Freediving & Self Cultivation

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Why Do We Freedive? Anyone who has been freediving for a while has probably been asked the question, why? Usually it comes from concerned parents or loved ones back home, as soon as you progress beyond, say 40? 50? 60 meters?

Why are you doing this? Why go so deep? Why endure the pressure? Why risk getting an injury or blacking out? Why freedive?

After three years of seeing Facebook posts of me freediving, and going deeper and deeper, my long suffering father, often asks “I love the water too, I just don’t see why it needs to involve going so deep. When are you going to stop?”

So I’m constantly debating the question of why. And have always had difficulty of arriving at any easy to communicate answer.

I agree with Jonathan Sunnex who says he does it because “It makes me happy”. ( Sunnex, par.1) But a lot of other things make me happy too, why do this particular thing?

Ashley Chapman gave a pretty honest answer to the question, which resonates with me personally, “Freediving has a love-hate affect. The elation I feel after an awesome dive is only significant when compared to the frustrations of my failures. The contrast is addictive” (Koe, par.24) The ups and downs, are indeed quite addicting in freediving, but once again there are many other things (careers, sports and activities, well nearly everything) have ups and downs, which are all addictive, that’s just life!

The abstract answers to the question are endless. Possibly it’s a question without an answer. Or maybe a question with as many various answers as the number of freedivers it is asked to.

But it shouldn’t mean that we shouldn’t ask the question, it’s quite an important question! Probably one that will take some time, and maybe even a lifetime to understand.

Why Should We Freedive?

So while I spend probably the rest of my life trying to understand why it is that I freedive, why it is that I do what I do…I think there are many good reasons for why I (and other people) should freedive.

This question also has many answers (i.e. the challenge – physical and mental, the beautiful places it takes you to, the friendships it can form, the happiness and joy just in being in the water, the lifestyle) However, given constraints of time and space, I will focus on just one that is of most interest.

I believe that we should freedive, because freediving (among other things) can be used as a tool in which certain character traits can be developed.

And if a freediver chooses cultivate these positive character traits, known as virtues, they will become a better person.

What Are Character Traits?

To understand how freediving promotes character traits, we first need to understand what are ‘character traits’? And why are they so important?

Character traits are aspects of a person’s behavior and attitudes that make up the person’s personality (Your Dictionary, p.1). Everyone has character traits, they are often shown as descriptive adjectives like; patient, jealous, loving, greedy, honest, rude, adventurous, mean, etc. (Your Dictionary, p.1) There are thousands and thousands!

The expression that ‘actions speak louder than words’ is quite true when it comes to character traits (Your Dictionary, p.1). You learn about who people are and what their character traits are by watching how they interact with the world, and by paying attention to how they treat you and how they interact with people (Your Dictionary, p. 2)

Virtues and Vices

In this paper, I’ll be referring mostly to the good character traits, which are known as virtues, versus bad character traits which are known as vices.

Virtues are character traits that are (usually) praised in people (Treanor, pg. 50). They create a positive frame of mind, which help people live good lives (Treanor, pg. 50).

Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, wrote much on the topics of ethics. He used the Greek word ‘arete’ quite a lot in his work, which commonly translates as ‘virtue’ (IEP, p.7). However, ‘arete’ actually translates more accurately, as a “goodness” or “excellence” (IEP, p.7).

So the meaning of the word, ‘virtue’ actually implies an excellence of a certain quality, which makes an individual good (IEP, par.7) And with this excellence the person flourishes (Treanor, pg.29)

If, for example, someone possesses the virtue of courage, than it doesn’t just mean they go out and do courageous things. It means that they have a high amount of human excellence of courage, so they do courageous actions in the courageous way, and therefore the person flourishes.

Flourishing (according to Aristotle) is the goal of human life (Gilkey, pg.6). It’s by cultivating virtues, that makes the path to flourishing and to well being. (Treanor, pg.29)

Habituation and Practice

It’s important to note, that virtues are acquired only by habituation (Gilkey, par.26).

According to Aristotle, you can only master a certain virtue by doing it a lot AND by doing it in the right way. Virtues aren’t something you are born with and they also cannot be taught.

Think of it, for example, if you wanted to become a good builder, you can only become a good builder by actually building, no one knows how to build naturally, and even if you read about it that won’t allow you to automatically know how to put the pieces together.

You need to practice, and probably, you will fail, over and over. But with dedication, you can develop the ability to build well. What is true for building, Aristotle says, is true for character traits and virtues (Treanor, pg 31).

In the example of courage, no one is born courageous and no amount of reading about it will be able to make a person courageous (Treanor, pg 31). A person only becomes courageous through habit and by practice of doing courageous things (like freediving!) until courage becomes a part of who the person is (Treanor, p.31). It eventually becomes a sort of engrained habit, and a person’s way of being (Treanor, p.31).

Likewise, if someone repeatedly does things that are opposite of courage, for example if someone is repeatedly cowardly or rash, he or she will, over time, develop an entrenched habit of either cowardice or rashness. (Treanor, p.31)

Which leads me to my next topic…

In the Middle of Two Extremes

The key to becoming virtuous in a particular character trait is by placing yourself in the middle of two extremes. Every virtue lies somewhere in the middle of the two vicious extremes, which are basically having too much or too little of a good thing (Treanor, p.31).

For example, in the virtue of courage, which is obviously an important character trait for freediving, it’s possible to lack courage (and be too cowardice – have too much fear) and it’s also possible to be overly courageous (and be too rash / over confident).

So how do you know where to be on the spectrum? While Aristotle and other philosophers say a lot on this, this isn’t a mathematical thing. You cannot specify to someone exactly how to act in every situation.

Aristotle advises that “the master of any art (including virtues) avoids excess and defect, but seeks the intermediate and chooses this – the intermediate, not in the object, but relative to us”

The Goldilocks Principal

An easy way to understand this, is by applying the Goldilocks Principle (Treanor p.31). Goldilocks evaluates things by avoiding extremes; too big, too small, just right or too hot, too cold, just right (Treanor p.31). This way of thinking can be applied to virtues, because they vary from person to person. For example a bed too small for Goldilocks might be just right for me. A soup just right for Goldilocks might be too cold for me.

Simply put where to be on that spectrum varies from person to person and from situation to situation (and in our case from dive to dive)

Diving down to the bottom of the Blue Hole might be a courageous act for an experienced freediver like, Alexey Molchanov, but it would be incredibly foolish (and rash) for someone who is typically an 50 meter diver.

The point is that it’s not about who does the most courageous thing (or who dives the deepest) BUT it’s who does a courageous thing in the right way, for that particular person. This is the way a courageous person would do it.

And even if the 50 meter diver were to somehow pull off a dive to the bottom of the Blue Hole, that still doesn’t make that person courageous in a virtuous sense!

The difference is how the person felt during the dive. They must feel the proper balance of being fearful and confidence. If there is too much of either one then it means that the person is not actually courageous even though they did a courageous action.

Because the 50 meter diver went too near or far past their limit of ability, they had too much fear, and the person would only be doing a  courageous thing but not in a virtuous way.

Freediving and Self Cultivation

Although people freedive for many different reasons, most who have freedived and/or teached freediving for a while, realize that freediving changes people.

As Anneli says:

“Freediving can change the way you trust your body, and give you a huge boost in confidence. Freediving can teach you to relax and breathe in a way that makes you calm and happy. We watch how a person and a group are slowly changing during the week. We watch how personalities are shown in body language and the way they take on the ocean. We watch them being transformed by the softness of the water with tears in our eyes.” -Anneli Pompe (Pompe, par.1)

Because freediving has such a transformative effect on people, it is possible to consciously use freediving as a tool for self-cultivation. It is an activity that encourages the development of certain habits, skills and ways of being.

And therefore it tends to encourage the cultivation of certain character traits.

Different Freediving Disciplines & Styles

Different freediving disciplines and styles of freediving emphasize character traits.

For example, no-limits, because you are going faster and deeper but not under your own power, would develop more relaxation skills versus physical fitness skills.

Constant no-fins would very likely emphasize physical fitness skill, and persistence over bravery – since you are (usually) not going as deep as the other disciplines.

Free-immersion, because of the longer dive time, I would imagine, would encourage skills and traits of relaxation and inner awareness.

Also, the different styles of freediving will emphasize different character traits. For example if you do a free-immersion dive very fast versus slow, it will require more physical fitness and physical technical skills versus apnea / relaxation.

But despite all the different skills and character traits of the different areas and styles of freediving there are some character traits / virtues that can be associated with freediving overall.

These traits are, courage, humility and respect for the natural world.


Courage is probably the most obvious character trait developed by freediving. I’ve heard many non-freedivers say, “You have so much courage!” and most freedivers I know acknowledge that dealing with fear (fear of depth, fear of losing control, fear of darkness) – all of this is part of the sport.

I believe that courage is the most important virtue cultivated in freediving.

Aristotle said that courage is the first virtue, because it makes all of the other virtues possible (Treasurer).

CS Lewis also said it “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point”. 

And Winston Churchill said it “Success is not final, failure is not fate: it is the courage to continue that counts”…

Courage is the ability to render bold decisions (Treasurer). It’s the ability to be an innovator, which means to draw outside of the lines and experiment (Treasurer).

And that’s what freediving does, it’s a courage building activity.

We are constantly taking bold actions, experimenting and, when failing, getting the courage to step up to the plate again.

Not All Courage is the Same

Interestingly, not all courage is the same! It’s a mistake to think that courage is this big ambiguous thing that’s just for heroes (Treasurer). Freediving advocates a more every day, tempered kind of courage.

“Try Courage”

For example, in freediving we quite often experience “try courage” (which is a term Bill Treasurer coined who wrote the book, Courage Goes to Work.)

‘Try Courage’ is the courage of first attempts (Treasurer).

It’s the first time YOU do something, when YOU encounter an unknown (Treasurer). The first time you freedive to a certain depth in a certain discipline, the first time you hold your breath for a new personal best, this is try courage.

For you, these are pioneering events (Treasurer).

Other people may have done it, which is the courage of action (other people may have done that action) but you haven’t done it yet, for you it’s a pioneering event (Treasurer). ‘Try Courage’ is a courage associated with bold action and connects to initiative (Treasurer).

“Trust Courage”

Then there is trust courage, which is the need of bold action (Treasurer).

Trusting in yourself to be able to do the dive. Trusting your instincts as when to keep going, when to turn or even when to retreat from diving all together.

Different disciplines require different amounts of “trust courage”. For example the discipline of no-fins, where freedivers choose not to use any fins. They freedive to depths just with their own physical strength?

Why? Well, sometimes the simpler you make things, the richer the experience. Many freedivers consciously choose simpler means for freediving, and therefore need to apply more courage, experience and skill to compensate for the lack of gear.

Trust courage is also the opposite of taking bold action, sometimes it’s the need to let go and release control (Treasurer). For example trusting in your safety team to do their job. For that reason trust courage is also where you really experience vulnerability (Treasurer).

Trust courage is also those times, when you need to follow someone else’s direction (Treasurer), for example if a coach or your instructor tells you to do something, or advises you, being willing to follow their instruction releases a kind of courage.

“Tell Courage”

Lastly there is “tell courage” which is courage of voice or assertiveness (Treasurer). This is the courage it takes to have a courageous conversation (Treasurer) not just with others but also with yourself.

In freediving it’s the courage to give your buddy (or your student, if you are teaching) direct feedback, that their ears may not want to hear but it’s really important for you to say it to help close blind spots for them. “Ah man that was calling it a bit close there”

And that works both ways, it also the courage it takes for you to hear somebody’s feedback on your diving or approach.

In freediving, many freedivers, myself included, do a lot of self talk before and during their dives, telling ourselves silently in our minds “You can do this!” “Be strong” “Keep going”. These are also examples of tell courage and assertiveness. Being assertive with yourself!

So freediving uses all three types of the areas of behavioral courage; try courage, trust courage and tell courage.

Negotiating the Spectrum of Courage

As I mentioned earlier, Aristotle says that courage is a certain point between feeling too much fear (being coward) and feeling too much confidence (being rash).

The risks of freediving (i.e. blackout, squeeze, LMC etc) means that freedivers are always negotiating this spectrum of courage, and therefore cultivating courage in the process.

Too Much Courage

Sometimes freedivers are (or where they go through periods where) they have too much courage and therefore are overconfident and rash.

This is seen, for example, when freedivers are too eager in their efforts to pursue depth. They therefore will learn and apply advanced techniques too early on, for example the mouthfill equalization technique.

This can enable a freediver to go too deep too soon, resulting in the freediver to dive to deeper depths without building up the experience, skill and adaptation needed. The freediver instills courage in the advanced techniques to quickly go deep, instilling faith in the technique rather than practicing humility and instilling faith in themselves.

Therefore, it’s entirely possible to let your ambition overreach your skill and experience. In these cases, freediving is rash.

Too Little Courage

On the other end of the spectrum, many freedivers go through periods where they (or where they always) experience a lack of courage. This has them often turning early or retreating from dives altogether.

Although sometimes turning early is the best option, if done too often, we sense intuitively that the decisions we make while freediving have a cumulative effect – so each time you turn early it becomes easier and easier to turn early again.

Therefore, every day and every dive is different for every person

The virtue of courage doesn’t mean that a freediver should never dive to a risky depth or apply advanced techniques. It also doesn’t mean a person should be too conservative and always turn early.

To dive with courage means that every dive should be evaluated by the freediver him or herself, before and throughout the dive. There is a right time to push past your fear and a right time to heed it.

The virtue of courage is about taking the right risk, at the right time, not just taking any risk.


Freediving also cultivates the character trait of humility.

Guaranteed some freedivers certainly have bigger egos than others, but the majority of are often discreet and humble people, letting their accomplishments and failures speak for themselves.

A Person with Humility

Someone with the virtue of humility has an appropriate (and slightly more modest) view of their accomplishments and importance. They are in tune with the extent, and also the limit, of their own abilities. They also acknowledge their successes and failures.

Humility In Freediving

In competitive freediving where athletes try push their limits as far as they can, even though there is a ranking system – unlike other sports, most freedivers participate in competitions, not to compete against others, but to compete against and to challenge themselves.

They compete to explore their own personal limits.

You learn quite early on that there is no place for competitiveness in freediving. Most times, a competitive mentality has the adverse effect, due to the additional pressure you put on yourself and the increased adrenaline.

To freedive successfully and sensibly is to practice humility. This entails that a freediver continuously measures his/her progression and success individually (rather than comparing yourself to others.)

Guillaume Nery showed us this in September 2015, during an attempt of the world record. He went deeper than intended, due to a depth measurement error.

Afterward, despite one year of work and intensive training to do this record, he still chose to retire from competitive freediving. For him, it was enough to know that he was capable of doing the world record and didn’t require that it be official. That day, humility gained the upper hand over the competition.

Understanding and Aligning Your Abilities

Freediving can also be used as a tool to cultivate humility because you are constantly learning to understand your (increasing) abilities as well as your strengths and your weaknesses.

You are regularly practicing aligning your abilities against the risks that you take. This entails that you seek to improve upon your weakness with new skills and knowledge, in order to become a better freediver.

All of this has you in tune with the extent, and also the limit, of your own abilities, constantly acknowledging your successes and failures.

Too Much, Too Little Humility

Note that: Humility, like courage, is a character trait where you can also have too much or too little of it. If you have too much humility, you will be often belittle yourself and your accomplishments. If you have too little, you will be overly arrogant and boastful.

Sometimes there are freedivers with an amazing record in depth, however, they would not be considered to have a virtue of humility.

Without the necessary knowledge, skills or experience, a person’s record may simply indicate that as a freediver, they have the audacity or stupidity to attempt something that common sense would dictate as dangerous (Lahtinen, p.19).

On the other hand, a person who has never dived deeper than 40 meters can be an excellent, skillful freediver (Lahtinen, p.19) who exhibits humility.

For some overly ambitious freedivers, water is just a means to reach goals and fame – a medium that enables the satisfaction of ambitions (Lahtinen, p.19).

Freedivers with humility, may never dive deeper than the bottom of their local pond (!) but they enjoy every moment of it, knowing exactly what they are doing, and respecting their capabilities while doing so. (Lahtinen, p.19)

The honest assessment of one’s abilities measured against both the challenges of the dive which cultivate humility in freedivers, not achieving record depths.

Respect for the Natural Environment

Freediving helps to cultivate another virtue that I call “respect for the natural environment”

Being Defeated by Mother Nature

If we progress to deeper and deeper dives, eventually we come up against a dive that just defeats us. Sometimes we will rise to the challenge, train, improve, and succeed where we at first failed.

But with the hydrostatic pressure of the water and environmental conditions always dominating the situation, every person will have dives that are just too difficult.

If we were to measure all of our victories in freediving against the (seemingly) everlasting existence of water, our dives can be seen as just temporary blips over the course of centuries and centuries of the lifespan of the world’s oceans. This situation can’t help but to instill the virtue of humility in freedivers, who experience it, quite regularly.

Experiencing Our Temporariness against the Perpetual

We are fortunate, as freedivers, that our passion takes us to some of the world’s most beautiful, natural seascapes. Experiencing what it’s like to be within this vast and perpetual ocean backdrop, our own fragility and temporariness stands out.

With such close contact with the magnificence of the natural environment, freedivers can appreciate, more than most, the incredible grandeur of the ocean’s underwater landscapes.

The Common Denominator of Those Who Care for the Ocean

Being so intimately familiar with the natural underwater world, I would think, is the thing most in common, among those who care for oceans.

This isn’t surprising. People only value what they know and love, and freedivers, as well as divers, surfers, etc. are much more likely to know and love the natural ocean environments.

The power of regular contact with the water is no doubt why many of the world’s marine biologists and oceanographers are or were freedivers or divers: Jacque Cousteau, Sylvia Earl, Ocean Ramsey, Brinkley Davies, Claire Paris, Audrey Mestre and Estrella Navarro

“Every time I slip into the ocean it’s like going home” -Sylvia Earl

Each one of these people connect their career and love of the water, to his/her time in the sea.

Cultivating Virtues in a Domesticated World

If there was more time, I would have liked to show how freediving can cultivate other virtues, like endurance, friendship, persistence, self-sacrifice, self love, among many others.

Of course, freediving is not the only way to cultivate these traits. People can do so through many other activities of habituation. But given the state of modern society, I feel that freediving is very well suited to cultivate certain character traits, like the ones I spoke of, so we shouldn’t lose sight of this.

The world is quite different than it was 10-15 years ago. Many of us, especially those from industrialized countries – our worlds have become very high-tech and very controlled, and as a result our environments are overly safe and coddling (Treanor, pg.77).

Technology has developed so much so that virtually all danger, risk and even discomfort is eliminated from our lives (Treanor, pg.77).

While technology obviously has a lot of benefits, it also comes with some unintended and unwelcome consequences (Treanor, pg.77). Our control over the natural world leave us with few outlets for the cultivation of positive character traits like courage (because there is no risk), humility (because there is nothing we cannot or should not do) and respect for the natural world (because we see it as nothing more than a bundle of resources for our technology) (Treanor, pg.77). The loss of these character traits impoverishes us as human beings (Treanor, pg.77).

In 1941 Kurt Hahn and Lawrence Holt (founders of Outward Bound, an international non-profit organization focusing on independent outdoor eduation) noticed something surprising about the survivors of torpedo attacks on ships (Treanor, pg.77). Among the people who survived the initial impact and explosion it was often the case that the younger and fitter men died while the older men survived (Treanor, pg.77). Hold could only explain this by the fact that the younger generation lacked essential characteristics the older generation had (Treanor, pg.77). When faced with real challenges, they lost hope and ultimately their lives.

Freediving can put us back in touch with the those situations that we cannot fully control, situations with real risk (of course different types of freediving do this to different degrees)

“I prove myself to myself by travelling to the absolute edge of myself” -Tanya Streeter

“Freediving is a fascinating sport through which human potential is being discovered. It transcends the  sports field to inegrate the scientific, artistic and spirtual. It sensitizes and makes us aware of the need to preserve our seas and oceans, on which humanity depends.” – AIDA

Why Freedive

In conclusion, I do not say that freedivers have more courage, humility and are more respectful of the natural environment (among other positive character traits) than non-freedivers. People need to be evaluated on a case by case basis (Treanor, pg.78).

I also do not suggest that every freediver possess these character traits. Many examples (and common sense) show that this is not the case (Treanor, pg.78).

Rather my point is that freediving offers us an excellent tool for the cultivation of certain character traits which are otherwise difficult to cultivate in modern society.

Are there other ways to cultivate these traits? Yes. Do freedivers dive for other reasons besides self-cultivation? Yes.

Nevertheless, freediving can be used as a tool for self cultivation and while freediving might be seen as frivolous by some, it is clearly not useless.

Courage, humility and respect for the natural environment are positive character traits, which contribute to flourishing and also in the sense that we value and praise these characteristics in others.

And freediving offers us one of the best way to mold these character traits in the context of the world in which we live.


Works Cited

Gilkey, Charlie. “The 3 Key Ideas From Aristotle That Will Help You Flourish • Productive Flourishing.” Productive Flourishing. N.p., 26 Oct. 2008. Web. 28 Mar. 2017. <>.

IEP. “Moral Character” N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.  <>.

Imgrum. “Jonathan Sunnex @johnnydeep110” N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2017. <>.

Koe, Francesca. Deeper Blue. “Interview: Ashley Futral Chapman – US Freediving Superstar” N.p., 30 Sept. 2016. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.  <>.

Lahtinen, Kimmo. Free diving.

McLaughlin, Michael. Huffington Post. “Freediver Breaks His Own World Record, Days After ‘Terrible’ Return to Surface” N.p., 3 May 2016. Web. 29 Mar. 2017 <>.

Pompe, Anneli. I Am Water. “Motivated by Dolphins” N.p., 31 Jan. 2017. Web. 29 Mar. 2017. <>.

Submind. “Humility” N.p. 5 Aug. 2016. Web. 29 Mar. 2017 <>.

Treanor, Brian. Emplotting virtue: a narrative approach to environmental virtue ethics. Albany: State U of New York Press, 2014. Print.

Treasurer, Bill. YouTube: Bill Treasurer. “Why COURAGE is the most important leadership virtue”. N.p. 18 Dec. 2013. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.

YourDictionary. “Character Trait Examples.” N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2017. <>.

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