It doesn’t matter that it’s a star-studded, crystal-clear night with a billion points of light because you’re deep in the Canadian forest. It’s the August 2012 Systema Headquarters Camp in Ontario and about 120 students hone their skills in a clearing as the light slowly dims. “Most of your perception of reality comes through your eyes,” master instructor, Konstantin Komarov had said that morning. Now my reality was rapidly dwindling. The pre-night training instructions were, ‘dress appropriately for the forest but no weapons and no flashlights.’
In the clearing the master instructors demonstrate each exercise in the fading light. Finding a partner to practice the exercise started with both of you putting together what you had heard and what you thought you’d seen. I was beginning to wonder how my sight compared with the people around me because all I could see were vague, animated blobs of light.
Then Konstantin’s whistle blows.
His instructions are in Russian with the translator Dmitri following in English: “This clearing has two true exits and a few that look like exits but aren’t. You each have to find the two exits. One is to the trail back to camp. The other is an exit to something else. Find both and walk a hundred feet along them then return to this clearing. When all students are back I will blow my whistle and we’ll all return to camp.”
I quietly congratulate myself on remembering the sequence of trees that mark the exit from the clearing to the trail back to the camp. So my thinking is that I’ll poke around a little looking busy and wait for the whistle to start back to camp.
I follow fellow campers around the perimeter of the clearing and take a few stabs at finding the second exit but we all seem to be hitting dead ends. At this point it’s so dark that even white t-shirts are barely visible. Then the second whistle blows. “Okay back to camp.” I look up and I find the tall tree that I’ve set as the ‘pointer’ to the camp trail and I see a group of dark figures already heading in that general direction
So I leave the clearing with about twenty fellow campers. No one talks. After about twenty seconds I’m surprised that some have turned back and walk past me in the opposite direction, which makes me think this might not be the right way. But I refuse to accept it. About a dozen of us move ahead.
In the night forest with trees all around you, the only light source is the sky. When you look ahead it’s black. When you raise your eyes at some point you see light breaking through the silhouettes of the top of the trees. The illusion is one of being in a gulley surrounded by cliffs. I’m starting to sweat and I make a silent promise to myself that however lost we get I will stick with the group. My lack of perception has changed my goal from ‘find and follow the trail back to camp’ to ‘don’t be alone and lost in the forest.’
So I follow my small band but it soon becomes obvious that they haven’t found the trail home. Some turn back, others turn left and right in confusion. Everywhere I turn people fade into the gloom. Voices call out in the darkness and for a few seconds somewhere in the distance someone breaks the rule and turns on a flashlight. Cheat!
Then I think I see a lighter area on the floor of the darkness. In my reality-deprived mind I believe I’ve found the trail! I turn and carefully head towards it. I take three or four steps and stand on a series of dry branches which snap with loud cracks. I manage to keep my balance stepping over an unexpected rock and crash into a young tree. I look around and realize that I am now completely alone. I try to find shapes of people in the blackness of the forest but see nothing. I’m in a dark gulley surrounded by cliffs. I hear no voices and see no humans. And panic surges.
I’m exactly where I promised myself I wouldn’t be—lost and alone in the forest.
Fear rises in me with two ugly heads. One: I’m lost in the forest and won’t find my way back to camp. Two is an even bigger fear: Everyone else finds their way back without a problem and a search party is organized just to find me—the idiot who panicked got lost and had to be rescued.
I walk forward crashing hopelessly into everything, breaking branches, tripping over rocks and walking into tree trunks. I hear a voice and stop. “Dude….?”
“Hullo. Yes?” replies the voice.
“Do you know the way back?”
“Head towards my voice” says a calm German accent.
I stumble towards the sound.
“No this way” says the voice.
Even when I’m standing a foot away the two fellow campers are barely visible.
“I think the trail’s over to our right” I offer.
“We don’t need the trail. We follow those stars. Forget about your eyes, feel with your feet.”
Forty-five minutes later, after carefully avoiding overhead branches, tree trunks, roots and rocks, we cross the road to camp, only to find out that five other campers are still missing.
Later, I realized how perfectly the exercise demonstrated the concept that we create most of our reality through our eyes, and what happens to that reality when our visual perception is reduced. I also realized that there are very few places in the world where one could have an experience like the one I just had and how valuable it is to find your fear.
Colin Shubitz – Systema Instructor-in-Training