why I swim (also, adventures in meditation/mindfulness, part 3)

"Rooms By the Sea" - Edward Hopper - 1951
“Rooms By the Sea” – Edward Hopper – 1951

Again, I hesitate to post this. It’s funny… from my years of posting on Facebook I’ve gotten so into the habit of sanitizing and editing everything I write that it’s *really* really really weird to just sit and write something – all of something- and hit “post”. It feels like I’m almost *imposing* on people in some way by writing these mammoth posts and expecting anyone will read them.

I was thinking “why do I bother? Does it matter if I actually post these entries or is it good enough to just write them so I can get the stuff out of my head and know it’s there if I want to go back to it later?” But on the other hand, I am actually so grateful to have this space back. I forgot how good it feels to have a space to work stuff out, to take note of things that I’ve got rattling around in my brain so that I can clear that space out. There is something about hitting “post” that feels good.

A few days age I wrote about how I hit a difficult patch in meditation, where I was getting jumbled whenever I tried to clear my mind and get back into the present.

The day after I wrote about hitting a hard patch, I went back to basics with meditation.  What I mean by that is I kind of reset my practice and did a bit of research.

The first thing I realized is that I have been meditating for a much longer time than I give myself credit for. For years and years (and years… 25 of them to be exact) I have had at least an hour of every single day where I did nothing but observe my mind.


Swimming was pretty much the first and only thing I was allowed to do that was active and sporty. Kids with Spina Bifida in *my* day were encouraged to just “take it easy”. “Stay off those feet”. “Don’t hurt your back”. Etc. We didn’t do gym at school. We were never in organized sports (there were no participation trophies back then- the only kids who played were the kids who were picked for the team. As a kid who grew up before the era of participation trophies, I actually think they are a good idea). We stayed in the library instead of going out for recess. I dabbled in tennis and basketball in high school (fencing was a favorite, although without much balance it was mostly me advancing and waving my foil wildly) but I was lousy at all of it, because I had serious medical stuff that affected my reflexes and general balance, etc.

Swimming was medically approved when I was a kid, but not encouraged. If you swim a lot, especially in chlorinated pools, you get skin issues. Dry skin. Irritated skin. Moist skin. I was too young to be aware and responsible for taking care of the issues that swimming might cause. And because I had only a little feeling in my feet, I could easily scrape my toes against the wall of the pool and cut myself and not even know it, which I did a lot when I was around my family’s back yard pool. So a) it’s kind or irresponsible to send your kid into a public pool knowing they could bleed into it, and b) it’s not so great for your kid, either. (Or vice versa).

I did take lots of swimming lessons and stuff when aqua shoes were invented (YAY for aqua shoes! They protect my feet so well! And so many other people wear them!) but since I couldn’t kick very well, there wasn’t much I could do besides swim freestyle up and down the pool. Which, don’t get me wrong, I loved doing, since I was moving quickly, which I can’t really do on land. But I wasn’t fast enough to race the kickers. So I just swam in my family’s pool in the summers and did a lot of nothing from the months of September – May.

In 1992, I got my foot reconstructed *again*, but it was a much more involved process (including rebuilding a foot out of my hip bone) and when I was finally out of the cast the only , I was sent into the pool to learn how to walk again. I did that, but I also started swimming, simply because it felt REALLY GOOD to move around and get my heart beating and be outside in the sunshine. Oh my God, did it feel good to zip back and forth in that pool after months in bed. It was blissful and fun and I discovered I could work out everything in the water.

After 18 years of not being active or athletic, I loved what swimming gave me. I felt free and fast and light. I felt healthy and “normal”. I loved working up to longer and longer distances and time I could spend in the pool. I loved having a passion that involved moving around. I loved the changes in my physical body. Swimming basically gave me my life back- in the pool, I was not Spina Bifida girl, I was myself.

I was old enough to be responsible for my feet and skincare, and also old enough not to give a shit about wearing pool shoes in public places, so I was determined to figure out how to swim no matter where I was, and no matter what season it was. Emory University’s pool had open swim hours, so as soon as I went back to college from my medical leave, I was at the pool at 6:30am every stinkin’ morning to swim.

At this point, I also realized that having a body like mine meant increased responsibility and self-care, and I finally honored that. It was like this big turning point for me- I had this new passion felt so dedicated to it that I chose a radically different lifestyle for myself in which I made self-care a priority and not an afterthought. Swimming was essential to my physical and mental health, and I was determined to honor that. And I have. For 25 years.

That’s why I swim. And that’s why I never skip a day or put it off for anything else. Not for vacations, not for social stuff, not for anything, honestly. (So now you know.)

Okay- all that is well and good, but let’s talk about the reality of swimming laps for hours on end in the same pool every single day:

It’s really boring.

SO so so boring. So boring.

After a few weeks of swimming laps every day in the same pool, and not working on improving speeds or technique (as people do on swim teams), it becomes muscle memory. You get in the water and you go. Nothing to think about or focus on. I guess it’s like walking on a treadmill, just underwater.

And the exhilaration of going into the water, of feeling it hold you up, of gliding through it and splashing around and just being floaty, disappears, too. I totally forget just how lovely it is to be in the water until I’m forced to skip a day (like, for a hurricane or for the flu or for a day trip to Disney or whatever) and then I go back the next day and it feels like MAGIC.

This past summer, when I had my foot surgery, I had to take two weeks off from swimming to allow the incision to hear, and it was agony to be out of the pool for that long. I could literally feel my skeleton just collapsing and my muscles tightening from not being able to stretch out and swim. It was the longest I have been out of the pool since college. The day I got back in the water, the pool felt like liquid bliss. I was only allowed in the water for 20 minutes that first day back, and I felt like a little kid who hasn’t been in a pool for years- it was a daze of pure happiness and sensory heaven. It felt amazing, I felt free. I felt completely cool and refreshed and renewed. That was literally the BEST sensory experience I have had in a long time (let’s face it, 2016 was stressful- I’ll take whatever I can get.) I tried to hold on to that feeling for weeks after but it didn’t last long. I do remember it, though. It reminded me that I *am* still capable of experiencing pure, unbridled joy from time to time.

Anyway, if you swim every single day, you do lose that sense of “ahhh, floating, tumbling, refreshing…” Water just feels like a wet air. You get in, you swim, you get out. You stop going in the pool or the ocean for “fun” because when you get in water, you swim. Even if you just want to relax. You wind up swimming because that’s what you do. Water loses its magic.

When you’re in a dimly lit space, emerged in water, and there’s no sound and nothing to look at but a white tile wall,  and you’re just swimming back and forth and back and forth, the only thing you can really do to distract yourself is to tune into your mind. So I did that for years. My mind became my ultimate form of distraction. I followed it as it jumped from thing to thing, saw the way it literally strung loosely associated things together to form complex ideas. I saw the way reactions came up, the way anger or stress or hope might sort of start as just a seed of a thing and then fully bloom when I fed it a little bit of attention. I started writing these complex fictional stories in my mind day by day, chapter by chapter. I’d go over them in detail, tweak them, and continue working on them for years and years. (Eventually I started putting them down on paper, but it was decades later.)

Of course, I had no idea that what I was doing to similar to meditation. I was spending prolonged periods of time just watching my mind and noticing how it worked.

Eventually someone amazing invented waterproof music players to rescue all of us lap swimmer, and swimming got a lot less boring. Listening to music while you swim is *super* cool.  My mind is still center stage, though. I just get music to soundtrack it. And when I meditate at the end of my swims, I turn the music off, so it’s back to me and my mind and the white tile wall. The difference is that now I know that instead of letting the thoughts take seed and billow out, it’s good practice to come back from them and press “reset”.

I think the reason meditation got hard was because I’ve been trying way, way too hard these past few weeks. Trying to go beyond just watching the mind. Convincing myself that just doing that simple practice couldn’t be right and I had to make it more complicated. So, the other day, I literally had to remind myself it’s JUST watching the mind. It’s JUST coming back to something present. That’s all. It’s not trying to force a blank, equinamous state on my mood or find a little portal into magical realms and instant calmness. It’s just taking a back seat and seeing what comes up when I don’t drive the car of the mind.

I did the thing that a lot of meditation teachers tell beginner meditators to try- find something to focus on. I have to admit- this is the part that I stumble over. When I’m focused on something, I’m sort of thinking about it. At least, it’s doing causing some sort of processing in my brain- maybe not “thinking” but I know that my brain is absolutely part of the whole experiencing part of thing. So I’m always asking the question “am I thinking about the tingle in my foot or experiencing it?” I don’t know at what point a mind goes from thinking to one-pointed concentration because a lot of the time, they seem like the same thing to me. My mind doesn’t jump around a lot. I can focus on one thing for a long time. So I’m always concerned that my focus *is* being lost in thought.

My response to this, until now, was to attempt to “zero out” altogether. EMPTY my mind. NO focus on ANYTHING. Eyes wide open, ears primed to hear every splash, my skin on full alert, my arms and legs moving very m-i-n-d-f-u-l-l-y. Be open to every sense, every feeling, everything I was experiencing as it was coming at me. Hyper-awareness in a long blue pool with lots of reflections and bright light probably made me dizzy and disoriented, which explains all my weird little “moving backwards” sensations while I was swimming. And the “grumbling” I experienced, which was likely anxiety from me trying to empty my mind (which is actually impossible to do.) It’s fairly easy to trick your own brain and physically disorient yourself if you try hard enough, you know? It’s like that weird little “falling” feeling you get sometimes when you are about to fall asleep.

Anyway, I finally realized that by having nothing concrete to “come back to” when my mind would distract me, I was basically spending half an hour in this weird alarmed state. When you are in sitting meditation, you can come back to your breath or something you feel in your body or just the feeling of gravity holding you in your seated position. You don’t have that in the pool.

Usually meditation teachers advise you to focus on the breath, but if you do that in the pool, you’re screwed. So when i start meditating, I try and instantly find whatever sensation is the most prominent, and sort of lock into that. When my mind goes off, I just came back to whatever it is I “locked in”.  After a while, my mind started battering me with things, so I just said in my head “swimming, swimming” over and over. That helped a lot.

By the end of my swim, I was surprise to realize that the words had evolved into something else, a different phrase- almost like I was playing “telephone” with myself and didn’t even notice it.

This part of the experience relates to the idea of intention. I’m talking about the neuroscientific  (and Buddhist) concept of intention, not the whole “manifestation-magic-intention”  Secret-style stuff. Just the simple idea of “what’s your true motivation for doing all this?”  Every class I have taken in psychology or neuroscience or well-being or Buddhism has always posed that question: what’s your intention? And I could never really answer that question, even though I tried. I always made it too complicated.

Yesterday the three words I was left with at the end of my meditation served up a clue to a possible intention. I won’t share the, but I wound up liking them so much I kept repeating them in my head after I got out of the pool and as I went on with the rest of my day. I started to look at the things I was doing and the choices I was making through the lens of the three words I had chosen.

DUH. BIG DUH. After ten years of studying neuroscience and psychology and mindfulness, I started to connect intention with mindfulness. I FINALLY understood how the two connected in real life. That was a pretty huge a-ha moment for me.

You know, the more I do all this I realize that you can take 100000000000 classes and listen to 1000000000 talks and read 10000000000 books on pyschology and neuroscience and well-being and mindfulness and whatever else, but until you put it into practice, it doesn’t make sense. It’s like trying to teach a baby to walk before the baby is ready, I guess. You can explain the mechanics of walking to a baby, put them around other babies that walk, even move their legs in the motion of walking, but until it’s time for them to start walking, it doesn’t happen. And when they do start walking, it’s in their own style based on their own bodies and growth and mechanics. And it takes however long for them to go from lurching from point A to point B unsteadily to actually walking.

It’s the same with all of this-  there’s no official timetable. People can give you clues and information and tell you what to expect. But until you are ready and actually begin engaging in the process, kind of lurching around in it, just trying to get from point A to point B, it doesn’t truly set in. I think LIFE is like that. I mean, I’m 42 and I’m just starting to get the hang of stuff. At least it feels that way sometimes. But it’s also a good thing, because when you get to your 40’s (at least in my case), a lot of stuff falls away and you can actually settle into life. I like that a lot.

So I guess that’s what I am doing right now- lurching towards this goal of being more mindful, more at peace. Trying to make myself a little less of a messy human so maybe I can be of service in some way.