How a Polar Exploration Trip to Antarctica Proved the Power of ‘Fearvana'
What exactly is “Fearvana?” It’s a term coined by Akshay Nanavati, author and founder of the “Fearvana” book and movement who has pushed boundaries as a U.S. Marine and world explorer. His passion in specifically polar exploration — yes, exploring the coldest parts of Earth — most recently took him on a trip to Antarctica, where he set out to climb Mt. Vinson, the continent’s tallest mountain.
Following in Roald Amundsen’s footsteps skiing from the base of the Ross Ice Shelf up the Axel Heiberg Glacier to the South Pole, he became one of only a handful of people to visit the site that the famous Norwegian explorer marked 110 years ago. What was supposed to be a 35-day trek was cut short due to complications with frostbite in his fingers, but this trip wasn’t the first or last that Nanavati will take. After all, Nanavati considers polar exploration to be the “worthy struggle” that he’s dedicated his life to — so far.
We got a chance to speak with him about his fascinating (read: extreme) travels as well as the very-real inner journey he had to take to get to where he is today.
Far & Wide: First off, how are your fingers and what has the recovery been like since you left Antarctica?
Akshay Nanavati: Yeah, it's a very long recovery. [I have] two that are very, very black. More than likely, I will lose the tips of both of them.
It's going to be at least five more months, so I'm adapting to life without the use of three of them.
FW: I read that you made a decision to take a trek across every country in the world as a self challenge. How many have you visited now?
Nanavati: Three years ago, I did a 157-mile run across Liberia. It was about a marathon a day for a week that raised funds to build a school out there. But after that run, that goal kind of changed.
It occurred to me that there's no point going to, let's say, run across Switzerland, if it doesn't contribute to actually doing something meaningful on the ground. It's about the best use of the most precious resource, which is time. I love pushing myself and doing physical feats, but that goal evolved. It was a goal that I needed at the time to bring me out of a very dark place.
FW: So, let’s talk about that dark place. You were on the brink of suicide after coming back from Iraq, but it sounds like this goal was something that really helped change those thoughts for you.
Nanavati: It wasn't like that goal [showed] a direct result; it happened over time. I had to be very focused on getting out of the darkness, as opposed to focusing on the light.
When I was in that space, I learned that the key thing is letting go of judgments around yourself over it. Because people often think you have one aha moment and magically life changes, but it was actually slow and brutal, like clawing my way out of the darkness.
FW: What would you tell people in a similar headspace?
Nanavati: The key that helped was starting to recognize that, within the context of post-traumatic stress, it’s not necessarily post-traumatic stress disorder. Releasing the label “disorder,” I was starting to normalize these experiences I was going through.
For example, I struggled with survivor's guilt. I struggled with loud noises, and the therapist told me that these were symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, right? But jumping at loud noises is a very normal human response to war in my brain that says “loud noises equals death.”
FW: Yes, I can only imagine.
Nanavati: Right? The key thing, which is much easier said than done, was this identifying of my emotions and my thoughts and recognizing that we’re not our thoughts. We're not our feelings. We're not our experiences.
So, when you start climbing your way out of the darknes, whatever drove you to that darkness is often not going to go away, at least not for a while. The key is to not try to fight it or eliminate it or resist it. Instead, feel it and turn that darkness into an expression of light.
FW: I really think that part of your story is just as interesting and important to tell as the other, more adventurous parts. In this situation, what do you think helped you the most?
Nanavati: You know, I was seeing a therapist before I hit that rock bottom, and they were great people. But what I've come to learn over time is they were just operating from a very bad playbook. What actually helped for me was just self research. Like, I must have hundreds of books on neuroscience and psychology.
A big mistake people make who have loved ones in those dark places is that they often will try to inspire them. It’s actually worse because it makes them feel [crappy] about themselves.
FW: What would you say is a more constructive approach?
Nanavati: I've shared this with a lot of people because they think [their words of inspiration] are helping, and I get it's coming from a place of love, but it only makes their loved ones feel [bad] about themselves.
I couldn't watch anything inspiring because I felt like a worthless human being. I had to navigate that first, and now obviously, I can watch inspiring stuff and get motivated and driven, but I had to go deeper into understanding myself, which required a lot of reading and a lot of learning. And then partly just doing the work. And doing the work is the hard part.
FW: What do you mean by that exactly?
Nanavati: For example, I did an interview on “The Dr. Drew Podcast” once, and this lady called in who was present at the Boston bombing and was going through some PTSD as a result. At some point, I said that next time [PTSD] shows up, I just want to kind of pause and deal with it.
And she said that she thought that was really uncomfortable. We want to do everything possible to escape the pain, like she wants to get on the other side of it without going through it.
FW: I agree that a lot of people tend to want to avoid struggle at all costs.
Nanavati: Yes, of course, I would want people to feel better, granted, but the reality is you have to go through it. You can't escape it. I understand it's uncomfortable. But the more you practice being with it and just acknowledging the presence, the more you can then transcend it, instead of trying to escape it. The more you escape it, like Carl Jung said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.”
That stuff you're constantly trying to run away from within, it's going to run your life anyway, so you have to bring it to the surface.
FW: So, polar exploration has become your way to channel your ‘darkness into light.’ Tell us a bit more about this recent trip to Antarctica.
Nanavati: I got evacuated about halfway through. Trip 1 was going up the glacier, which was soft, like steep, soft snow, steep climbing, warmer temperatures.
And then once you get up the glacier onto the plateau, the snow is harder, no steep climbing anymore, but much colder.
FW: What inspired you to take this specific journey?
Nanavati: I've been into outdoor exploration ever since I joined the Marines, which taught me about my own adversity. In the Marines, nature became my playground to ultimately explore the limitlessness of the human spirit. I started rock climbing and then moved onto mountain climbing, which was sort of a natural progression because rock leads to the ice to the mountains. And then the mountains led me to polar exploration.
The thing I love most about polar exploration is that it’s an experience of suffering unlike anything else. It's far more brutal and miserable than mountaineering and ultra running.
FW: So, why would you do it?
Nanavati: Because what I seek ultimately is that the suffering is the means not the purpose. What I seek is the transcendence on the other side of that suffering, and the greater the suffering, the more you have to go deep within yourself to transcend that suffering.
You don’t find just something within the self, you actually tap into the human soul. You think about the human spirit of what we're all capable of, and what draws me to polar exploration is the intensity of the savagery of these environments. You have to rise above yourself in order to survive just by the mission. I love polar exploration for that.
FW: How exactly do these extreme environments ‘tap into the human soul?’
Nanavati: When I did a one-month ski trek of Greenland, which involved dragging a 90-pound sled for 350 miles every day, it was empty white nothingness. When you're climbing a mountain, the environment looks different every day because you're moving up the mountain, but polar exploration, you wake up and you're seeing the same damn thing every day.
You have to navigate with your mind, and mental challenge is appealing to me. It pushes you into new spaces, and you go so deep within yourself. I'm also going back into a 10-day darkness retreat to train for a much bigger polar expedition that’s solo and will get lonely out there.
FW: Solitary training is quite unique. What other kind of physical or mental training do you need for polar exploration? How much of what you learned in the Marines was applied?
Nanavati: Because I grew up with a very comfortable childhood, the Marines taught me the power of suffering because Marine Corps boot camp is hard. Going to Iraq was hard, and it taught me the beauty of adversity. It laid the foundation for everything for who I am today, for sure. It taught me the value of mission specificity. In Iraq, no one cares whether you're tired one day. What matters is the mission and the men.
And as far as physical training for polar exploration specifically, it's a very unique thing to train for because it's the only thing that I've seen in which you have to train strength, because you need to be really strong to drag a very heavy sled, as well as endurance, because you're going for hours and hours every single day day after day. But you have to do all of this while you're kind of fat [which needs to be stored for the trek]. None of these three things inherently go complimentary together, so it's a really unique thing to train for.
FW: Can you tell us some of the specific things you to do prepare?
Nanavati: The primary training I do for polar exploration is tire dragging, and I drag these two absurdly heavy truck tires up to eight hours a day. So, that's memory training. But in addition to that, a lot of running, strength training as well as training the mind and spirit. I also do daily meditation, and the 10 days of darkness is also a training technique. Yes, part of it is just seeking the sort of spiritual evolution, but it's training my spirits to handle solitude.
This year, I will be going back to Antarctica to do a 30-day solo expedition, so I'm going into that 10 days of darkness to practice mastering mental stillness, essentially solitude. And last winter, when I was in Vermont, I was doing cold river dips in the river when storms would hit, so I could practice being still in the face of the storm. One time I almost got hit by a falling tree because I'm the only idiot out there in the storm.
FW: That’s one way of putting it! Tell us a little bit more about the Fearvana concept, the book that you wrote and how you found your ‘worthy struggle,’ as you put it.
Nanavati: The concept evolved after I reached that rock bottom. I started delving into medicine, research, neuroscience, psychology, spirituality and was learning all these things initially just to get myself out of the pit.
But as I was learning all these things, I was learning things that I realized people weren't saying, so there was a compelling desire to share it because we all suffer. I'm not the only person who's suffering and trying to figure out how to navigate the human experience.
FW: Of course not. People seem to be suffering now more than in previous generations.
Nanavati: Yes, [that self-education] led to this ethos of Fearvana — the idea being that fear and nirvana are often framed as two seemingly contradictory concepts, right? Fear is the “worst.” And then nirvana is the most enlightened self. And the concept is these two notions, these two forces are not in fact contradictory but are complementary. Fear is actually the access point to bliss.
The essence of what the book and the movement are around is to help people develop a positive relationship to suffering in order for them to find their worthy struggle.
FW: And how exactly do you define a worthy struggle?
Nanavati: It's not about necessarily having to go Antarctica or climb a mountain like me. But, for you, it could be running a magazine; it could be writing a book; it could be having a child. The point is that anything worthwhile will be a struggle. And Fearvana is geared toward helping people fall in love with that struggle.
When we view suffering as something bad, it becomes a barrier on the way to happiness. But if I fall in love with suffering, it’s no longer a barrier; it’s part of the adventure.
FW: Why exactly are these extreme physical challenges a worthy struggle for you?
Nanavati: I love doing physical challenges because they’re the only kind of challenge that taps into the mind, body and spirit. It taps into all areas of the human experience. And actually going out there and playing in these playgrounds in nature … nature is pure.
We are born from nature, so you're tapping into a kind of great oneness that you find within yourself. You become more aligned in mind, body, spirit, with the self, with nature and, ultimately, with all of humanity.
FW: Not everyone will do something as extreme as taking a polar exploration trip, so what are some basic practices you’ve learned from these experiences that you can share with our readers?
Nanavati: It's hugely important to have rituals, routine and systems. That’s what Antarctica teaches you, but also the Marines are very structured. One of the reasons why I think it's a struggle when [soldiers] come out is the lack of structure.
People often think structure and systems are imprisoning, but structure is where freedom actually happens. If you don't have structure, you are a slave to your feelings.
FW: How so?
Nanavati: Our feelings are fleeting, so the key is giving your brain structure so that you don't have to waste conscious and cognitive energy — actually called “decision fatigue.” It allows you to eliminate decisions from your life. For instance, I live very structured, so I don’t have to think about what to eat for breakfast the next morning because it’s all in my routine. That way I still have my cognitive and my physical energy for the task at hand.
I actually like to not think as much as possible. By removing thinking from your craft, you can save energy for the worthy struggle at hand.
FW: So, how did you feel when your trip was cut short by frostbite?
Nanavati: There were three other people on the team, so the team couldn’t move forward because I’d be a burden. That to me is unacceptable; as a marine, you live for the person next to you.
I felt disappointed that the mission was incomplete. I felt disappointed that I’d be leaving the team because it meant more of a workload for them.
FW: You said that you have other similar trips planned for the future. How did this experience help you prepare for them?
Nanavati: I was actually planning my return to Antarctica on my way out. When you get frostbite once, you’ll be prone to getting it again. I could have been better. I will have to be perfect.
But I wasn’t broken or defeated, and I can’t wait to get back out there. If I have to lose a few fingers, I’ll do what I have to do.