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.








Posted in On Life, Pyschology, well being | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments