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Beyond Personal Development: What I Learned From Navy SEAL Surf Torture

12/18/2015 11:44 am ET | Updated Dec 18, 2016

Sealfit Navy SEAL Surf TortureFrom behind us, we could hear the 4-foot waves crashing in from the Pacific. The trouble was, we could never seem to get connected with the cadence of when they were going to next wash over our faces, filling our eyes, ears, throats and noses with sand, stones and seawater.

The not knowing is part of how this "evolution" (Navy SEAL-speak for a really challenging exercise) gets the cheery name of "surf torture." You don't know when you're next going to feel like you're drowning. The task at hand is to manage your fear.

The event I was attending was meant to be a planning retreat for 2016, put together by a former SEAL named Mark Divine. It was a real-life meetup for participants of his online course, Unbeatable Mind, that is based on his book of the same name. The Unbeatable Mind tagline is "Forging Mental Toughness," and surf torture is a most effective forge.

But we weren't there merely to get hammered into shape; we were there to get ourselves to the next plateau of the course's 5 Mountain Philosophy. This is in reference to what Coach Divine calls the five mountains we need to climb to achieve self-mastery in life: the physical mountain, spiritual, emotional, intellectual and the kokoro mountain. In this usage, kokoro, the Japanese word for heart, refers to the merging of the heart and spirit in action.

In order to climb these mountains and plan to have an amazing 2016, we were constantly challenged to dig for our big "why" in life. Everyone has their sort of surface "whys." Maybe "to be a better person" or "to raise better kids" or the like. These are all noble and important but as we pressed and probed, asking why these things matter to us, almost everybody at this event got to the answer: "I want to serve the world better."

So here's what I learned and, actually, here's how I learned it:

The Navy SEAL surf torture evolution. That's where the whole team (in this case over 70 of us) link arms and lay on our backs, feet toward the shore and tops of our heads facing out to sea while the waves of the ocean wash in. As mentioned above, you can hear the ocean rumbling and waves breaking but without seeing, you're never sure when they will next wash over you or for how long.

While all of this is happening, something is washing over your mind as well: fear. Fear that you may be drowning. After all, our minds have a very ancient job to do, bestowed upon them by instinct: watch out for threats to our existence. It is natural then that during surf torture, your mind may start to wander and do its thing; running through various disaster scenarios, convinced that death could be rolling in with the next wave.

Want to know the secret behind how to get through this evolution?

Stop thinking about yourself and keep your eyes on the team.

You see, if you get trapped in your own experience surf torture is absolutely just that: torture. It's designed to be a psychological test even more than a physical one: You constantly feel like you could be drowning. With every wave, you feel like you're going to get dragged out to sea. With every minute that ticks by, you get colder and have more trouble getting your breath and keeping your faculties. Your fight or flight instincts are pinging all over the inside of your brain, looking for an escape hatch.

The secret to getting through it all is to get fierce about protecting the people around you. You use all your physical strength to anchor your teammates against the rip tide so that the team doesn't wash out into deeper water. You hold them tighter so that they can be warmer. You try to make them laugh, get them to sing or just do anything to get everyone's mind off the fact that they are experiencing a gnarly challenge and many of them are scared shitless.

So, that's how you survive surf torture, but here's the big lesson I learned in those early morning waves:

I learned about what motivates people to become their best selves. I was sharing this experience with a room full of high achievers: all manner of business founders, top salespeople, C-suite executives, Olympians, bad-asses and hard-assess. There were powerful people, broken people, rebuilt people and rebuilding people and by the end of it all, we were all connected.

And we all got really clear on our "big why."

We want to become our best selves, because our best selves are what the world needs right now. We need to be able to show up at our best every day and deliver service to others here on this planet.

To have this lesson driven home, pounded into us by the Pacific waves, was a lesson worth facing our fears for.

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Photos courtesy of Sealfit, photo credits: Jeff "Boomer" Alred
.