Episode 334 | September 5, 2023

Fearvana with Akshay Nanavati

A Personal Note From Orion

Welcome to another enlightening episode of the Stellar Life podcast! I’m thrilled to have you join me as we dive into the depths of human potential to navigate one of the most powerful and transformative emotions — fear. Our incredible guest, Akshay Nanavati, explores the art of navigating fear to transform it into a catalyst for growth and empowerment.

Akshay Nanavati is a Marine Corps Veteran, an adventurer, an entrepreneur, and the author of the groundbreaking book, Fearvana. His extraordinary journey helped him overcome the depths of depression, PTSD, alcoholism, and suicidal ideation. Akshay then embarked on a path of self-discovery and transformation that led him to run ultramarathons, spend 10 days in complete darkness, and even take on the immense challenge of training for a solo, 110-day, 1700-mile crossing of Antarctica.

This podcast episode allows you to tap into the wisdom and insights Akshay has gained through his remarkable journey. By sharing his experiences of facing adversity head-on and using fear as a stepping stone rather than a stumbling block, Akshay offers invaluable lessons on how to harness the power of fear to propel your personal growth journey.

Tune in now and embark on a journey towards Fearvana with us. Without further ado, let’s dive into the show!

In This Episode

  • [02:16] – Akshay Nanavati unveils the origins of Fearvana.
  • [06:04] – Akshay’s journey of reframing trauma as an expression of love, conquering PTSD.
  • [09:43] – Akshay stresses the first step in conquering trauma, fear, or guilt.
  • [12:52] – Orion prompts Akshay to recount his scariest experience in Iraq. 
  • [14:40] – Can guilt and gratitude coexist harmoniously?
  • [19:58] – What’s the experience like exploring the depths of darkness?
  • [22:32] – Akshay delves deeper into his remarkable 10-day journey in darkness.
  • [29:03] – Akshay shares a glimpse of his extraordinary expedition in Antarctica.
  • [30:56] – Akshay elucidates the significance of discovering your edge through the interplay of suffering and play.
  • [34:12] – Akshay and Orion examine the profound value of light and darkness and how today’s environment challenges the new generation.
  • [40:43] – Strategies for confronting and conquering fear.
  • [44:19] – Akshay demystifies the art of playing on the edges.
  • [48:10] – Akshay’s invaluable top three tips for crafting a stellar life.

Jump to Links and Resources

About Today’s Show

Hi, Akshay. Welcome to Stellar Life Podcast. It’s a pleasure having you here. 

Thank you so much for having me. I’m honored. 

Thank you so much. Before we begin, can you share your origin story and how you developed Fearvana? 

Sure. I was born and lived in India for eight years. I moved from India to Singapore and then moved to the US at the age of 13. Very quickly after moving here, I got heavily into drugs and alcohol. I used to cut myself, burn myself, and be very self-destructive. I lost two friends to addiction. I was heading down that path myself until, one day, I saw the movie Black Hawk Down. Have you seen that movie? 


It’s a war movie based on a true story. Watching that movie, specifically, there’s a scene where these two Delta snipers volunteer to go on the ground to set up a defensive perimeter to protect the second Black Hawk helicopter that crashed. They had no idea when reinforcements had arrived, knowing that hundreds of armed enemy personnel were heading their way. 

Both of them still volunteered to go down, and both died, but the man they died protecting, Michael Durant, is still alive today because of what they did. They received the Medal of Honor, the highest award for valor in the US military, posthumously because they were killed.

Watching that just triggered something in me—the courage, compassion, and self-sacrifice to put your life on the line and give your life for somebody else. I was living a very selfish, meaningless, purposeless, worthless existence. So, almost overnight after watching that movie, I read the book Black Hawk Down, stopped doing drugs and decided to join the Marines. It took me about a year and a half to get in because I have a blood disorder that two doctors told me would kill me in boot camp. I had to fight my way to get in. 

Wow, that’s amazing. But you overcome it? 

I did. I not only survived boot camp, but I graduated from infantry school as an honor graduate. The Marines laid the foundation for everything I am today. It taught me the beauty of suffering. It taught me the beauty of going to war with yourself, of adversity, of living for something greater than yourself. 

In the Marines, nobody cares about your well-being. What matters is the men and the mission. You’re living for the good of the group. While challenging at times, especially when you don’t want to go on a mission because you’re tired, it’s beautiful to live in a world like that. 

After joining the Marines, I got into other ways to confront myself to explore my fears and the limitlessness of the hand potential. I got into every outdoor sport, from rock climbing, cave diving, skydiving, and mountain climbing. 

I wrote the book Fearvana to help others navigate their suffering and fears.

Then, in 2007, I was deployed to Iraq as an infantry Marine, where one of my jobs was to walk in front of our vehicles looking for bombs before they could be used to kill me and my fellow Marines. As you might imagine, it was a dangerous job, but I learned to thrive out there. I survived the war, came back, and struggled after. 

I was drinking heavily, was diagnosed with PTSD, and battling depression. One morning, after five days of binge drinking, I woke up seconds away from picking up a knife and slitting my wrists. That was rock bottom. That’s where I began to climb out of the abyss, delving into neuroscience, psychology, and spirituality, doing a lot of inner and healing work, and found my peace. 

I wrote the book Fearvana to help others navigate their suffering and fears. I found my peace through outdoor adventures, being an ultra-marathon runner, a polar explorer, mountain climber, and pushing the edge in some intense places worldwide. 

I went to Antarctica last year. I lost two fingers to frostbite. I’ve been on some extreme edges, but I’ve been very blessed for the wisdom I receive by playing on these edges.

This is crazy. I know what you say about boot camp because I served in the IDF (Israeli Defense Force). 


I wasn’t a warrior; I was in the intelligence, so I just had information I was dealing with. The boot camp changed me completely, from being just a teenager to becoming a more responsible human being. What do you think was in you? Because you had PTSD and you were back into addiction. What was it that got you out of it? 

Once I hit that rock bottom and started delving into this a bit more to figure out trauma and understand it better, I learned there’s a giant distinction between post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder. For example, I was diagnosed with PTSD because I struggled with loud noises. I didn’t like being in crowds. I was struggling with survivor’s guilt because I lost a close friend of mine in the war. 

I was told all these things were symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. But the fact of the matter is, I spent seven months in a war zone where loud noises meant death. It’s normal to come back hypervigilant to loud noises. That’s not a disorder. It’s a normal human response to war.

We’ve created a paradigm in our society that trauma equals disorder, and that becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy.

We’ve created a paradigm in our society that trauma equals disorder, and that becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the leading researchers in the positive psychology movement, went to the West Point Military Academy and asked the cadets there, “How many of you have heard of post-traumatic stress disorder?” 95% of people said, “We’ve heard of it.”

He asked them, “How many of you have heard of post-traumatic growth?”It was less than 5%. Take a look at COVID. Even after COVID or during it, every article said, “COVID is causing mental health problems, COVID is causing PTSD.” Nowhere do you find the paradigm set that trauma, adversity, and struggle make us better. Nowhere would you see that reality, so it becomes this self-fulfilling prophecy. 

I learned to reframe this, “I have post-traumatic stress, but that doesn’t mean it’s a disorder. That’s not who I am. It’s not my identity. There’s nothing wrong with me.” When we fall into that self-fulfilling prophecy, when we fall into that self-dialogue, it becomes our identity. Instead, I simply learned to reframe it. 

For example, my guilt. I struggled with survivor’s guilt because I lost a friend in the war, and everybody told me I shouldn’t feel guilty. Rationally, I get it. In war, you can’t control what happens. Bullets fly where they fly. Bombs explode where they explode. You can’t control it. But emotionally, it didn’t change the fact that I had guilt, and my guilt was not a problem. My guilt was an expression of love for my brother-in-arms.

Instead of trying to demonize it, instead of trying to frame it as a “bad emotion,” which it’s not because there are no bad emotions. Some are more challenging than others, like guilt, but it’s not bad. For a long time, what I did was I put a picture of my friend that I lost in the war up on my wall, and it said, “This should have been you. Earn this life.”

My guilt became my ally. It became my fuel to write this book. To this day, I have a training board behind me right on this computer that says, “Pay your debt.” I believe I owe a debt for this life I’ve been gifted. When I was in Iraq, my vehicle drove over an active bomb that didn’t explode. My friends drove over a bomb that exploded. I don’t know why that happened. There is no answer. 

But to me, I owe a debt for this life, but that works for me. I’ve had therapists tell me that’s an unhealthy way of thinking. There’s something wrong with how I think, but that is flawed. We all have darkness, demons, and pain we struggle with. Instead of trying to demonize it, crush it, or avoid it, why not use it? Why not turn it into something beautiful? Because everything can be turned into something beautiful if you consciously engage it.

You have to move through the pain and be with the pain to get the other side of it.

Wow. I love so many things that you said right there because I know I turned some of my darkest moments into the best outcomes ever, and I would never be the person I am today without those experiences. I know what you’re saying about self-fulfilling prophecies. 

For somebody listening right now, maybe they’re struggling with something; perhaps they are experiencing that prophecy right now, that view of the world that is not for their best and highest good. What is the first step to get out of there if they hit rock bottom? 

You have to pause to acknowledge and be with the emotion you’re experiencing because, as I said, we demonize emotions as bad. I’ll give you another example. I was working with this person once when I was in an interview, and somebody called in. They had gone through the Boston bombing and were struggling with post-traumatic stress, which they had been assigned post-traumatic stress disorder. She was very jumpy with loud noises.

As we were helping her, trying to offer some suggestions, I said, “The next time you hear that loud noise, I just want you to pause when the anxiety hits. Just sit with the anxiety. Be with it. Don’t judge it. Don’t do anything.” She goes, “That’s really hard.” I said, “Yeah, it is hard, but you have to go through the hard thing to get on the other side.”

The fundamental problem with our collective outlook on the human condition is we’re looking for the easiest, quickest way out of the pain. That’s the problem. You have to move through the pain and be with the pain to get the other side of it. 

The first step is acknowledging the presence of that emotion. “I feel anxious, I feel stress, I feel fear.” Neuroscience has even shown that when you label an emotion, it reduces activity in the emotional parts of the brain and increases activity in the part of the brain related to focus and awareness, the prefrontal cortex. Simply acknowledging, “This thing is there, but that thing doesn’t define my identity.” 

Most people will say, “I have post-traumatic stress disorder, I have depression, I am depressed.” It becomes their identity. Instead of saying, “My brain goes through a state of depression from time to time, but that’s not who I am. That’s not who I have to be.”

Another example is Buddha, who said we’re all stabbed by the two darts of suffering. We don’t control the first dart like, I’m jumpy with loud noises. When I came back from war, that was not within my control anymore. My brain learned to create that response—or survivor’s guilt. I don’t choose that response. It’s a response to stimuli. 

The second dart is the point of power. That’s where we go into that self-dialogue. “What’s wrong with me?” We label a disorder. We beat ourselves up for it instead of accepting the is-ness of things. 

Guilt and gratitude in your life can coexist.

I took a friend rock climbing, and she was super nervous and scared and then after the climb, she was beating herself up like, “What’s wrong with me? Why am I scared? I shouldn’t have been scared.” She saw me, and I wasn’t scared because I was braver. The only reason I wasn’t scared because I had done a lot of hard climbing, so my brain had more references to say this experience doesn’t warrant fear. In fact, it took courage on her part to make the climb. It took no courage on my part to make the climb. The first dart is that thing we don’t control. It’s the emotion; it’s the stimuli. 

The second dart is our point of power. You have to master that space. Instead of reacting to the emotion, respond to it. To respond to it, you have to pause and first acknowledge that it’s there and then master that space between the emotion and who you choose to be outside of it. But that takes dealing with the emotion. It takes being still. Stillness is one of the core things like reflecting on it, journaling on it, getting a coach, or getting a therapist. 

There is some way to be with it fully, and then you can reframe it into something beautiful and purposeful. But you have to acknowledge its presence. You have to sit with the darkness, sit with the demons, sit with that struggle to turn it into something valuable. As Carl Jung said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate. You have to make that unconscious conscious.”

What was the scariest thing you’ve seen in Iraq?

When I went in 2007, it was closer towards the end of the war. We had pop shots being fired at us all the time. Our greatest threat was IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), but we weren’t in the middle of Fallujah, World War II battles like that or just rounds going off all the time. Of course, we were dealing with death a lot. 

The first week we got there, the insurgents cut the head off a local Iraqi and threw it on the streets because it was a threat to the Iraqi people. If you work with the Americans, this is what’ll happen. It had the reverse effect. They wanted to work with us to stop the insurgents from doing that. 

Forget about what we endured. What the Iraqi people were enduring was far worse. They had lived under oppressive regimes under hell. I met a gentleman who had spent eight years as a prisoner of war in Iran because of the Iran-Iraq war that Saddam Hussein started.

Instead of reacting to the emotion, respond to it.

Granted, we shouldn’t have gone in. There was a lot of politics and a lot of lies. I’m not saying no. But on the ground, we genuinely wanted to help the people, and those people had endured immense amounts of hell. We had a guy get killed right outside our base. They shot a rocket right outside our base. I’m assuming they were trying to hit us, but they killed four civilians in the town before us. 

That kind of thing was happening all the time. It was just because being in a counterinsurgency warfare environment is challenging because you’re going through normal towns with most people out there, just normal people trying to live their lives. But as Marines, you never know if that person is just a normal person trying to live their life or if that person is the one who wants to kill you and your buddies. 

That’s the problem in Israel, too, because everybody wants peace. It’s just that you don’t know who’s who. It’s very hard to distinguish. War sucks on both ends because, at the end of the day, children are children, and people are people. It’s so difficult. Do you still have memories, or did you resolve all of them? What was your process of dealing with this pain?

It’s still very much present to this day. I’ll sometimes watch scenes from war movies, knowing they’ll make me cry and put me in a very intense state. But I consciously go there because there’s value in engaging the intensity of that emotion. When you tap into your darkness and live on the frontiers of life and death, it amplifies the intensity and volume in which you live your life. If you want to know pleasure, you have to know pain. If you want to experience a summit, there has to be a valley. 

We try to demonize that one side. The pain, demons, and darkness are bad, but you cannot know the light unless you’ve been first in the dark. To this day, I consciously tap into that space because it amplifies the gratitude, gratefulness, and experience of life in other places. 

I even value the intensity of it. When I’m watching a scene from a war movie tearing up, I value the intensity of that experience. It’s a beautiful experience to go through that emotion. I still feel guilty. Like I said, there’s a sign up on my wall that says, “Pay your debts.” 

I was born to great parents. They weren’t extremely wealthy then, but they weren’t poor either. They were middle class. Now they’re doing much better. My dad’s worked hard for that. 

I look at my life. I’ve worked in post-conflict zones with survivors of sex trafficking and former child soldiers, volunteered in leper colonies, and worked with impoverished people. It’s been an intense journey, but I’m very blessed to have seen much of the human experience and the human condition within and without. 

If you want to experience a summit, there has to be a valley.

By seeing it, you experience it, and I see most people are born into hell on earth. Simply by being born where I was born to good parents, as a result, I was blessed with a lifetime and more opportunities than many on Earth. For me, I owe a debt for this life.

Some people think of it as an unhealthy way of looking (and people tell me that), but that works for me. That drives me. It amplifies me. It fuels me. That pain of the war, the guilt that I have that I didn’t suffer enough, that others died and I didn’t, I didn’t get shot, I didn’t lose any limbs. Why do I get to come back alive? 

It’s not like I’m living miserable. I could not be happier. I love my life. I’m very happy. I’m very blessed. But those two forces can coexist. The guilt around this life and the gratitude for this life can coexist as one. 

As a concrete example, I spent ten days in complete darkness and isolation. Actually, that was the second time. The first time, I did it for seven days and then ten days sitting in a dark room, so dark you could not see your hand in front of you. I remember when I came out of the darkness, and those first few moments when I first saw the light, I was so moved. 

I remember thinking of this deep sense of gratitude for every bit of pain I experienced in my life because I realized in a very visceral, very profound way that you cannot truly know the power, the luminosity of the light, unless you have first been in the dark. 

I only got to see the world through those eyes for those moments because I had spent seven to ten days in darkness, so I value that. That’s why I still, to this day, value the darkness of whatever experiences I have navigated in war and since then. 

When I was in the army, I knew a girl who got into the army jail, and they put her in a little dark room for, I think, 24 or 36 hours as punishment. It drove her nuts. I think it was the highest form of punishment or something like that. 

Why would you do that? First of all, how do you find out about it? Where is it, and what is it like?

Are you familiar with Vipassana? The silent retreats? 

Yeah, silent meditation for seven to ten days.

Exactly. Those are much more common. I didn’t know a thing like a darkness retreat even existed. I found this silent retreat. I was going to go there. The initial draw was I wanted to experience stillness. I had done many hard things, pushing through ultra marathons coming. This was all after the war, navigating all that stuff, my demons, the PTSD, but I wanted to go deeper within. 

The initial draw for that was I went through a very challenging divorce. When I divorced, I broke my sobriety. I broke it hard, like drinking a liter of vodka a day. Something was missing within. I wanted to go deeper, so I was going to go to a silent retreat.

While researching, I stumbled into this concept of a darkness retreat, and it was far more appealing to me because when you’re in darkness, you shut off one of the primary ways in which we engage with reality—our visual sense. Even in the simplest way, I can look at that wall and say, “That’s a wall. That’s a window,” but I have somewhere external for consciousness to attach onto. 

You have nowhere external for consciousness to attach to in the darkness, so you’re forced to go within. When you go within, you’re opening doors within your soul that have rarely been opened. 

The beauty in that is it’s challenging because you don’t know what’s coming from those doors. You’re going to find not just the sunshine and rainbows and unicorns. You’re going to find your darkest demons. But when it all comes out, as I said earlier, until you make the unconscious conscious, it’ll direct your life, and you will call it fate, as Carl Jung says.

I owe a debt for this life.

I wanted to go within to see what I would find, to go deeper within myself. Not just myself but within the human soul and spirit, I tap into some new insights and awakenings to see what would be revealed to me. That’s why I went back the second time. The first time, I did it for seven days. The second time, I did it for ten days because it was a profound, beautiful experience. I could not recommend it enough to anybody. 

What is it like? You go in, and you meet somebody? Take me through it. What is it like to go into this endeavor?

You’re sitting in a fairly small room. It’s pitch dark that you cannot see your hand in front of you. 

How many people are involved? How big is the room? 

You’re alone. You’re in an isolated room, fairly small. There’s a bed and a meditation couch.

They just give you the keys, and you lock yourself? 

No. The first time I did it was in Germany, and the second time was in Mexico. You have to go to a place where this is set up because some people ask, “Could I just do it in the house?” But you want no ambient light. You want it to be complete darkness. Logistically, it takes a bit to set up a room like that. 

The second time was in Mexico. I did it at a dark retreat center where they do this. I went in a day early. You get a feel for the room. You spend a day getting out of the chaos of real life before you transition into the complete stillness of the darkness. Then you go in. 

FEARVANA by Akshay Nanavati

The door’s not locked. You’re not locked from the outside. You can get out anytime you want. You’re not trapped in there. The door is open. If you choose to, you can leave early. Then, twice a day, I chose to do a juice fast. You can choose to do food, but I wanted to add hunger to the experience. 

Of course, you did.

Of course, I did. Why not? As one does. 

Some torture? Some chain? 

Exactly, go a little deeper into the pain cave. When I did the ten days, I did eight days of a juice fast, and the last two days, I had no calories at all, just pure water fast. And you start seeing lights in the darkness. 

For example, the brightest white light I’ve ever seen in my entire life was sitting in a dark room. It was so bright I was getting blinded. I was trying to shield my eyes, covering my eyes. I was touching my eyelids because I couldn’t tell if they were open or closed, and I was sitting in a completely dark room.

That light, do you think it was like a spirit, God, or your brain playing tricks on you? 

Great question. I think there are multiple ways to experience it. What they say is that neurologically, your brain starts to release DMT, which is one of the primary ingredients in Ayahuasca. You experience these hallucinogenic type journeys that you go. 

You can also release DMT through breathwork. 

Exactly. You’re very well familiar with it. You totally can. In the darkness, you start seeing that, and the lights are as real as anything else. On the one hand, there’s a neurological explanation for it, but I also believe in the shapes that take place in the lights because, in the lights, you’ll see different shapes forming often, and to me, it’s God speaking to me through these shapes and hearing messages.

Sacred geometry. 

Exactly, sacred geometry. However, one chooses to view it too, but there’s everybody. I’ve had a friend who’s done the darkness journey. He saw his own shapes, whatever messages he needed to hear, whatever God spoke to him. For me, I had a conversation with God that left me bawling in tears. It was beautiful. 

What did God tell you? 

Happiness comes from the ability to find the gift of sadness.

I was day five in the darkness, and I couldn’t sleep because what happens is when you try to sleep, you’ll see a flashing white light in the corner, and it’s very hard to sleep because even if your eyes are closed, the light is still there, so it’s this flashing light.

I was getting frustrated. I couldn’t fall asleep, so I sat on my bed and said, “Alright, God, I surrender. Do with me what you would please.” I don’t remember how it started, but the first memory I have of it was when I saw this arrow starting to point up and heard this voice say, “Follow me.”

I said, “Where? What are you trying to show me?” It said, “Don’t worry, just follow.” This arrow started pointing. I started seeing in front of me this white cylindrical shape. I said, “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to see. It said, “Look deeper, look harder.”

Then, this array of flights started extending to my top right behind me. I was moving my head, and I looked up and saw a ball of light and above it was a depth to the darkness, almost as if looking at a night sky, like looking into the universe. 

Like looking into a black hole.

Again, there was a depth of darkness. It was like a whole universe was above me. I’m looking at this thing and hear this voice say, “I’m everywhere.” Then, this ball of light exploded into green light crystals that had started falling in front of me like bright green light crystals.

You can make your fears beautiful when you actively engage with them, so instead of avoiding, crushing or demonizing them, use them as fuel to create something beautiful in your life. Click To Tweet

It said, “I am life. I’m in everything.” Once it fell and dissipated in front of me, my head started turning to the front. I looked at it, and it said, “I am with you. Now go.” As soon as I heard that, I awoke from the stupor, if you will, and I just started bawling. I don’t know why. I just started crying and crying.

I started thinking about my life. I think about all these times when I should have died, and I didn’t, multiple times facing death. I was thinking about my friend who died in the war. I was thinking about these people I’ve seen in post-conflict zones and why I got this life. 

Even as we’re sitting here having this conversation, there are people in hell on Earth right now, people in war zones, people being trafficked, enslaved people, just the horrific nature of human evil that people are dealing with.

I thought about all this and asked, “Why do I get this?” God said, “You know why.” I said, “I don’t. I feel so grateful for it, but I also feel guilty.” Then the response was, “That’s why.” I just started bawling again. 

I’m not saying everybody has to think this way, that my paradigm is mine alone. Everybody can find a way to approach this. For me, it was like the pain I felt, the guilt I felt around my life about losing my friends, the fact that I believe I owe a debt for this life… My mom always said that at a young age, you have a hotline with God and the number of times I should have died, and I didn’t. I’ve been blessed with a great life, and the price I pay for that is the suffering I seek, the suffering I’ve experienced, to bring the wisdom back. 

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By going into these edges of suffering that I now voluntarily seek out, you cannot open certain doors without going into the depths of suffering in solitude that I go into. You have to battle the dragon to find the treasure. The greater the dragon, the greater the treasure. 

I pay off the debt for this life by going into the depths of suffering and solitude and bringing the wisdom back from the edge to help others navigate their version of a storm or  darkness. It crystallized a lot about my life that God told me, “This is why you get a good life, but there’s a debt you owe for it.”

It brought a lot of clarity to my life. It made a lot of things that made sense after that, and like I said, it left me bawling in tears. It was really beautiful. 

It sounds like a very beautiful healing moment. 

It was incredible. I was journaling in the dark as well. After that, I started journaling. I would just have a ruler and journal the stuff that came through my darkness journal. A lot of it, when I read it later, I don’t remember writing, but I would read it and be moved to tears. It’s amazing that some of the stuff was channeled through the darkness, God, and the universe.

Are you going to publish some of those writings? 

I’ve shared the journal from the first darkness retreat. I haven’t publicly shared the second one. Some of it’s a little out there, and not that I’m hiding it. Unless you know me, I just don’t want to delve into the unnecessary dialogue that will come from it. 

I haven’t shared it too publicly, even with people who know me for whatever reason, but it’s beautiful. Eventually, I’ve thought about potentially going into the darkness for 20 days and writing a book. Who knows? We’ll cross that bridge next. 

If you can’t post what you posted on the second darkness retreat, you won’t be able to post on the third one after 20 days unless you’re ready. 

Especially after I get more life experiences. I’m currently training to be 110 days completely alone in Antarctica, dragging a 400-pound sled for 1700 miles. 

After you lost your fingers?

Yeah. I’ve lost two fingers to frostbite. 

How do you even deal with that?

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I went to Antarctica on a training expedition for this expedition. Losing the fingers was like, “All right, whatever, deal with it, and move on.” I was always going to go back. Even when I was being evacuated, I was planning my return to Antarctica, and people called me stupid and crazy. A bunch of people are like, “What’s wrong with you? Why would you go back?” 

Losing the tip of a finger is a very small price for the rewards and the treasures you get to unearth in that. Only in silence can you start to hear the things you don’t get to hear in the distraction of the world. In that, the voice of God, the treasures I get to unearth, losing the tip of my finger is a small price to pay. 

My left middle finger actually recovered fully from the frostbite. This one on the right ring finger was black, and it had to go. My left middle recovered fully, and it was a normal finger. I prophylactically had it removed. I had a good finger cut off because once you get frostbite, you’re always more prone to getting frostbite. 

When I was out in the Arctic just a few weeks ago on a series of expeditions, it got so cold, like it was -37 degrees. This finger was giving me more problems, so I decided it was a liability and cut it off. 

Three doctors didn’t want to cut it off because they were like it’s a good finger. We can’t ethically cut it off. They were talking to me and were like you shouldn’t do this. It’s a good finger. 

I explained to the doctor, “Doctor, the mission that I get to go, this journey into the human soul, is way more important to me than the tip of a finger. I’m not the tip of my finger. Functionally, it’s barely noticeable, so who cares? I get to go into the depths of the human soul that are very rarely accessed, and that’s a privilege. It’s a privilege I’m grateful for.” 

To enter the realms of the new worlds, you have to keep exploring.

It sounds really extreme to me. 

It is. Believe me, I get called everything you can possibly imagine. It’s not coming from a lack of awareness. I’ve tasted the rewards of going into these worlds already.

What was it like being in Antarctica? What is it like there? 

Antarctica is one of the most hostile, unforgiving environments on the planet. Temperatures can drop to -40. Hurricane force winds, unforgiving savage winds, barren white nothingness. Most of Antarctica has no life. There are penguins in one corner of Antarctica. Most of it has zero life. But it is such a privilege to experience that land. 

When I landed in Antarctica, I was looking out at the plane window, like, “I’m in Antarctica.” The words that automatically came out of me without even thinking it was, “I’m home.” 

The privilege of it is a land so unforgiving to life. That’s why there’s literally no life out there. It’s so unforgiving to human life. But to me, that becomes a mirror to the soul. 

When Antarctica is hostile, it’s not acting out of malice. There’s no intent to its hostility. The pure is-ness of that environment acts like a profound mirror to the human soul, to yourself. It truly is a privilege. I could not feel more grateful that I got to go into that land, as challenging as it is. 

Polar travel, out of all the sports I’ve done, like ultra marathons, I have climbed mountains. It’s not as dangerous as climbing mountains but causes more mental and physical suffering. That, to me, is the draw.

I’ve never been in such hard conditions in my life. I’ve done things in my life in seminars like walking on glass, walking on coals, and breaking an arrow with my neck, but it seems so small compared to doing what you are doing. 

But it does something to your brain when you’re doing the impossible. Something changes in you when you do something that you thought was impossible, like fear of fire or getting cut with shards of glass. It does something to you. Do we need to keep reinforcing that and go through more suffering to get some form of enlightenment?

Everybody has their own thing. It’s not about doing what I do but finding your edge.

I believe so. I’ve had these conversations with my friends, and some may disagree. I’ve often been asked, “What’s the toughest thing you’ve done? What’s the greatest lesson?” Every time I go into these spaces, there’s a new awakening that I’ve been gifted.

I don’t believe enlightenment is a destination. I believe it is a momentary experience because, until death, there’s always more to experience. There’s always more to a journey. There’s always more growth to be had until the day you die. Until that day comes, there’s always something more out there waiting for you.

We’re all trapped within our own lens of reality because we don’t know what we don’t know. To enter those realms of what we don’t know, to go into new worlds, both within and without, you have to keep exploring. If you want more of life, if you want to go somewhere you’ve never been before, to experience something you’ve never experienced before, you have to push yourself. You have to enter into new terrain, or your life is just going to keep staying the same. When you enter new terrain, both on the journey within or exploring new worlds externally, inevitably, it will be hard because you’ve never been there before. 

That’s the value, though. To go to what degree? To each their own. Crossing Antarctica is not the only means to access enlightenment. Everybody has their own thing. Like you said, it’s not about doing what I do, it’s about finding your edge. And that’s what we want to do. 

Through these stories, we tell, I want to inspire people to find their own edge. Find your own edge. Push that own edge one step, and you’ll keep discovering something new. As you do, it’s not about just going through the spaces of suffering. I’m also very playful. I play on all edges.

If you look at the duality of suffering and play, I’m going into the spaces of suffering, but I’m also very playful, always laughing, and always experiencing life. I want to experience the range of the human condition in all its forms.

I want to live life at a volume dialed up to eleven. I want my volume of life dialed to the highest intensity. To do that, you must play on all edges of pain and pleasure, light and dark. Of all the dualities in the human condition, play on all of them. Go into suffering, play, fear, nirvana, experience it all and life gets dialed up. Ultimately, isn’t that what we’re seeking? The rapture of being alive and life’s bliss at its highest level? 

The rapture of being alive.  That’s awesome. Let me share. The most physical thing I did when I was younger was the Tough Mudder. Have you heard of it? 

Awesome. I have, yeah. 

It’s a 30-mile obstacle course, and you climb walls and go through obstacles like the Chernobyl Jacuzzi, where it is very cold. I did it in New Jersey. It was super cold outside. We all were suffering from hypothermia at the end. My whole team got our beer and ribbon, held the beer and the ribbon, and we were all shaking. We couldn’t even smile. It’s quite funny. It does something to you, those things.

But it seems that you need to cement the neurology of courage in your mind repeatedly until it becomes a clear pathway because it fades after a while. Isn’t that true? 

100%. If you don’t practice and train that muscle, it does fade.

What is happening in your brain when you do those things? 

The more you train it, the more you can deal with it however it shows up. For example, I’m more scared of going on a date than I am of all the insane things that I do. I just started dating this woman, and we went on a date the other day. It was like a second date. I was more nervous about doing that than going to Antarctica.

I kid you not. Butterflies in my stomach, anxiety, nerves. But the point is to say I don’t care when the fear shows up anymore. I’m comfortable facing it. It’s not always going into the edge of Antarctica. Going on a date was scary, but you go into it, and now we’re dating, and it’s something beautiful.

Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden

It’s about dealing with it, finding it in all areas of life, and then just playing on that edge. The more you train that muscle and it doesn’t have to be just doing these extreme things. It’ll show up in normal life all the time, but you develop a comfort with it. I don’t care when it shows up. I don’t care how it shows up. Let it show up. I’ll be with it, and I’ll move through it. That’s the value. 

I like the idea of light and darkness because, in the world, people get offended when you disagree with their opinions and are so hurt. It’s almost like they’re detached from reality. If they had to go through 0.5% of the suffering, the physical suffering or the mental suffering that you’ve been through, they would be different. We are raising a softer generation. What do you think about that?

I think it’s twofold. On one hand, yes, we are. On the other hand, the environment is cultivating more softness. I empathize with kids today. They’re growing up in a tougher environment than you and I grew up in. We’re the last generation to remember life without the Internet. We didn’t have dopamine machines all around us when we grew up. 

On the one hand, I empathize that the environment is more challenging to grow up in because this environment is not conducive to mental well-being, and you could not reasonably argue that. Look at the malaise in society. 

It’s just more challenging for parents to raise kids today. It’s more challenging for kids to grow up in this environment today because, ultimately, a kid is just receiving stimuli from their environment. Is it their fault that they grow up online? No, the environment’s hard.

Parents have to teach their kids how to suffer. One of the biggest mistakes I see parents make when I speak at events or work with people in coaching is overprotecting their kids. You have to let your kids suffer. You get confident by doing hard things and then rising above that. 

A world that feeds into this notion of instant gratification, looking for the easiest way out. In the US, what do they say? The pursuit of happiness is the ideal. That’s a deeply flawed concept because when you’re pursuing happiness, suffering becomes a barrier on the journey. Instead, pursue meaning. Pursue what I call your worthy struggle. Pursue your path. Pursue the adventure of that path. 

Then, suffering becomes part of the journey. It becomes part of the adventure. It’s not a barrier or impediment because happiness is not the elimination of sadness. Happiness is the ability to find the gift in sadness. Sadness is not the enemy. I want to experience sadness. You cannot know true happiness without sadness. 

This is the way we approach trauma, the way we approach pain, the way we approach sadness. We even deem it “negative emotions,” but no negative emotions exist. There are no bad emotions. There are no good emotions. There are just emotions. They are just experiences, and it’s entirely up to us to decide what we do with them.

Tapping into your darkness and living on the frontiers of life and death amplifies the intensity and volume in which you live your life. If you want to know pleasure, you have to know pain. Click To Tweet

This whole idea that “I’ll be happy when I get there, when I get the million dollars, when I get the car when I get the relationship,” we live in that world. “I’ll be happy whatever there is.” As a result, we don’t fall in love with the process of overcoming problems and overcoming struggles on the journey to getting there.

The getting there is a side effect of actually falling in love with the pursuit. It’s good to have goals, it’s good to have targets, but once you have that target, set it in the back of your mind and focus on the journey. Who I have become even training for this expedition across Antarctica is magnificent. I love the journey. Whether or not I make this crossing, even preparing for it has been amazing. 

Wow. What does letting your kids suffer look like? 

Sports is a good way to help them suffer, help them learn how to suffer, help them learn how to fall—putting them in martial arts, putting them in sports, sending them into dark rooms. Go through physical hardship. 

I am allowing them to feel their emotions. Another big mistake I see parents make is saying, “Don’t be scared, don’t worry, don’t stress out, don’t be anxious, don’t be nervous.” You’re always telling kids not to feel what you feel instead of allowing them to feel it fully. “All right, you’re feeling scared. Let’s talk about it.” Explain it. Understand it. Let them feel the “negative emotions.” I use it in quotes, but they are challenging emotions. They’re not negative. 

Let them experience, acknowledge, and talk to them about it. If you demonize it, all you’re teaching them is to run away from it, especially with young men. Young men will always be like, “I’m not scared of anything,” and this false bravado becomes even more destructive. 

Let children experience, acknowledge, and talk to them about fear. If you demonize it, all you’re teaching them is to run away from it.

Believe me, I know it all too well in the Marines. You were in the military, so you get it, right? “I’m not scared of anything.” But in war, anybody who’s not scared is lying to you or absolutely insane. Fear is an incredibly valuable emotion. 

This bravado that having fear means you’re weak is deeply flawed. I’m scared of everything I do. You can’t have courage without fear. Allowing them to feel their emotions and experience them, teaching them these different self-fulfilling prophecies that there’s value in pain and adversity, and helping them think through it.

One of my friends I was working with, I started encouraging her to talk to her kids. Every night now, she asks her kid, “How did you struggle today? What’d you learn from it?” You’re teaching them to develop a positive relationship to struggle.

I like that because I was listening to you, and I’m like, “How can I implement that? What does it mean to talk to him about fear?” I was like, “Do you have fear? Great. Fear is good.” I like that framing. “What did you struggle with, and what did you learn from it?” It’s cool.

Teach them to develop a positive relationship that fears, anxiety, and stress are not bad. It’s what they do with it. It’s the second dart, as we were talking about. They have to practice being with that emotion to master the space. 

Viktor Frankl once said, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our power to choose our response and in our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

The stimulus is not just an external stimulus. The stimulus is that internal emotion, most of which we don’t control. If somebody comes into this room with a gun, my brain will react with fear. I’m not choosing it. It will respond with fear because it sees a threat. That’s the stimulus. 

It’s not just like don’t get caught up is the first dart. The guy with the gun is my fear. The second dart, the point of power, recognizes it’s there. Now, what do I do with it? That is the space between reacting to an emotion or responding to an emotion, which are two very different things. Let them be with it, let them feel it, and let them find value and struggle. 

If they shift their paradigm to view it that way, how can you not find more bliss in the human experience when you know how to smile in the face of suffering? Because it won’t matter whether life punches you in the face or you’re seeking out a worthy challenge, you’ll be able to smile through all the suffering.

Yeah, because life will. I can try to protect my son as much as I can, but eventually, he will have his journey, and he needs to know how to handle and accept it. I love the idea of what you said. What did you struggle with? And what did you learn from it? 

Have you seen the movie Stutz on Netflix? It’s with Jonah Hill

No, I don’t think I have. 

Jonah Hill is a comedian actor, and he’s interviewing his psychologist. He wrote the book The Tools. It’s an incredible movie. Many of the principles in that movie align with everything you told me today about dealing with things. 

One of the tools to deal with fear is imagining fear as a black cloud, whatever you’re afraid of, and just running toward it.

It’s cool. I’ll check it out. Thanks for sharing.

Yeah. There is another movie, Sound of Freedom. You dealt with people who were trafficked. 

I worked with some of them to help share some of these concepts with them.

How did you help them? What was the biggest thing that they needed help with? 

I think the biggest thing, whenever I’ve worked with people in the darkest corners of the globe, whether it be former child soldiers or them, is helping them see they’re not a victim. 

Wait a minute. Child soldiers?

I’ve worked with former child soldiers in West Africa. I worked with this one guy who saw his family being hacked to death with a machete, saw people being raped to death around him, and forced to be a child soldier at a young age. 

What’s the age of a child soldier? How young are they? 

Sometimes under ten. I forget what age he was forced into this. A few of them in Liberia and West Africa had gone out there to do humanitarian work. They’ve seen the darkest of human evil as children. It’s absolutely horrific what they’ve endured.

The biggest thing when you talk to them is seeing that you’re not a victim because the world feeds into this paradigm that, “I’ve gone through this shit, so woe is me, I’m a victim—poor me.” Nobody would want somebody, especially a child, to experience the hell they’ve experienced. 

But now that they’ve experienced it, I helped them reframe what we discussed—you cannot know the light unless you’ve been in the dark. These people have seen some of the darkest of the human condition. As a result, they have greater access to light than most of us do.

When they simply start to open the door to see that possibility, it expands their potential. Someone who’s endured that much hell on earth, when channeled, they have more resilience, more strength, and more courage. These people were teaching me more. They had more courage than I could ever hope to have. 

There are no bad or good emotions. There are just emotions and experiences, and it's entirely up to us to decide what we do with them. Click To Tweet

These young girls and guys who have experienced hell on earth as child soldiers have endured all that and come out the other side more than most of us can fathom, just battling the human evil they’ve experienced. As a result, they can access more light, strength, courage, and power because you cannot know your power without pain. 

Do you think they’re happier regardless of the trauma? 

I wouldn’t say they’re happier because, inevitably, it leaves a little bit of a scar, but they certainly can be. They certainly can access greater heights as a result. 

There’s greater courage, greater love, and greater appreciation. The thread I’m hearing throughout this conversation is how much gratitude you have and appreciation toward life. 

Absolutely. When I take a hot shower, I’m like, “This is amazing,” because I know it’s gone. I sit outside in the night sky and look at the stars. In Antarctica, there are no stars, sunsets, or sunrises. When you play on the edges, it just amplifies the gift of everything in the human experience. 

What do you think playing on the edges can look like for the average person who is not as extreme as you are? 

Find a way to go into a place of pain. You could do a cold tub, for crying out loud. Do a long fast. When you do a long fast, and you eat food after that. That food will taste divine. Do something that’s going to push you. 

One of the ways I approach it is, in life, there are all these dualities, as we were talking about—life and death, masculine and feminine, pain and pleasure, control and surrender, ego and humility. There are a series of these dualities. A way to approach it to play on the edge is to find a duality causing friction and play on the other edge. 

I’ll give you another example. I remember going for a run once, and I saw this sign that said 5K fun run. I had visceral disgust at the idea of running for fun. It wasn’t even a conscious choice. I was like, “That’s stupid. You don’t run for fun. You should only suffer.” That wasn’t healthy. That wasn’t a good way to approach it. 

I realized I was attracting suffering into my life in all ways. If you look at the duality of suffering and play, again, don’t get caught in the semantics of it. Use whatever words you want. I realized that I was so good in the suffering realm, but I struggled in the realm of play.

Even if I go to retreat, if people were dancing or doing light things, I would have nothing to do with that. I’d rather do burpees in the corner and suffer. That wasn’t healthy because I was bringing suffering to all sides, so I went and played on the other edge. 

If you want to live a great life, you have to own your personal greatness.

I would be with the people who are dancing.

Most people would. My challenge was no longer suffering because I thrived in the physical suffering, but I was struggling with play. I was struggling with fun. I started consciously entering that realm. I would do more light things. I would go for runs without measuring the distance. I would do the dancing in these retreats. I started listening to fun music and watching funny things. 

By playing on that edge, I now have opened new doors and not only expanded my experience of life and range of life, but I’ve also given myself new tools to access when I do suffer. I will always be clear with my lifestyle, someone who always leans towards the edge of suffering. But now I can bring the play to suffering. That’s one duality. 

Even when I went into the darkness, if you look at the duality of control and surrender, I’m a giant control freak. Many entrepreneurs are. “I’ll control my world. My fate is in my hands.” I was playing with surrender. “Okay, I’m good at control. Let me play with surrender. I will surrender to the darkness to see what is revealed to me and consciously just embrace the mysticism of the human experience, embracing the mysticism of life.”

At any point in life, I’m always working on one duality that’s causing me friction, and how do you find what that is? Self-awareness. Choose one. There’s no right one. Let’s look at the duality of ego and humility. Here’s the thing. If you want to be great, you have to own your greatness. I’m not saying walk around being egotistical and arrogant, but own that part and then also own humility. The best athletes in the world are a great example of this.

If you listen to Kobe Bryant, one of the greatest legends in the world, you’d hear some of his interviews, and he sounds egotistical, but he just knows he’s a badass and the greatest. But if you listen to him, he also has tremendous humility to be a learner.

The best athletes in the world are the perfect example of ego and humility co-existing. They know how badass they are but also have the humility to learn and know where their gaps are. That’s the key. All of life’s dualities can co-exist as one. 

That’s the essence of Fearvana. Fear is not the antithesis of nirvana. Fear is an access point to it. Fear and nirvana can coexist as one. 

I love that. You stretch yourself wherever you are. You just step out of your comfort zone, whatever it is for you, mentally and physically.

Exactly. For some people, like it was for me, outside the comfort zone was not the hard thing. It was a playful thing. It sounds weird, but most people would be struggling with burpees, but at that point in my life, that’s where I need to go. Doing the light thing, the dancing, the hula hoops, that was my discomfort. 

I’m going to finish this and do burpees. 

Awesome. I hope you suffer beautifully.

Before we say goodbye for now, what are your three top tips for living a stellar life? 

Stop chasing happiness; chase a worthy struggle.

Master that space between stimulus and response so the two darts will be number one. Stop chasing happiness. Chase a worthy struggle. What is your worthy struggle? Chase that. Then, as you do that, keep training yourself to smile in the face of suffering.

That doesn’t happen by listening to a podcast or reading a book. That can provide a spark, but the only way to develop that mastery is to enter the arena. You have to step into the arena. 

I’ll leave you with this final line, “Belief is built on the battlefield.” One of my big beefs with the personal development realm is this overwhelming focus on overcoming limiting beliefs. You don’t need to believe in yourself to take action. You just need to step into the arena and go to war, and belief will be built from there. Go to war with yourself. 

As you build that belief from the battlefield, you’ll be able to keep stepping up, pursuing the next worthy struggle, and pursuing that evolving and up-leveling, and happiness will be the side effect of that journey. The stellar life will be the side effect that results from pursuing your worthy struggle. 

There is so much to everything you just said, but that’s for another conversation. Where can people find you, get your book, and do retreats with you? How does it work? 

You can find me on Instagram. That’s the primary platform I use. My website is fearvana.com. The book is available on Amazon, Kindle, and Audible. We also currently have a crowdfunding campaign for the Antarctic crossing at greatsoulcrossing.com

Wow. Akshay, this was fascinating and exciting, and my heart was racing more than once during our conversation. Thank you for sharing this. Thank you for everything you do in the world and for taking yourself to those edges so we can learn from it.

Thank you for having me. 

Thank you, and thank you, listeners. Remember to master the space between stimulus and response, chase your worthy struggle, smile in the face of suffering, and have a stellar life. This is Orion, till next time.

Your Checklist of Actions to Take

{✓}Recognize and acknowledge the presence of your emotions, including fear, anxiety, guilt and any other difficult feelings. Understand that pain, darkness, and struggle are human experiences.

{✓}Reframe your perspective. Shift your mindset from viewing emotions as bad to understanding them as a natural response to experiences.  

{✓}Engage with your demons. Rather than avoiding or demonizing your darker emotions, engage with them consciously. Seek to understand and explore the lessons they hold for you.

{✓}Cultivate gratitude for both your challenges and blessings, recognizing that they contribute to your growth.

{✓}Reach out to therapists, coaches, mentors, or support groups to help you navigate your challenges. Don’t hesitate to ask for help and guidance when needed.

{✓}Find meaning in suffering. Recognize that suffering can hold value and can help you navigate challenges, gain wisdom, and find deeper meaning in life.

{✓}Engage in activities that push you to face fear and discomfort. Build your resilience and courage over time.

{✓}Shift the paradigm on fear. Teach yourself and others that fear is not a weakness but an opportunity for growth and transformation.

{✓}Develop the ability to maintain a positive outlook and find moments of joy even amid challenging experiences.

{✓}Delve deeper into Akshay Nanavati’s teachings on overcoming fear and embracing life’s challenges. Visit his website and follow him on Instagram. Access Akshay’s book Fearvana on  platforms like Amazon, Kindle, and Audible.

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About Akshay Nanavati

Akshay Nanavati is a Marine Corps Veteran, adventurer, entrepreneur and author of Fearvana. Since overcoming depression, PTSD, and alcoholism that pushed him to the brink of suicide, he has run ultramarathons, spent ten days in darkness, and is currently training for a solo, 110-day, 1700-mile crossing of Antarctica.


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