an empty lot, and set out on foot to reach the cave. The crisp blue sky brought a smile, as I knew it would soon fill with the confetti of colorful hot air balloons for which Albuquerque is famous that, following the sun, would also soon rise.
As I made my way along the limestone ledge that leads to the cave entrance, my stomach dropped. In order to enter the cave, I would have to climb a 12-foot metal spiral staircase that dangled off of a sheer cliff. I’m terrified of heights – this was not in the plan.
“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” Joseph Campbell
I’m writing a book to empower people to step into the executive they were born to be – if they choose it. A key message in my book is about being willing to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Being all of you takes guts, because you have to be willing to fail in public, feel foolish, and walk through the fire of other people’s judgements designed to keep you where they are most comfortable with you being.
The only regrets I have in my life are the places where I “caved” to fear.
The only regrets I have in my life are the places where I “caved” to fear (pardon the unavoidable pun) and didn’t go for something I truly desired, opting instead to play it safe. Once I really took stock of some of my life’s losses to “false” fear, I vowed to never again let unchallenged fear hold me back.
I’ve since gone rock climbing, skied a Canadian glacier, surfed the waves of southern California, learned to ride motorcycles, took belly dancing classes, walked over hot coals, traveled three countries alone, and flown through the air on a flying trapeze. Several of my friends have told me that watching me make some of these choices has inspired and emboldened them in their lives. Professionally, I've since started multiple businesses, published some of my writing, gone on television, and spoken across the U.S. and in Europe where I’ve been humbled by people of all ages who have told me that my message touched their lives.
At one time, all these activities would have scared the holly berries out of me and I would have avoided them at any cost. They share something else in common: These are the moments in my life when I have felt most alive. All of me is showing up. And it is exhilarating.
I thought I had this fear thing conquered.
I thought I had this fear thing conquered and yet, there I was, alone in a 1.6 million acre national wilderness with no cell phone service - one choice and 27 vertical death-defying steps away from thrill of being in this cave. If there's a stairway to heaven, this is the stairway from hell - and it was all that stood between me and my dream.
I took one step off of the cliff and onto the first metal-grate stair. Panic seared through my body like an oil rig explosion. I felt dizzy and couldn’t think. My heart was beating like a timpani drum. I slumped against the rock wall to gather myself, as a swarm of butterflies flew around in my stomach trying to get out.
I reminded myself that I did not have to do this. How badly did I want to enter this cave again? Badly. So I dug deep, and pulled out three power tools that helped me get it together and enter the cave:
Tool #1: Heavy or Light. First, I simply asked myself if it felt “heavy” or “light” for me to enter this cave. It was light. When a choice feels “light” or expansive, it is likely true for you. If it feels “heavy” or contractive, it may not be a good choice for you at this time. This tool comes from a body of work called Access Consciousness and is great for situations that do not have a “knowable” cognitive answer. Even though I still felt scared out of my hiking boots, entering the cave felt inexplicably light.
Tool #2: Mind Body Integration Technique. This tool comes out of the International Coach Federation’s (ICF) research and development arm and is based on the latest neuroscience. It’s a great tool to use when you feel torn – for example, your heart says yes but your head says no (or in my case, screams no). This tool helps you make good decisions for you by asking questions of the neurological "wisdom centers" in your body. I’m one of the first executive coaches in the U.S. to be certified in this ICF-accredited technique.
I started with some conscious, balanced breathing to override my sympathetic nervous system - which had gone haywire. Then I proceeded to have a conversation with my head, heart and gut:
First, my heart: Did I truly desire to do this? (yes) Was it enough to just see the cave? (no).Then, my gut: What do you need me to know? My gut scanned the staircase. “Hold tight to the center beam,” it advised in what I imagined as the gravelly voice of a long-in-the-tooth jazz singer. I observed that it was the only part of the staircase drilled into the rock. It didn’t budge when I tried to shake it.Finally, my head. What did it think of this idea? “Well you could definitely plunge to your death and no one would know since there’s no cell service,” it retorted. “What else you got?” I asked. “Count the steps in advance and as you go, and so that you will know exactly how close you are and not need to look down.”
My head, heart and gut were now aligning. I was feeling calmer.
[Check out my appearance on Good Day New Mexico where I talk about this technique]
Tool #3. Visualization. Olympic athletes and Fortune 500 CEOs alike use this proven technique. By visualizing myself climbing each step, getting safely into and out of this cave, I gave myself the visceral confidence to do this. It works because our bodies can't distinguish between real and imagined experiences. My body would think it had already successfully done it, and tap that knowing.
Working with these tools to ultimately get myself inside this cave took over an hour. That may sound like a long time, but hey, glory is forever. I'll never forget the feeling of standing in that cave, and am so grateful to myself for choosing through fear and not letting it stop me.
The treasure I found was the reminder that some of the most rewarding experiences of my life are waiting on the other side of the invisible fence of fear. It is up to me to continually and consciously choose beyond fear. If I can, and so can you.
What is your cave?
Here are some final treasures to help you choose beyond fear:
You may dream about moving to a new city or starting a new job, and your fantasy doesn't include a dangling spiral staircase clinging to the side of a limestone cliff. Encountering whatever scary surprise may arise for you can make you second-guess yourself and wonder if you should turn back. Don’t. You have what it takes to take even the scariest the step towards your dream.
Never do anything because you feel you “should” just to push through fear. Look for the joy of it. There’s a moment in the Academy Award-winning documentary Free Solo where professional rock climber Alex Honnold’s girlfriend reminds him he doesn’t have to do it - climb Yosemite’s El Capitan, the highest sheer rock face in the world, without a rope. He looks at her and says with a wry smile that he wants to. He told a reporter that while he’s fully aware of the imminent danger, he free solos for “the joy of it.” Only you know your innermost heart’s desire. If the only thing hold you back from something is fear – then honor and explore the fear. Pull out some of these power tools to work through it, and rather than stop you, let it gift you with awareness about how to approach that challenging step. (Alex Honnold may be crazy but he isn't reckless: He used his fear to prepare meticulously for the climb of his life).
Don’t assume the tools you are using to move beyond fear aren’t working just because you still feel afraid. Tools like the ones I just shared don't magically banish fear - they empower you to choose beyond it. That's why it's so important to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Rather than abandoning your dreams in the face of fear, let fear heighten your awareness, guide your preparation and empower you to choose through it (oh, and is it possible that what you are labeling fear is actually excitement?).
Check out my post on moving beyond fear in Forbes:
Catch my appearance on Good Day New Mexico for some tips to rock your job!
Learn More about Sandia Cave:
Get the big picture: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandia_Cave
Read about the geochronology: https://repository.si.edu/bitstream/handle/10088/1340/SCtA-0032-Lo_res.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y)
Read about the controversy: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1995/06/12/the-mystery-of-sandia-cave
Access Consciousness is a set of energetic tools that allow you to change anything you cannot change. Trained facilitators are available in more than 170 countries worldwide. For more information visit www.accessconsciousness.com.
 Mind-Body Integration Technique provides tools to communicate with the head, heart and gut brains and to align and integrate them. Learn more at http://www.mbraining.com.