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How a Boring Swim Becomes a Lesson in Mindfulness

Swimming in one's thoughts can be fun or even treachurous!

From a section of the artist Hilaire Hiler’s mural titled “Undersea Life” in the lobby of the San Francisco Maritime Museum

I swim in open water for health, friendship and connection to nature’s creative power. I rarely swim alone, usually with a friend or two. I don’t wear a wet suit unless the water is chilly. I used to be, and probably still am, when not in a familiar place, one of those people who enter the water slowly with lots of whining and hesitation. Now, a seasoned amateur with an addiction to that post-swim calm that surely mimics anti-anxiety medication, I just plunge in and start, eager to get through those first three minutes of stun-gun adrenaline caused by my body’s contact with cold water.

Every time I swim, the quality of the water is different. I find this remarkable, that I can swim in the same location, week after week, year after year, and every time, experience a sense of the original and of wonder. I think it is because I’ve learned, out of a need to stay calm and to not freak out (by the cold, or by the fear of what lurks beneath), to embrace a kind of gentle curiosity and openness to whatever the day will bring. Call it what you like, I liken it to mindfulness, an awareness of the present moment.

Today’s water is calm. The sun is out. Hardly any wind. One of my two swim friends is just back from traveling the world for a whole year. The WORLD! For a YEAR! Like an astronaut, she has plunged back down onto this little part of our big planet and I want her to feel welcome. I want the water in particular to welcome her with boisterous arms, with chop and challenge so that she feels a little scared and a little exhilarated, even a little impressed, like the way you feel when you travel, always a little on edge.

But not today. Today the water is calm and smooth.  “A bit boring”, my traveler friend remarks.

We swim for about 45-50 minutes in 63-degree water, along a rock-filled edge that parallels an abandoned railroad track leading to the old ferry landing at Pt. Richmond. My regular swim friend is further out in the middle of the Bay. Calm as ever, she looks relaxed and effortless. We three swim to “the pylons” as we call it – 2 wooden poles that stick out and serve as a small perch for seagulls, and sometimes a graceful heron or two. When we get to the pylons we always circle them, ritualistically, to mark the half-way mark, and to maybe to acknowledge some human need for order and true completion, like dotting an “i”. After all, no one is really paying attention to this feat of perceived danger and physical challenge. So maybe we circle the pylons for ourselves to tell ourselves we really did it.

But about today’s stillness. This quiet kind of water, without chop, current, or struggle – “swimming pool water”, I like to call it – is good in its softness. It is like the elemental mush of consciousness, absorbing or reflecting back whatever is going on in our heads and hearts. Like a kind of mental clay. Once I am in the water, adjusted to its qualities of temperature, flow, color, texture, how it moves over my skin and focused on where I’m going, I stop thinking about external things. Now it’s just me and me inside my head. Periodically I notice my breathing and stroke pattern, trying to push a little harder maybe, or swim a little straighter, or more rhythmically. But other than that, long stretches of minutes are spent observing my thoughts and feelings in a Robin Williams-like stream of semi-detached consciousness. At times it can feel hypnotic. Or like a maddening cacophony of reaction and response. If I’m lucky, I will experience a millisecond of precious, empty, stillness.

When we finally return back to the beach where we first started, the newly returned astronaut-swimmer remarks again about the flatness of the water, the lack of challenge. It’s true. It was a gentle, quiet day, easy and sweet, not at all thrilling.

I end this blog without advice or epiphany, but to remind myself that that there is beauty in the stillness of things. There is beauty in the primordial soup of grey days and the flat, opaque waters of the familiar. That beauty lies inside us, behind our thoughts, dreams, and desires. From the murky waters of consciousness, new things emerge.