If he walked into your office for an interview, you might notice a tattoo just above the collar of his crisp white dress shirt. You’d see the moderate spacers in his ears. But his easy smile, warm brown eyes, and affable manner would make up most of your first impression.
Most days you’ll find him in shorts and a tee shirt (and possibly his five-toed shoes), and that’s when you’ll see more tattoo acreage, sleeving both arms and much of his legs. If you ask to see the one on his back, he’ll show you, and you might notice eight small scars, evenly spaced across his back. That’s from the hooks.
This is where things get weird. Critter (yes, that’s his real name, and those are his sons) does suspensions. That means he lets two huge men with black latex gloves pierce his back with four stainless steel hooks the length of your index finger, then attach them to a rigging that lifts Critter slowly into the air for a few minutes. You may not want to click through on that link.
I did. I looked at every single photo, and watched the video of the whole event as well, sort of like you’ll slow down as you pass the scene of a wreck on the highway. I tapped my lips with my fist and tried to breathe deeply, but I had to look, and look hard, because I really wondered what would make him do it.
So I asked him. Why?
“I do two things like this,” he told me, “I skydive and suspend. You may have a thousand things going crazy in your life, but when you jump out of a plane, none of it matters. It wipes the slate clean.”
Those two things seem incredibly different to me. One seems like a joy ride; the other looks more like torture. “You look like you’re meditating,” I told him. When I first looked at the video I’d thought of yogis laying on beds of nails. He agreed the suspensions (which he periodically refers to as “hangings,” a term I could not bring myself to use) were a little different, and tried to explain.
“I go into these events when I need to clear the mental clutter of my life in order to focus on something very specific. I go in with an agenda,” he said, choosing each word carefully, like you might turn over pebbles in a streambed before sliding one, still wet and gleaming, into your pocket. “It helps me focus on something that may seem like a tangled mess otherwise. Things become clearer.” He was silent for a moment, and I felt like he was looking at a path that had been carefully marked out on a map.
Pain does have the potential to sharpen your focus.
When he first started getting tattoos and other body mods, Critter told me, he would mistakenly focus on the pain. “It was awful,” he grimaced. “It was like I was holding on to the agony, not letting it get past me. Finally I realized that I could let the pain pass through and around me, and focus instead on something else.” I had an intense flash of resonance — it takes a bit of getting used to, this subtle but crucial shift in perception.
“You know it’s funny,” he commented later. “When I watched the video, I was very aware of all the conversations going on around me, from all the people who were there. I heard the click of dozens of cameras when my feet left the ground. But when I was in the middle of it, I didn’t hear anything. I was in complete control of my body and mind, and utterly focused on my mental agenda. And when I came out of it, there was an incredible rush of adrenaline and excitement that felt really great. There’s a lot of energy coming off people.”
That part I recognize, too. The energy you get coming out of the boxing ring can be incredibly addictive, not to mention the fact that you aren’t under physical siege any longer. And it’s also true that poor mental focus means you’re likely to get pounded in the ring: if you can’t get your mental game in order, you’re probably going to lose your match.
It isn’t always a good experience, he told me. Things can go wrong, and it makes the thought of undergoing the intense pain and mental work again pretty daunting. My fear factor increases after a bad bout, too, and I feel it the most right before I have to get in the ring the next time. It can be paralyzing.
But when it’s good, it’s very good. Intensely good. Grateful-for-life good.
Once Critter referred to his suspensions as being “like a vacation.” I couldn’t suppress a bark of laughter. “It’s true,” he grinned, his eyes sparkling, “And you have to come back to all the tangled mess of life, but at least you come back a little bit refreshed. And, if you’re lucky, with new insight and energy to do what you need to get done.”
Sounds like a man on a mission, doesn’t it?