Apotheosis episode 37: Into the cave. Drawing of a tribal-style frog, a symbol of personal transformation, with colorful leaves all around

Episode 37: Into the cave

Ryan D Thompson Skills, Transformation

Key ideas

To live fully is to grow. But at some point in our lives, we will find ourselves stuck, struggling to tackle the challenges in front of us. To transform ourselves to meet the moment, we have to go into the cave, that place we find most terrifying.

  • Each of us is capable of more than we might think – we all have deep, untapped potential within us. Unfortunately, that potential is often buried under layers of doubt, fear, pain, or confusion.
  • From time to time, we are presented with opportunities to break through that clutter and unlock our potential. Some are significant moments. Others are more subtle shifts in how we think, perceive the world, or interact with others.
  • But growth is typically uncomfortable, even painful. We often have to go where we don’t want to go or feel things we’d much rather avoid.
  • If we are willing to go into that discomfort – to descend into the deepest depths of our fears – we can reemerge from that experience transformed. We can become the people we are meant to be.


We sat in darkness. Complete and total inky black darkness. Our panicked voices echoed off the walls of the cavern. If only we were bats, those echoes might have given us a sense of comfort. Or, more importantly, a sense of direction that could point to the way out. Alas, we lacked the sensory apparatus or capacity for echolocation, so we were, quite literally, lost in the dark.

The funny thing is that we had voluntarily put ourselves in this position. Just moments before, each member of our group had passed our headlamps down the line to our guide. He then turned our lights off one by one until we found ourselves in darkness so absolute it almost made you almost question your existence. Not a single photon found its way down into this cavern deep underground in the Costa Rican rainforest.

After a period of enjoying this novel sensation of total darkness, our guide shocked us with the words, “Now you are going to find your way out in the dark.”

That’s when the real panic began.

I’ll get back to that panic shortly. This episode kicks off season 3 of Apotheosis. I’ve spent the past several months planning, designing, reflecting, and letting some ideas marinate. One of the primary purposes of this podcast is to support you and other leaders in tapping into your greatest potential. Unfortunately, that potential is often buried under layers of stuff: our fears, doubts, unhelpful stories, perceived limitations, or even traumas inflicted on us from the outside. But from time to time, we’re presented with an opportunity to break free from the things holding us back. This story of the cave is one such experience, but there are many other opportunities, large and small, we will encounter throughout our lives.

Let me rewind for a moment, back to the days before I arrived at the cave.

I had traveled to Costa Rica as part of a program called CRROBS: the Costa Rica Rainforest Outward Bound School. Outward Bound has been taking young people into deep wilderness around the world for the better part of a century. The CRROBS program dumped us off in the middle of the country, where we hiked and camped our way across mountains, rainforests, rivers, and remote villages until we reached the Pacific coast.

Outward Bound specializes in cultivating leadership skills for young people. Lots of team-building activities, opportunities to lead a group, plenty of adventure, laughter, tears, sweat, soiled trousers, and sometimes some blood. 

Powerful conditions for growth.

I was in my early 20s at the time and one of the oldest members of the group. And yet, despite being technically an adult, I certainly didn’t feel like it. The lessons I learned from this trek through the jungle opened my eyes to the fact that we each have greater potential than we realize. It’s what Outward Bound does, serving as a catalyst for personal transformation.

Which brings us back to the cave.

We spent most of the morning hiking up muddy slopes – slipping, falling, getting back up – rinse and repeat. As we did each day, we followed behind our guides, led by a young local named Antonio, who scampered up and down those slippery trails with the grace of a cat. The rest of us floundered with the grace of a walrus.

After a couple hours of hiking, we reached a ledge overlooking the jungle, where we found the mouth of the cave. 

Going into a cave tends to provoke some strong, unpleasant reactions. Upon entering this cave, we had to face the rational fear of going deep into the dank, dark bowels of the earth, where no human post-Neolithic era has any business being. We had to shed our fear of the dark, the claustrophobia from having thousands of tons of rock over our heads, and the thoughts of creepy, crawly creatures with claws, fangs, and venom.

Despite this inevitable anxiety, we began our descent into the cave. 

We slipped on rocks dripping wet with mud and guano. We banged our heads and limbs as we crawled up, down, and around narrow passages. And after 30 minutes or so, we finally reached the central cavern – deep in the belly of the earth.

We sat in a circle, as we did many times a day. At his request, we reluctantly passed our lights to our guide. At which point we were swallowed by absolute darkness. Not long afterward, we heard him utter those terrible words, “Now you are going to find your way out in the dark.”

So back to that panic. Our whole group exploded in a cacophony of crying, screaming, pleading voices. 

Before that moment, I had never been comfortable speaking up in a group. Throughout my life, I never really trusted my voice in front of more than three people, and even then, only if I knew them well. I lacked the confidence to speak up, least of all when the stakes were high. 

But as I sat there listening to the crying and the panic and the hyperventilating voices screaming, “We’re going to die in here!” something welled up inside me. 

Suddenly, I heard myself shout, “STOP!”

And surprisingly, somehow, they all did. For a few moments, everyone caught a breath. “We can do this,” I said. “Think about what we’ve all gone through together, how far we’ve come. Let’s grab hands, stay in a line, and feel our way out of here.”

The group debated this plan for a few minutes before agreeing to give it a shot. We began our ascent out of the cave. We inched forward at a snail’s pace, slipping on guano, banging our heads, crying, and cursing the darkness. 

And then, after nearly two and a half hours and despite a bit of persistent whimpering and occasional surges of minor panic, we finally saw a sliver of light up ahead. We made it.

We shouted with joy and hugged each other as we finally exited the cave.

That’s one of those moments I’ll never forget. The moment I saw the light coming from the mouth of the cave, I experienced something shift inside of me. It sounds corny, but it felt like being reborn. Breaking free from the darkness of the cave, I also broke free of constraints that had held me back for so long. 

We began climbing back down. Then, looking over at Antonio, nimbly flying down the slick trails, I realized something: if he can do it, so can I. 

What one person can do, so can another. I soon found myself flying down the trails right behind him.

A couple of weeks later, we came to the end of our journey. On the final night, our guides gave us something to remember our experiences: a frog medallion, symbolizing the transformation we all undertook. 

Now, I recognize that this experience was a simulated survival situation, one of the many activities organized by Outward Bound to catalyze growth and cultivate confidence. But yep, for me, it definitely worked. Over two decades later, I still look back to that moment emerging from the darkness of the cave as a new person. 

There are many such opportunities for personal transformation we encounter throughout our lives. Some are significant moments, like this one was for me. Others are more subtle shifts in how we think, perceive the world, or interact with others. Some arise from intentional efforts or planned activities orchestrated as part of a group, like the Outward Bound descent into the cave. Other opportunities are thrust on us through unexpected and typically unwanted setbacks.

We have these opportunities in front of us all the time, but we’re not always ready or willing to be transformed. Times of loss or difficulty are ripe for growth. Yet, we instinctively tend to turn away from these experiences rather than turn into them. But growth and, ultimately, transformation are uncomfortable, even painful. We often have to go where we don’t want to go or feel things we’d much rather avoid.

At some point, we have to go into the cave, that place we find most terrifying.

And yet, when we get through that painful process, we’re usually far better off than ever before. As a result, we are positioned to tackle bigger and more significant challenges.

As leaders, we are called to tackle complex problems. But, to create change, we must first transform ourselves.

This episode kicks off a series that will explore the potential for transformation inherent in each of us, looking for insights from psychology, Buddhism, neuroscience, and more. Join me again next week as I look at one of the barriers to personal transformation that lies within our own minds: the Shadow.

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License