I was the last person in the line of a group of 8 tourists hiking the Indian Nose Volcano in the Guatemalan Jungle. All of a sudden I had a spider sense that someone was behind me, I stopped and looked behind to see a pitch black forest, I couldn’t see anything but the outline of the large foliage and trees, so I continued. Moments later footsteps were close behind me, I turned around to a blinding light against the backdrop of the pitch black forest. Clearly framed stood a man with a bandana covering his face, with a headlamp that was blinding me, these details are inconsequential since my attention was fully focused on the barrel of an old, large, grey, pistol that was pointed at my head.
I had been traveling around Guatemala for just over a week and enjoying the beautiful landscapes and cities. I found myself in San Pedro, Lake Atitlàn for a few nights and decided to book a sunrise tour hike of the Indian Nose Volcano, where you reach the top just in time to see the sunrise over Lake Atitlán
The alarm went at 3:50 AM and I began a debate in my mind whether or not to forfeit my $100 Quetzals (12 USD) that I paid for the tour or to enjoy some more sleep. At 3:58 I was running down the road to catch the 4:00 shuttle to the trail entrance.
After 50 minutes of winding roads, we arrived at the entrance of the hike and began trekking into the jungle. Many of the other tourists had headlamps and light but I was content to walk through the dark and keep my phone in my pocket. I was the tail end of the group and was enjoying the beautiful jungle and the night sky that was full of stars. As usual, I kept my eyes up in hopes of seeing a shooting star, comet or something mysterious.
The first sign of something amiss was the extremely loud music playing somewhere nearby. It made me curious because it was 5:00 AM Monday morning. This may have been a deliberate tool to help the people I was about to meet. I did a reality check to see if I was dreaming, which is where I simply plug my nose and try to breathe in and repeat the phrase, “if I am breathing, I am dreaming.” If I am in fact in a dream I will be able to breathe and then will enter a lucid dream. After the test, I confirmed that indeed I was awake.
The group along with our guide were about 5 minutes into our walk when I got a little bit of a spider sense signal that said, “Hey, maybe there is someone behind you.” With that feeling, I paused at the end of the line, turned around and looked into the pitch black, jungle. I could make out some of the trees and large leaves from the forest but couldn’t see anything so I continued to walk.
About 10 seconds later I heard the footsteps, turned around, to a light in my face with a gun pointing at my head about 2 feet away. Any closer and it may have been pressed against my forehead. The man’s arms were fully outstretched with the finger on the trigger. I noticed that the gun was an old grey pistol, which looked to be quite big and long with a sight on the end of a barrel. He spoke some words were spoken in Spanish, from behind a bandana that protected his identity. I couldn’t understand what he was saying but it was obvious what was happening. Behind him was another man in the shadows. What I will write next is just what my body did, I’m not sure if it was the best way to deal with the situation but I’ll just share what my body did and how I felt about it as it was occurring.
In an instant, the nice morning hike had turned into a robbery at gunpoint. My mind didn’t have time to decide what to do so I have no idea why I did what I did. Upon realizing there was a gun pointed at my head, looking at the pistol, the man with the bandana and the man in the shadows for a few brief moments, of all the infinite decisions to choose from my body just decided to simply ignore the man, turn around and keep walking. Seriously.
At this point, I was very aware of what was happening but I did not feel an ounce of fear. I walked for a few paces and the men followed speaking some more words in Spanish. I turned back around, once again the old gun was pointed at my head just a few feet away, now he was waving the gun around, shouting words in Spanish, “punta, punta,” and once again I just chose to ignore it, turned back around and continued to walk away. I didn’t raise my hands, show fear, aggression, feel fear, my body remained calm and I just ignored the men once again.
What I find fascinating is that I never felt fear for one moment. This could be because of the fact that I’ve mentally prepared for situations like this, it could be from years of martial arts practice, it could be from the night training and Sho-Kai I have been doing recently, it could be from straight up shock and a case of cognitive dissonance and my mind refusing the situation at hand, although it’s been a few days and I’m still fine. It could be because when I think about these scenarios I know that person holding a gun to your head, their main motive isn’t to kill you, it’s to get something, in this scenario a robbery made sense.
I took a few more paces and now the group had registered what was happening and had stopped walking. For the third time, I stopped and turned around to face the man with the gun and the other man behind him. I kept my focus on the gunman and he kept shouting in Spanish and pointing the gun at me, waving it around and motioning it to the ground signaling me to get down, all of this was happening a few feet away. I was still calm, no fear in my solar plexus, just observing.
After ignoring the assailant twice and proceeding to continue walking, he now had the entire groups attention. Once again I want to make clear I have no idea why I did this. This was all unconscious body decisions, I never thought about what I would or should do, my body just did it. I know it sounds a bit ridiculous and seems like a dangerous reaction, however, I will explain later, why this may have been a brilliant tactic by the body, I am still alive after all.
As I continued to focus on the man with the gun who was motioning me to get on the ground I took a glance back at the group and noticed that I was the only one standing. This time when I turned around the man was slightly further away, he pointed the gun in the air and fired a shot. The shot rang off with a loud blast and this is why they may have had set up the loud music in an attempt to hide the sound. The gun was both loaded and real. Even after the shot, I remained calm, no fear, I believe this is because I knew at my core he is using a fear tactic and simply wants our belongings. If He wanted to kill us he’d probably fire in our direction or would have already shot me in the head.
Now is when my mind and body with all of its infinite genius thought, maybe it’s time to get down with the rest of the group. I slowly started to kneel down on my hands and knees and kept my eyes on the man with the gun. As I slowly started to make my way to the ground he began to maneuver around me, the other man in the shadows and the man with the gun were shouting and began collecting some belongings from the group.
I was at the back and I thought for sure they would come back to collect my possessions because they skipped passed me. I took my money out of my wallet, put my wallet and phone in my back pocket and got ready to hand it to one of the men. I learned later that the gunman who had to spent a good amount of time dealing with me had allowed the other tourists to fling their valuables into the forest and one person had time to switch to his fake phone he had just for this occasion.
They kept aggressively shouting in Spanish, as they went down the line collecting items. When they had got to the end of the line one man kicked our guide and shouted something at him. The man with the gun took one step back and fired his gun one more time, probably to say, “don’t’ fuck around” and just like that they quickly vanished into the night.
There was a brief period of silence, as the group was processing what had just happened and wanted to ensure the assailants were gone. Finally, a few words were muttered softly, “are you ok, are you ok?”. This question went down the line and we made sure no one was hurt. We began communicating and registering what had happened. It turned out the bandits only got away with a backpack with nothing in it and a fake cell phone. The group debated whether or not we should continue on the trail and our guide phoned the police who were on their way. The group consensus was that we would probably only get robbed once so we decided to hesitantly continue our venture to the summit.
As we walked you could feel both the tension and relief of the group as now the forest sounds, slips or uncertainty’s carried an extra weight of fear and danger with them. We made it to the lookout point to await sunrise and began sipping our coffee’s out of plastic cups.
The sun began to rise over the gorgeous mountains, volcanoes, and forests of lake Atitlàn. It was beautiful, as the sun broke through the night and clouds and began to fill the sky with vivid colors. We all lived to see another sunrise and experienced a little more than what we paid for. We started making some jokes and kidding around, I said. “I wonder if when they book the tours they ask you if you want to pay 80 Quetzal for a tour with a robbery and 100 for a safe passage.” One of the other guests quipped, maybe you pay extra for the robbery.” Another person joked maybe you should have said, “Oh gun for sale? Nice, thank you! How much? 100Q? Gracias!”
When we made our way back down to the van safely, the police were with us, people around the community were wondering what had happened. A little boy came out from a small beat up concrete house holding a toy camouflaged AK 47. The guide said that man with a pistol also had an AK on his back I was unaware of, I may have missed it because of the blinding light. The guide also thought there were between 4 and 6 men lurking around as well.
So what did I learn from this? Why the heck did I straight up choose to ignore the fact a man came out of the jungle pointed a gun to my face and my body decided to simply ignore him and turnaround? Where was all my badass martial arts training? Well, perhaps that was the training in action. Some men will be replaying in their mind imagining all the scenarios they disarm the attackers and kick ass like a heroic superhero. You should consider, even if I attacked him successfully a shot fired during the struggle could hit a person in the crossfire. The second person may have had a concealed gun, weapon or knife, there could have been back up in the forest. There were many unknowns and although when I replay the scenario in my mind I’m confident I could have disarmed him in many different ways with a very high chance of success, the best and safest move in an armed robbery where they just want your stuff is to not confront, and not escalate the situation, and just give them your stuff. It reminds me of a scene in Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon movie where a man tries to fight Bruce Lee on the boat and he says, “Ok let’s fight on that island” He puts the man on a smaller boat and says he will meet him on the island, Bruce Lee then just allows the man to drift by himself on the small boat behind the bigger ship and the man becomes stranded on the boat. Bruce says, “this is the art of fighting without fighting.” A true master will only attack if 100% necessary, psychology, misdirection, calm nerves, and keeping your ego in check will keep you alive.
It’s interesting that I am reading a book called the Gift of Fear recommended to me by my Sho-Kai Sensei, Master David Lonebear Sanipass. I told him this summer that I did not want to be afraid of anything ever, and I’m not afraid of much. Currently, my fears include dark forest at night, open ocean and very high heights. I’m sure there are some others but those are what I’m dealing with right now. I’m only 100 pages into the book and so far it goes deep into the psychology of assailants. It talks about how the unconscious mind is weighing all kinds of different factors you’re not consciously aware of and you should listen to your bodies response. It says that you cannot act the same way in every situation because every situation has unique factors. It does suggest what you should always do is listen to your intuition, and do what it suggests, trust yourself, trust your body.
Along with the information in that book, I am a lifelong martial artist, studied psychology extensively and have a clear idea of what their intention was. I think I registered consciously and unconsciously that their intention was not to kill but to rob. I knew the gun was a fear tactic so they could get our things without hassle or direct combat. Although those factors played a big role I think the biggest contributor to not feeling fear in this situation was true, honest and authentic surrender.
Life is not promised, I know this, I live my life in a particular way and I am grateful for life. We all know that we are not physically immortal, although it is my belief you are spiritually immortal as a soul. I have faced death directly in many ways almost dying trekking mount Everest (https://mattbelair.com/everest/) stopping a man with a machete (https://mattbelair.com/face-to-face-with-a-killer-and-his-machete/) almost falling off a cliff face in Sedona and having to make a leap of faith for safe footing, and now a gun, point blank to the head.
I experienced another full-on surrender moment in Whistler, British Columbia when I was meditating in the forest just a few hundred meters from staff housing. Once again, in this scenario, I had a sixth sense signal and when I opened my eyes I was within arms reach of a mother black bear. The body once again did not feel any fear whatsoever. There is no reason this animal should want to hurt me. The bear walked directly in front of me and we locked eyes, they were beautiful, unique and much different than I imagined, I can still recall that moment vividly. As the mother continued to slowly walk past I noticed in my peripheral a cub, and then two baby cubs. I then felt fear for a moment thinking the chances for an attack had increased but I quickly re-set and calmed the body. One by one the cubs eyed me up and proceeded. The second cub had a false start moment of hesitancy and then finally scooted passed me. It was one of the most magical and straight up cutest things I’ve ever seen. The weirdest part of the scenario is the fact there was about 200 meters of open forest behind me and only about 15 feet in front of me before there was a steep cliff drop. For whatever reason, the mother decided to walk in front of me with her cubs.
What’s interesting in all of those physical experiences where I faced death directly, I have never felt fear, except for the time with the man with a Machete in Cambodia. This was because when you read that article his eyes were black, seemingly soulless and dark. I was in real danger because this man was carrying intent and was willing to go further than just using his Machete as a fear tactic.
The largest contributor to the lack of fear derives from the fact that I have faced death in the most honest, genuine, authentic way possible, within myself. I have faced my own mortality and constantly ask myself questions like?
What is important in life?
What do I want to do with my life?
How do I want to experience this life?
How do I make the most of this life?
What if I only had a year to live?
What would I be doing if money were no object?
How do I connect spiritually?
What are my values?
What’s important to me?
Many people live their lives as if they have the one golden ticket to eternal life so they are willing to live day in and day out without personal reflection on life’s most fundamental questions. We imagine a future date where we can be happy, but for now, we must “survive” “make ends meat” or “just get by.” Others use religious justification coming from a perspective of if I sacrifice this life I will get a reward in the next.
If you’re living a life that is dictated by external circumstances and you don’t feel empowered by your own existence when you are faced with your death directly you will not have a feeling of calm surrender, you’ll have thoughts of fear, anxiety, and a case of “I wish syndrome” All of the times I’ve faced death it has been the same. Frank Ostaseski does a brilliant job at exploring these ideas in his book the Five Invitations and on our podcast here: https://mattbelair.com/51-frank-ostaseski-the-five-invitations-discovering-what-death-can-teach-us-about-fully-living/
Fundamentally my mindset has always been, how can I make this world a better place? It’s by far too nuts to figure out everything but when your number one guiding principle is how can I contribute; you are living in harmony with life. You don’t have any more understanding or answers to the big mysteries of life but you have a clear intention and that intention is enough.
When I turned around to see a gun pointed at my head I was in surrender as I almost always am. If he started killing one person at a time and worked down the line, I’d probably be really scared, ask GOD for help, and do whatever it took to save my life. In this scenario I had compassion and understanding for the robbers, I would have offered them my money freely if they had asked. I know I have some work to do because if I were a real master I wouldn’t have hid my phone I would have offered it with non-attachment. I had the idea to risk my health for a material object and convenience, that’s pretty silly.
I understand that I am a part of the top 10% in the world for quality of life on the planet. I live in Canada, I have food, water, clothing shelter. I have every opportunity to grow live, travel explore, create, experience and thrive. This person does not, he is taking an opportunity with his circumstances to get a little bit more of the little he has.
Native American David Lonebear shares a similar story of which he was robbed at gunpoint in New York and gave the robber everything he had, and while the robbing was happening he asked everyone else to give them what they had as well. When the attacker had taken everything from the group David asked, “Can I give you anything else? Let’s go to an ATM, I’ll give you what I have in the bank.” I can hear your mind going “Oh hell no, that guy isn’t getting my money.” And that’s exactly why our human culture could benefit from a huge perspective upgrade. David was coming from the view, “What is happening in this man’s life that he needs to risk going to jail to get a few dollars?” and not “I need to protect MINE” He is also coming from the perspective of how can I help this person who is in need. When David and the man went to the ATM the man put the gun down and began to cry, he shared his situation and why he desperately needed the money. David and the man stayed in touch, he cleaned up his life, and that decision to act with compassion and not with fierce and total protection of his possessions are what had the power to transform that mans life. Knowing David and seeing what he can do, disarming that man and violently stopping him would not have been a problem. He is a true master, and did what a master does, he helped.
Mine, me, ownership, materialism, protection and all of that bullshit is a sickness and a mental virus that prevents us from compassion, it disconnects us from our basic humanity. This does not condone stealing or aggressive behavior but when you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and think about how rough their life must be to have to do an act like this rather than “I need to protect my money, phone, material possession” it becomes an entirely different view.
These examples are geared toward robberies; violent offenders are an entirely different animal, they are far more of a serious matter and luckily they are far less frequent. In those cases, a different mix of psychology and action would need to be taken. Although I am a martial artist and am proficient in physical combat the real mastery is to understand and know how to not engage, de-escalate situations, get out safely, to redirect energy, and remain safe. This requires psychology, perspective and lack of ego over physical combat. In almost every martial art they teach you how to move with energy and not take it directly on directly. In Sun Tzu’s classic book “The Art of War it teaches similar principles of when and how to do battle. Great generals never choose head to head combat, rather war and combat are done with strategy and tact. In this scenario when you understand the attacker’s motivations and recognize what psychological weapons you have at your disposal, you can use cunning over brute force and give yourself a much better chance of walking away safely.
Holy, shit! I’m still here, I am grateful to be alive, I am grateful I wasn’t shot on purpose or by accident. I did not die today but I will die. So will you.
With the time I have I have left, I’ll keep participating in the mystery of life with as much gratitude, grace, and intention as possible. I have made so many mistakes, I have so many things I would love to improve but I am proud of myself because I try. I am proud of myself because I choose to continuously seek to help rather than to harm. I seek daily to connect with spirit and life. Through my experiences, I have come to understand that my life is eternal and live free from the fear of non-existence, heaven, and hell, and know that this life is not the end. Even if that is not true what is certain is that I have today, I have now and this moment. What you do today counts, you’re here to learn, enjoy, experience, and grow!
Face your death so you no longer fear it. It is then you can learn to live in peace and surrender and really start participating in the magic and experience of life!
NEVER BE AFRAID. EVER! “Bill Hicks”
With all of my love and gratitude! May you live a life of joy, peace, contentment, prosperity, and growth!
~ Matthew Belair
The best thing I’ve come across to have a death experience without actually dying and discovering your life direction and purpose is the Heart Journey Hypnosis Experience. You can get that for free here and with my Zen Athlete E-Book here: https://mattbelair.com/masters-of-flow
You can support the podcast, writing and travels here:
Thank you! 🙏