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kottke.org posts about Daniel Riley

Attention Deconcentration and the Secrets of Freediving

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 22, 2021

This is a lovely, almost poetic piece by Daniel Riley about the sport of freediving and one of the best freedivers in the world, Alexey Molchanov.

Freediving is, after all, a lifelong opportunity to radically reshape one’s body and mind in the process. In pursuing depth, humans must train their lungs and brains to unlock secret sources of clarity and strength and oxygen and potential that are hidden within the body. They are secrets that, once revealed, make the divers not just more effective at their craft, they argue, but more effective, conscious, skillful, and thoughtful as human beings. There is a shift in perspective. A global realignment within one’s consciousness. The look in their eyes when they talk about this thing…every diver who’s gone truly deep sounds like those rarest of individuals who’ve seen the earth from the moon, or died and been resuscitated.

Alexey learned how to excel in the sport of freediving from his mother Natalia Molchanova:

When Alexey was younger, his mother, Natalia Molchanova, was the world’s best freediver, a distinction that she held for many years. She was a pioneer in the sport and the practitioner of a mind-and-body-control technique called “attention deconcentration.” She passed her secrets to her son, who perfected them and uses the regimen to reach a state of intense calm. By doing so, he can slow his heart rate, his metabolic rate, while simultaneously slowing the activity of his brain and his body. His focus deepens. He relaxes to the point of seeming asleep. He takes deep, drowsy breaths, like a summer breeze filling a sail.

I first learned about freediving from Alec Wilkinson’s 2009 piece in the New Yorker, where Natalia explained attention deconcentration:

To still the unbidden apprehensions that might interfere with her dive - what she describes as “the subjective feeling of empty lungs at the deep” — Molchanova uses a technique that she refers to as “attention deconcentration.” (“They get it from the military,” Ericson said.) Molchanova told me, “It means distribution of the whole field of attention — you try to feel everything simultaneously. This condition creates an empty consciousness, so the bad thoughts don’t exist.”

“Is it difficult to learn?”

“Yes, it’s difficult. I teach it in my university. It’s a technique from ancient warriors — it was used by samurai — but it was developed by a Russian scientist, Oleg Bakhtiyarov, as a psychological-state-management technique for people sho do very monotonous jobs.”

I asked if it was like meditation.

“To some degree, except meditation means you’re completely free, but if you’re in the sea at depth you will have to be focussed, or it will get bad. What you do to start learning is you focus on the edges, not the center of things, as if you were looking at a screen. Basically, all the time I am diving, I have an empty consciousness. I have a kind of melody going through my mind that keeps me going, but otherwise I am completely not in my mind.”

After reading both of these great pieces, you can check out one of Molchanov’s recent world record dives: