Life Lessons from a Former Stuntman

Over the course of the past few months I’ve engaged in many deep conversations with Sebastian, a motivational speaker from South Africa.  He has given a few talks at one of my favorite food and hangout joints, the Space Goa.  At these talks, my brain digested his wealth of valuable information while my stomach digested delicious Mediterranean paninis (mozzarella cheese and pesto, where have you been hiding the past year?)  In order to understand Sebastian’s message, first you must begin to understand the man.

Sebastian is a former stunt man.  He was very successful and worked his way into the top 50 stunt men in the world, earning roles in a variety of movies.  He was even Bruce Willis’s body double for a period of time.  He was very good at what he did and earned wealth and fame in South Africa for his work.  In his earlier life, Sebastian studied to become an ordained minister (perhaps where he developed his motivational speaking skills).  One week before his schedule ordination he joined the stunt industry, following one of his dreams.

Sebastian is a former paraplegic.  Stunt man and paralysis, seem to go hand in hand right?  Being a highly sought after stunt man, Sebastian accepted an offer from a friend to perform an aerial stunt for a charity event.  The stunt went wrong and Sebastian collided with the plane mid free fall, staying conscious just long enough to open his parachute, his last thoughts of hoping to survive long enough for a friend to hold his hand while he died.  Before he even hit the ground, Sebastian had numerous life-threating injuries, including ribs that had punctured his lungs and severe spinal damage.  He was given a 5% chance of surviving the next 24 hours, and a 5% chance of surviving each following day until finally he was moved to a new facility and his odds improved to a 10% chance of survival.  Against the odds, Sebastian won the beginning steps of the fight for his life, although he had lost the use of the left side of his body.

It isn’t the fact that Sebastian survived being hit by a plane mid free fall that is exceptional (although I’m sure he’s one of the very few people in the world who has, pretty damn exceptional actually), but rather his journey to becoming a fully functioning human being.  Not just muscles working, able to walk again.  But also complete with a fully functioning brain to explain his experiences and his philosophy, in a manner that like all truth becomes self-evident. 

Sebastian has a very modern philosophy, reminiscent of Eckhart Tolle (widely known for his book The Power of Now).  Essentially Sebastian used the power of positive affirmations and visualization to slowly repair his body and mind.  Each day Sebastian told himself “My left hand is strong and dexterous” even though the mirror reflected his hand curled against his chest.  He visualized the nerves on his spine reconnecting with the left side of his body, and he found himself very gradually (over the course of years) regaining the ability to walk and move his hand.  He also told himself each day “Smiling is my natural state”, working to remove the drooping quality to the left side of his face.  He walked around grinning maniacally like Jack Nicholson on acid until eventually his facial muscles settled into a natural smile.  As you can imagine this gave Sebastian something to really smile about, and by smiling all the time he found he had much more positive interactions with everyone.  The mind and body are psycho-somatic, but also somatic-pyschotic.  Our thoughts and intentions affect our bodies, and our bodies affect our minds.  Sebastian went from weighing 48kg to his current state of close to 84kg, and could be on the cover of fitness magazines.  I couldn’t begin to attempt to relay Sebastian’s entire message, so I’ll share a few ideas that really resonate with me and how I interpret them.

  • “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”  –Arthur Schopenhaur.  Many of the ideas Sebastian presents seem to be ‘new age’ or alternative.  In fact, most of these ideas have been around for thousands of years.  We often reject ideas because they are not congruent with mainstream thought.  But we cannot deny real truth, as it is self-evident through experience.  If you don’t believe smiling improves your disposition, give it a try.  The way your mind and body responds will give you all the proof you need.
  • We cannot stop our thoughts from occurring; we can only choose which thoughts to focus on.  Sebastian used meditation extensively in his recovery.  He says you cannot stop thoughts from happening any more than you can stop a bird from flying over your head.  But you can prevent the same bird from building a nest in your hair, and you can prevent yourself from becoming fixated on a certain thought that isn’t beneficial.
  • We eat the fruit of our lips.  The resonance of your voice is unique.  In fact, it is a better identifier than your fingerprints.  Our subconscious is trained to take what is said in our natural voice as truth.  If you say something like “My back is killing me”, it’s likely that your back will start to ache even more.  This is why positive affirmations are so effective.  Doctors and even friends and family thought Sebastian crazy when they offered their sympathy and he responded, “Why?  My body is strong and dexterous.”  Sebastian chose not to accept their sympathy, which would only reinforce the limitations of his body by accepting paralysis as his only possibility.  Where your mind goes, energy flows.  We might as well make sure that energy is positive and put to good use!
  • Our intentions are much more powerful than we realize.  According to quantum mechanics, everything in the universe breaks down into energy and resonates at a certain frequency.  Extensive studies (especially by Dr. Masaru Emoto ) have been performed that demonstrate the power of intention.  Water structure (not composition, all water shares the composition of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom) changes based on what we say to it.  Rice placed in water that was blessed daily quickly fermented into quality rice wine.  Rice placed in water that was yelled at each day quickly decayed and turned black.  Rice placed in neutral water was somewhere in the middle.  Even more amazing, water from the same source that was stored in different rooms changed simultaneously in structure if blessed in only one room.  Our intentions resonate at different frequencies based on whether they are positive or negative, adding or removing energy.  Our adult bodies are comprised of over 70% water, so it stands to reason that our own intentions must affect our physical structure all the way to a cellular level.
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  • E=mc^2.  Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared.  If we accept quantum physics that everything boils down to energy, then everything has a mass, even our thoughts and intentions.  (M=E/c^2 through simple mathematics.)   By this model, our intentions have mass and force, no matter how infinitesimal.  Perhaps this explains why we weigh 21 grams lighter at the moment of our deaths?
  • Trust your gut and nut up and shut up.  The vagus nerve connects our conscious and subconscious and runs down to our abdomens.  That’s why we sometimes get a ‘gut feeling’.  This is our subconscious trying to relay a message to us.  So go with your gut instinct.  Once you’ve made up your mind, take the stunt man mantra: “Nut up and shut up”.  At that point there’s nothing to it but to do it.
  • Fear.  It is an emotion that can only be applied to the future.  We cannot fear that which has already occurred because we already know the outcome.  We can fear that it will happen again, but that is still in the future.  And we cannot fear the truly present moment because we are currently experiencing whatever is happening.  If we live in the present, we cannot give into fear, which is the basis for anger and many negative emotions.
  • Our character is not shaped by our triumphs and failures but how we respond to them.  (In yoga it is perfectly fine to fall over in a pose.  Once we give into frustration and self-criticism the falling becomes negative because of our negative reaction.  But if we pick ourselves back up without giving into negative emotions, accepting what has happened and trying again with a positive attitude, then we are truly practicing the asana.)  Dream big because our bodies and minds are always striving towards homeostasis.  If you are up too high, your mind way try to bring you back to homeostasis or vice versa.  If we dream big, we can raise our level of homeostasis and let it become a positive upward spiral.
  • We cannot turn off the darkness, but we can turn on the light.  Don’t dwell on your problems, seek a solution.  Once again, don’t seek sympathy to deal with your problems.  Use the tools at your disposal or find new tools.  Use your imagination.  Napoleon said “Imagination governs the world”.  Sebastian imagined his nerves reforming and, voila!, he restructured his body with his imagination.  Eastern spiritual philosophy is free and available to everyone.  We can all use meditation, yoga, visualization, or any other effective method to find which light switch works best.
  • Patience.  If we plant a seed and two days later dig it up to see if it’s growing, obviously it won’t grow any longer.  So let your seed be and nourish it with water and sunlight.  Be patient with any techniques you try and keep an open mind.  Changing your mind and body are lifelong processes; instant gratification has no place here.

Listening to Sebastian certainly turned on a few light bulbs in my mind.  His message is inspiring and relates to each and every one of us.  We are all interconnected with one another and the universe, energy reacting  and responding to energy.  We don’t need to have a life-altering event to direct our lives in a more positive direction.  I know the next time I find myself feeling down, I’ll use the inspiration from Sebastian’s experience to serve as my light.  After all, we are all strong and dexterous if our minds believe so.