What Swimming Can Teach Us : Above And Below The Surface

I went swimming this week in the local indoor pool as part of my volunteering activities. Beautifully lit, the water sparkled with an iridescence of turquoise intensity, and with only a few others occupants, there was room to be free. My much younger companion jumped straight in, no hat, no goggles, long hair loose, and started playing around doing handstands. There was me, swimming cap on, goggles, feeling distinctly middle-aged, looking on. I had to resist the urge to do serious lane swimming, which is my usual pattern, and join in the underwater fun, as I was there for someone else, not for me.

But the point is that I could join in with the underwater antics, and jumping in the deep end, because I went through a distinct learning curve a few years back, taking swimming lessons to improve my breaststroke –  head in the water breathing style, with legs in alignment and finding the illusive glide. With an already reasonable backstroke, I tuned this stroke up and attempted to learn the front crawl too, using the correct head in the water breathing technique. The front crawl still remains a problem  – any tips on the breathing technique most welcome!

Now all this was possible because I was able to put my head under the water. For many years, I didn’t. I didn’t want to, I wasn’t comfortable, I would panic for breath, I hated it, hence the backstroke as my preference. Until I asked an older lady friend who had taught many children to swim to help me get over my fear. And all she had to do, when we were in the pool together, was to pinch her nose shut, and push down below the surface, goggles in place and get me to do the same. 1, 2, 3 – GO. There we were, doing the thumbs up, looking at each other underwater. Just like you might with a little child. But hey, it worked, and soon afterwards I wanted to be beneath the surface more and more. I wanted to experiment in the deep end of the pool to see if I could touch the bottom, I wanted to see how far I could swim underwater. I practiced snorkelling. And for those of you who have read Turtle Beach, it won’t surprise you that everything that Lucy does in the sea, in this respect, I have done too – apart from her getting into trouble later on, of course ;>) So I discovered a love of the feeling of being underwater and here’s the point of this post, a love of the visual calm beneath the surface. And when I snorkelled in the sea, I was captivated by how still it was beneath the choppy waves. Just a few inches below made so much difference to my perception. It was simply enchanting. I have just found a lovely quote, unattributed, but which surely belongs to a diver, which is perfect for introducing a helpful metaphor for life in relation to all of this:

‘For some reason. While diving, the stress stays on the surface.’

So we have an inferred escape from  stresses by going deep below the surface. Like we try to do with our thinking self when we meditate – we try to go deep and connect with our true inner self for a more meaningful sense of calm, peacefulness and inner harmony. I have searched for some philosophical and psychology-based interpretations on this ‘above and below the surface of waves’ idea, but have drawn a blank, so I’ll just describe how I see this visual metaphor can be applied to the stresses, strains, and anxieties of life, and how, in the midst of strife, one can induce some grounding calm by using a visualisation of above and beneath the ocean waves.

I remember reading many years ago ‘the surface waves make so much fuss’ meant to convey that we take the most notice of the things pulling at us or pushing us around in the here and now, where our minds and bodies react to perceived threats to our well-being or personal conflicts and challenges. Unpleasant feelings and physical reactions are generated by bodies biologically programmed to fire off fight or flight responses, with our knee jerk or pressed-button reactions queuing up for expression. This state can be compared to being tossed around  by surface waves (hence the expression ‘making waves’ to indicate conscious disruption of a situation). But what’s beneath the surface is a different story altogether. Who we really are is to be found beneath the surface, together with a more helpful perspective, where we can distance ourselves from the surface fuss, have a think, then come up to deal with the stresses from a more objective place. So when I began experimenting underwater I remembered this quote, and later on I came across a similar concept in a book I read by Tibetan Buddhist, Pema Chödrön – When Things Fall Apart, addressing acceptance and transformation when things get tough as a way of moving forward. I was stuck in the middle of midlife strife and conflicts at the time, so her book was really helpful. I don’t have it now, but this is what I remember.

She talked about ideal self-acceptance practice as like being in a lake, on the surface, but you’re looking down under the water to the very bottom. Everything is still and calm and you can see clearly your own past ‘stuff/issues/attachments’ lying on the bottom of the lake like old rubbish. You will never get rid of these, they have made you who you are, but they are part of your past, duly acknowledged, but left to lie. There is no sediment clouding your vision, no turbulence. The opposite of this is a more unenlightened and conflicted state where you can see very little, due to the sediment you have stirred up in your lake to muddy the water, through the thrashing around you are doing – in other words – through your resistance to what is.

So this ‘above and below the surface of water’ metaphor can be a helpful image to remember when you are feeling stressed. The real you is beneath the surface where all can be calm, peaceful, where your perspective can shift to a more beneficial one and you can focus upon self acceptance and the freedom that can bring.

To finish off, my session at the swimming baths the other day ended up being a mixture of swimming a few lengths, chatting in the deep end whilst treading water, reminding myself what it felt like wearing fins (much to the amused disdain of my companion) and appreciating the male swimmer doing a professionally smooth front crawl which we worked easily around.

Coda: There’s usually one or two crashing and splashing front crawlers stirring up the waves (and sorry, they are always men, but not speaking metaphorically) with an apparent attitude of you’d better get out of my way or else. An older lady friend who has similar sensibilities as me told me the tactics she employs under these circumstances. She refuses to get out of their way, because they don’t get out of her way. She allows collisions to happen and then sweetly apologises, as do they – and then they do stay out of her way. Oh, the games people play! (And yes, I know I have some work to do on acceptance in this regard ;>))

(Underwater picture from pixabay, and it was so hard to choose only one)

I’ll be taking a week off, but I’ll be back after that – cheers to you all and your creative projects.








About lynnefisher

Writer and visual artist living in Scotland, INFJ type Writer's blog: lynnefisher.wordpress.com Art: lynnehenderson.co.uk Twitter @writeartblog Writers page Facebook https://www.facebook.com/lynnefisherheadtoheadhearttoheart/ Artists page Facebook https://www.facebook.com/lynnehendersonartist/
This entry was posted in Buddhism, On Life, Pyschology, swiming, wellbeing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to What Swimming Can Teach Us : Above And Below The Surface

  1. Libby Sommer says:

    congratulations on learning to swim correctly and for putting you head under the water. that’s something i don’t do, but get the sore neck instead 😦 fantastic to be able to swim well. so beautiful to watch, so good for the body and such a good meditative practice. well done you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What an intriguing post Lynne… love the way you shifted gears from swimming to metaphysics … and love the comparisons with meditation… which sometimes feels like diving in, and sometimes is that gentle push below the surface, but how ever it happens, the calm is the same…

    In my experience including helping others to meditate, it’s very difficult to meditate if life is in turmoil -“,,,, you can see very little, due to the sediment you have stirred up in your lake to muddy the water, through the thrashing around you are doing – in other words – through your resistance to what is.”

    It seems to me that it takes a lot of hard work, inner growth and letting go to reach the point of that acceptance and blessed calmness that brings peace and calm water… that the ‘sediment’ or resistance is such a stumbling block for so many swimmers !
    I know it was for me until I realised how I had muddied the water for so much of my life

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      That’s wonderful sharing, Valerie! Yes, asking someone to meditate when they feel ‘all churned up’ would be nigh on impossible. I love the way words and ideas interconnect like this almost subconsciously. Yes, so much hard work seems necessary and when you reach a certain point of acceptance of self particularly- a nice quote here – ‘And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time’ (T.S.Eliot) (also the quote at the end of Galen’s book) At least some calm for a while, anyway. Many thanks, Valerie :>)


  3. galenpearl says:

    I too love Pema Chodron’s book–all her books in fact. I grew up in a hot summer climate so swimming was a regular part of my life. But I never wanted to learn to snorkel or scuba dive. The mask over my face made me feel panicky. But I did love to swim underwater as long as I could hold my breath.

    It is a wonderful metaphor, isn’t it? And you describe it perfectly, and beautifully.

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      Thank you Galen…I think I may read more of Pema Chodron. Lovely to know you enjoyed swimming underwater and there certainly is a knack to holding one’s breath, that’s still in development with me. I have discounted scuba diving, though I did turn up for a trial at a local pool, which went fine. But I let this go due to too much tricky equipment to trust, too deep for my ears after a few metres down due to the pressure (have tinnitus so am quite ear protective) and a feeling of being somehow trapped too deep by the weight of water above. Much happier just below the surface!


  4. The peace we can experience on the inside circumvents all the turbulence on the surface. If only we can find a way to breathe.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Lynne, I love the comparison of swimming with meditation. I’ve heard the underwater and surface water comparison, but had never associated that with swimming. It just struck me that it’s no wonder so many people enjoy swimming below the surface. It must be peaceful. You may have inspired me to give it a try. When Things Fall Apart is one of the most loved and well-worn books in my personal library. Have a great week!

    Liked by 2 people

    • lynnefisher says:

      So pleased I’ve inspired you to give it a go underwater – it was a revelation to me. And other people’s splashing doesn’t have to bother you. Who cares if you get water splashing in your face, you’re in a different zone altogether so it doesn’t happen. And if you breath out through your nostrils before you go under, or make sure you don’t breath in through them, you won’t get water up your nose. Yes, the book was very useful to me, particularly good for acute times of trouble, when ironically you can feel as if a huge wave has crashed through you. And so pleased you like the meditation comparison, it just suddenly struck me. Many thanks for sharing :>)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Sumi Singh Writes says:

    Lovely post, Lynne! I learnt to swim late in life because I had a terrible fear of the water. Many lessons later, I can swim and loving every moment. I feel like a kid again! Like with everything in life, it takes practice and consistency. I can’t swim in the deep end, its probably another fear of mine which will require lots of work! The analogy of our true selves being below the surface is beautiful. A tip for the front crawl, stay calm, rotate your body, take your time breathing air and don’t stop kicking 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      Thank you Sumi, and very well done learning to swim later in life! My older friend said it’s so much easier to teach children, so that is a real achievement. Jumping in to the deep end was a fear of mine, and before that the sense of danger in the deep end was palpable in me. Now I can do a head first dive, that my hubby says is like watching a sack of potatoes fall in (really cheeky, I know, and I in no way resemble a bag of potatoes – just to be clear. Also cheeky when you consider he can’t even stay afloat!) And thank you for the tips on the front crawl, I should be rotating my body more and more kicking for sure – I would love to conquer this stroke and be able to relax doing it. Cheers!

      Liked by 1 person

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