It has been described as the Garden of Eden by some and Hell on Earth by others. One thing that i’m sure 99% of all who have encountered it can agree on: humans don’t understand much about this place as one may assume we would.
Our apparent lack of mastery of the jungle makes it one of the best natural platforms to explore the human mind and physiological abilities, because in this wild system, all society’s criteria of success means nothing. Here we are truly nothing but biodegradable material. The jungle is one of the few extreme environments on earth that can be visited by almost everybody; it does not necessarily demand any specific skills or physique. And it requires very limited equipment. At least compared to many other similar environments like mountaineering, going to the arctic or deep sea diving. In the jungle it is all about your mental fitness. All over the world there are specialist companies who take people into the most distant parts of the jungle where you can put yourself to the ultimate mental test. The only question is: do you think you have what it takes?
So why am I talking about this? My name is Anders and I frequently work as a tour leader or assisting instructor on expeditions and survival courses in the Guyanese rain forest. On every trip, I encounter the psychological stress, physical challenges and successes of visitors searching for extreme adventure tours. Honestly speaking, this is one of the most giving parts of leading people through such intense experiences.
Lets start by getting some facts straight. If people visit a tropical jungle for a day, stay at a lodge or simply just visit; and now suddenly think they know about the intricacies of the jungle, I’m gonna call bullshit. There is a significant difference between seeing the place and feeling it. The latter is only done over a period of several days on expeditions trips or survival courses. It takes time to strip the perception of ourselves down and we need both activities and bodily challenges to get to a point of honesty towards our own human capabilities. Basically, it is all about removing the layers of protection dictated by our society, breaking down barriers, until you get to ground zero. This is where the magic of the jungle happens. Because whether you are a CEO, a carpenter or a housewife. In the jungle, in our insignificance, we are all equal.
While it does give you various advantages to have a good physical level and a basic knowledge of the right equipment, none of this is of any use if you’re not mentally prepared for the challenges you will encounter from the jungle or your team. We repeatedly see a lot of people that seem to have all the right capabilities fail miserably; and then we have seen people who have looked to have none of the right capabilities succeed and conquer extreme conditions. Even further, as provoking as I might sound, women seem to be much better at dealing mentally with the jungle than men. It can be hard to say specifically why, but it seems that their perception of themselves and their mentality seem to be much more out of consensus with reality than that of the opposite sex. Men seem to be more likely to perceive themselves as being mentally strong from only one perspective; I am extremely fit or I have a degree for example.
There is one thing in particular that seems to trick some guys. It is something as simple as starting a fire. People are asked to make their own individual fire after receiving instruction. For some this is well considered, neatly prepared and securely started; but for some guys this turns into an actual contest in proving their right to exist as a man. First you see lack of preparations such as securing fuel for the fire, making sure to get dry wood, making proper feather sticks etc. When it comes to igniting the fire it usually starts out good, but at some point it starts to backfire as they might run out of feather sticks before it catches on, their structure collapses or the wood is moist. This is where you, in a brief moment of rationality, should stop and reorganise yourself; go through your plan, but this is often not the case in my experience. They will frantically continue trying to start the fire from what they have. And they will do so to the bitter end. Eventually, they will realise that it is not possible and start rebuilding from scratch. This pattern of behaviour reminds me of how often we’re poor decision-makers when we lock our target onto something; losing the ability to see if we are doing something wrong along the way. On top of this, if we put ourself into an artificial competitive environment, we often end up looking more foolish than necessary. That specific example is one of my favourites, because I did exactly that mistake on the first survival course I attended.
We create a persona around ourselves from some criteria dictated by society, such as; how do I look? What job do I have? What car do I drive? The jungle basically does not give a fuck about these things. These things might be very relevant in our perception of success in society, but in nature they are truly worth nothing. We basically keep ourselves safe by staying in the comfort zone of the “civilised world” and very rarely challenge ourselves on this arrangement. Sometimes there is a confrontation of reality though, and this is when something often goes wrong. Basically, we are forced out of our comfort zone into a situation of uncontrollable instinct-based reactions such as fear, aggression, courage or similar. These reactions are often much more characterising than any other actions made by us, simply because they are honest. We will bend, jump and compromise to avoid these situations, but the nature of life dictates that they are unavoidable.
A good example of this is being in an unfamiliar situation where you’re with a person witnessing a new side of them. It could be the person going crazy under stress or acting with unexpected courage. It will change your perception of them and what they’re undoubtedly showing is their true character. Because you really do not know anything about a person until shit goes down and in some cases it might be bad, but honestly, in most cases it tells a story about a real person with feelings, fears and beliefs. One participant on a survival course slept on the ground for two days in isolation, with no fire and nothing but a handful of edible palm worms. This American was the loveliest guy, but he was not what you would call typical jungle material. Honestly, I thought he would be done before dark on the first day. But because he was mentally stronger than I could ever imagine, he just pulled through.
Our brain is actually programmed to take care of extreme bodily and mental stress; you might call it your survival instinct. It may not directly seem so when an argument over a parking lot suddenly develops into fear or in some cases, aggression; but it is your instinct telling you how to react. It means that you have to decide to fight or run. Other times we simulate it by running a marathon as an example. In ancient times hunters would run distances comparable if not longer to track down herds of animals on the move and you can say that we are still hunting today; just for another form of a goal.
The feeling of success and accomplishment when something is done successfully would be something made of same. It is almost like a rational response to dealing with this instinct or as some might say “letting off some steam”. All of this of course, is good for our society; especially in cities with so many people living in close proximity. It certainly wouldn’t work well if we found ourselves physically fighting every time we encountered a confrontation; but it still happens from time-to-time with our rational mind calming us down in the process.
These instincts might seem highly primitive, but as much as you deny them, they are one of the simplest ways of gaining confidence and a feeling of success. We unfortunately rarely face adversity or allow ourself a raw encounter with our basic instincts. We leave it to life to dictate when these encounters will happen, but we might deny ourself a boost of confidence and a belief in own capabilities. This is where we get back to the jungle because if you really want to create the ultimate simulation of life you have to be placed in an environment so distant from your comfort zone that your instincts takes over instantly and this is where you’re almost certainly going to be amazed.
You’re truly capable of doing things that you would never have imagined. These can be simple things that people overcome from; taking a dump in the jungle to have a snake crawling up your arm, starting a fire or building a shelter. Things you will likely never do or use again. We could tell ourselves over and over again that we would act in a specific way under X situation, but the reality is that proving such actions instead of dismissing this inherent unknown creates fulfilment.
Everybody owes it to themselves to be proud of their own capabilities; we are all amazing creatures that can do things we would never have imagined. Do not cheat yourself from such an experience, just get out there and show yourself what you are made of!
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”
— Albert Einstein