It was dawn on the eastern side of the Yucatan Peninsula, and I looked out over the Caribbean in front of me. The sun was rising as the full moon was setting. Those two magnificent orbs in the sky at one time didn’t occur often, but today had a strange kind of magic.
I didn’t know it yet, but this day, I would confront one of my oldest fears. I’d meet a venomous viper in a Mayan cave by the sea and then become its friend.
The years up to this one had been difficult. I had broken in half and then severed myself many times on the way to finding some peace. In Mexico’s Mayan Riviera, meditating and being on the water every day for several months, I found some calm and contentment.
I paddled between the reef and the shore, around the rocky crags, and directed myself north, then back inland. There in front of me was a bay and a stretch of beach two miles long. There were no people in sight. Just a long, sandy beach the color of chocolate milk.
Behind the beach, there was a jungle thick with palm trees and leafy plants. The dense foliage hid freshwater cenotes, mangroves, crocodiles, jaguars, monkeys, and thousands of other tropical animals and insects scurrying in the greenery.
I looked into the water and a sea turtle appeared near me. Then a stingray bolted under my board and huge schools of fish spread into the blue water.
Standing there in the bright sun on top of my board, placing my paddle in the water on one side and then the other, I felt like a lord of the sea. My ragged board shorts were clinging to my body with just enough waistband to keep them on. Bronzed from months on the beach and bare feet hardened by walking on rocks and reef.
I was headed to my cave to do one of my favorite things: nothing. Just breathe.
As I paddled that morning, my calm and self-compassion still felt fragile. I’d only been a practicing Buddhist for a year, and the practice was a practice, so I needed to continue to build those calming, compassionate “muscles” in my mind. Mindfulness only worked when I practiced being mindful.
I slowly paddled toward the shore and the cave just beyond it. When I got close, I allowed the nose of my board to gently rest on the sand as I jumped off into the Caribbean water. I pulled the board under one arm and carried it onto the beach laying my paddle beside it.
A warm breeze blew and sand covered the tops of my feet. I took off my board shorts and plunged into the sea naked. A school of blue, green, and rainbow-colored fish burst through the water as I breaststroked out. When I got out about 200 yards, I turned around, floated on my back, and surveyed the beach. Birds stirred but there were still no people anywhere and I began swimming back to the shore, my body feeling every movement in the soothing water.
I climbed out and felt the sun streak down my body as I walked quietly into the cave. The many sounds of birds were joined by an orchestra of insects and the rhythm of lapping ocean waves drove the music.
It wasn’t a cave made of stone. It was a simple, little organic structure I found while walking the beach one morning. Numerous tree branches had grown together and formed a thick canopy overlooking the beach and the sea. I thought that since the ancient Maya inhabited the Yucatan for several thousand years, they must have lived, played, and ritualized where my cave now grew. So, I called it my Mayan cave.
I placed my shorts on the ground as a blanket for my bare bottom and sat down in the cave. I rested my hands cupped in my lap and began to meditate. First I took seven long breaths and settled into my body. Then, I recited a simple Buddhist aspiration quietly in my mind:
With boundless compassion and wisdom, I will work for the welfare of all
May we be free from hunger and discord and have joy and a world at peace
Naked and just letting myself be there, I felt my wet body begin to dry. I felt flies land on my legs and hands. I felt small shafts of sun beaming through the leaves above me.
I noticed where I hurt — in my back, hips, shoulders, and neck — but I allowed it to be. Then, I didn’t. After a few moments, I was able to again. Fluctuating. Letting my thoughts roll through my mind like clouds in the sky. Following my breath. Following my body.
My eyes were gently open slits as I sat in a half-lotus pose staring out at the horizon where the sea met the sky. Toward the Caribbean. Toward Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. Then I heard a sound behind me in the leaves on the cave floor.
I turned, looked, and saw it slithering toward me from the thick undergrowth in the jungle. A dark snake was coming toward me.
“Eeeiiiiaaahhssss!” I hiss-whisper-screamed growing taut. My voice sounded like a cross between a starving infant and a wounded, hairless jungle pig, but I continued sitting.
Did it hear me? Did snakes have good hearing? My eyes were now wide open. My heart pounded. Thumping fast and hard. I continued sitting and slowly turned my body around to face the snake. My naked buttocks were now on sharp sticks and small rocks but I stayed still.
I watched the snake move its limbless body through the greenery, leaves, and sand toward me. Slowly. Effortlessly. Was it watching me?
When I was a boy in Minnesota, any time I saw a snake I would run at high speed in the opposite direction, even though there were no dangerous snakes there. Most of them were garter snakes.
My younger brother had no fear of them and when he was a two-year-old toddler, he found a garter snake in the garden and chased me with it. I was nine years old and my little brother caused me to run petrified and screaming through the yard as he giggled wickedly.
That event marked one of my closest experiences with a harmless snake. But this one was a Mexican viper. A venomous huolpoch. Had I disturbed its home?
Despite my immense fear, I continued sitting. My body was strangely filled with both desperate dread and complete calm.
The dark slithering stopped and the viper raised its head. It waved its tongue in the air. Back and forth. Is it waving at me? It can’t be. That’s absurd.
It put its head back down just for a moment while I buried my eyes in the beauty of its blackness. All was quiet. The breeze blew the leaves on the trees overhead and the viper moved briefly toward me, then turned, and followed the line of the jungle back from where it came. Slowly and nonchalantly slithering away.
I stood up and started smiling still buzzing and quivering. I wanted to yell out onto the beach, but I stayed quiet and just grinned. There was immense fear and suffering in those brief moments with the viper, but there was also great calm and peace.
I knew I was in danger, but there was nothing else I could do but be calm. And because I stayed quiet and gentle, my confrontation with a venomous viper felt like a silent conversation between two friends. Just two beings in a jungle cave on the beach.
I shook the sand and leaves off my board shorts and put them back on still grinning. I had conquered an old childhood fear by doing nothing. Just breathing in and out. Not moving, not reacting.
There was my brief jungle pig scream, but I’d forgive myself for that misstep.
I walked to my board and gathered my paddle. The sand was getting hot as mid-morning approached, so I waded out into the water and shoved myself into the glassy sea.
I put my hands on the rails of my board, stood up, and began paddling south back toward the point and the village. Plunging my paddle into the water, one pull followed by another, watching gentle waves play on the horizon line.