The plan was to white water raft down the Nile in Uganda. We ventured out on the river, a varied crew of six travelers from all over the world. We were four men and two women. Thankfully, the local rafting company provided helmets and lifejackets for us, the first of many fortuitous gifts that afternoon. Our guide was a local Ugandan named Ralph. He was an affable, kind-faced young man in his mid-twenties.
The river rafting tour began as expected with light, ambling views of the riverbank filled with exotic noises and sights. We watched a twenty-five-foot rock python enter the water from thirty feet away, and lush, dense green forest landscape pass us by. The water was mostly calm, but we occasionally had a rush of low-grade rapids to boost our collective adrenaline.
We knew it was coming. Ralph had given us an out, but none of us had taken it. We could avoid the grade five rapid by disembarking on the shoreline and walking past it along a well-trodden path. Or be unskilled, overconfident tourists hoping for glory. We fully embraced the arrogance of ignorance and barreled toward the vertical ramp-shaped rapid with reckless abandon.
The Nile was merciful, acting swiftly and precisely as our raft was efficiently capsized in one fluid motion like a skilled chef flipping an overstuffed pancake. We flew in a tangled mass of bodies, oars and gear, landing in the tumultuous swirl of water, mud and debris. Some of us landed on our heads, some on hips and shoulders, and others made the full rotations to feet. We all hit with brutal force at uncomfortable, awkward angles.
Ralph had instructed us at the beginning of the tour to hold tightly to the interior rope running along the inside wall of the raft in the unlikely event of our raft capsizing. The overturned raft would provide an air pocket in which we could seek refuge and oxygen until safely out of danger.
Miraculously I was able to hold onto the raft’s interior rope as my body flew 360 degrees backwards before hitting the water, feet first. I was able to position myself under the raft and dutifully followed Ralph’s instructions. Once under the raft, still holding frantically to the rope, the reality of the promised safe haven quickly came into focus.
The floor of the rubber raft, now the ceiling of this make-shift shelter, was equally powerless against the force of the river. Instead of providing safety, the raft puckered and slammed against the water, pinning me underwater. With my one free arm and kicking legs, I struggled to propel myself out of the water back to the illusive air pocket. But the weight and force were too powerful. The ancient raging sage had greater seniority and strength.
So I tried to outsmart her.
My options were few and equally dire. The raft had become my primary liability, a frightened friend saving his own skin by sacrificing me to the hungry river. I could continue holding the rope and drown by being pinned underwater, or let go of the rope and hope for the best. I had only one viable option.
I let go of the rope and separated from the raft, breathing in the relief.
My freedom was short-lived. In horror, I felt my body being pulled underwater by an even stronger eddy. An avalanche of water, dark mud, and air bubbles engulfed me pulling me further and further away from the water’s surface. As I tumbled down the river, I caught glimpses of sunlight as I summersaulted down the rushing current. These flashes were illusory and unreliable as they danced against mud particles and air bubbles making it impossible to right myself towards the water’s surface. But where was the surface? It was impossible to tell what was up and what was down. There were no external points of reference to guide me.
I fought it. I kicked my legs and thrashed my arms, trying to break free to an undetermined point in space. The pressure in my head, screaming inaudible words muted by a closed mouth and a need to preserve the precious oxygen remaining in my lungs. My thoughts raced, searching for strategies, ways to survive, ways to beat the river.
I remembered from a middle school swim class that slowing exhaling breath in small spurts could prolong one’s time underwater. I needed to buy time. I began consciously regulating my staccato exhales. My body continued to fight and every piece of me screamed in a muted fury as I struggled against my surroundings. My anger increasing as I began to feel the panic rise with each ever shortening exhale. I was nearing the end. I had three exhales left.
So I shifted my attention inward, seeking refuge in the few things I could control. I could not control the river, nor blame her for her entrenched, unwavering consistency. She was doing what she had done for millions of years. Short exhale.
I felt completely alone. My sphere of control was humbly illuminated in the firestorm that surrounded me. Short exhale. Only one exhale left in my aching lungs.
I transitioned into what was to come next. I was going to die in a foreign land, away from my family and friends. This was the end. There was no doubt in my mind and I was one breath away from the last moments in this human body.
What next? If there is a heaven, I calmly decided how I wanted to die. My last decision on earth. No yelling, no fighting, no kicking and screaming like a petulant, entitled child. I would die at peace. I would die thinking of all of the love that surrounded me during this lifetime. I would die intentionally creating inner tranquility, grateful for all that I had been given.
I crossed my arms over my chest, grabbing the corners of the life vest at the edges of the arm holes. I exhaled my last breath, relinquishing all fight and control that remained in my body.
I closed my eyes, my body went limp as my muscles relaxed in anticipation of death. I was completely at peace and ready to die.
There was a pause. Nothing happened. Then all at once, my body stopped tumbling, righted itself so that it faced upwards, and I was shot to the surface of the water. In my surprise, I sucked in a quick sip of air before being pulled under again. I floated underwater again for another few seconds, but this time it was different. Everything had changed, both me and the river.
The Nile taught me one of my most important life lessons, one that has guided me since that fateful day. My inner serenity supersedes all external forces, however powerful those forces may appear at first glance. I decide how I interact with the world, how I respond to life’s sometime dramatic and fierce brutality. Life can present all of us with unimaginable pain, violence, and cruelty. Our strength comes from within, when we each look inwardly to our very core to face our greatest challenges with grace, humility and equanimity. We each have the capacity to find inner grounding peace, a peace that calms the greatest rivers, a peace that is stronger than life’s strongest external forces.