Open Water Swimming as Meditation

30 Sep

Yesterday I completed the swim portion of the Carpinteria Triathlon. In an olympic distance triathlon you swim 1.5k (just under a mile). At most races, the top swimmers complete this leg in just 20 minutes. Olympic triathletes in London, for instance, finished in just 17 minutes. By comparison, I was thrilled to finish my swim in 35 minutes. I knocked a whopping 19 minutes off my time from my previous race! That’s an improvement of 35%! Pretty excellent, if I may say so. If you’re curious about what a swim looks like at a triathlon, here’s the start to last year’s race:

When top swimmers nail their swims in under 20 minutes, that’s not a lot of time in the water. When you double (or triple) that time, there are a couple of things that happen. For me, one of the them is that I find it impossible to concentrate on all of the niggling issues with my swimming stroke. Yes, I can focus for a short while on making sure I am not letting my wrists drop at the beginning of my catch or rotating my body better, but my ability to sustain this focus appears to be a function of the length of my swim.

Practicing for this race I often found myself swimming for an hour or more. At that duration, I had to trust my training to ensure that my stroke was correct. I wasn’t going to accurate assess my form halfway through my ocean swim. Open water swims (in lakes, reservoirs, rivers, oceans, etc) differ from pool swims because there is little incentive to interrupt yourself. In the pool you’re always touching the wall or doing a flip turn to complete your laps. This interruption (and it’s a huge one for those of us that can’t do flip turns) means you can always break a long swim into much smaller units. These units are perfect for assessing and tweaking your form. On this lap, I’ll think, I’m going to focus on kicking. The next lap I’ll breathe every 5 strokes instead of every 3. And so on.

In the ocean there is less room for these incremental session-passing training moments. What you are training for in the ocean is to just go and go for a long while without stopping. For me it is the perfect time to work on shutting down my “monkey mind.” My fickle stream of consciousness narrows when I swim long distances. The world reduces to the simple equation of breath, kick, sight, and stroke.

When I was in India as an undergraduate over a decade ago, I participated in a hands-on course on different styles of Buddhist meditation. I struggled intensely with various forms of seated meditation. I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t prevent myself from moving and adjusting and squirming. (The heat and mosquitos and 5am sessions probably didn’t help either.) When it came to walking meditation though, I finally felt I was really poised to make some progress. For me, the inclusion of movement allowed my body to quiet down. Swimming is the same. I train so that my body quiets down and just does what it knows it can do.

Mentally the challenge of the swim resembles the central challenges of attention-based meditation–acknowledge thoughts as they arise, but dismiss them and move on. Yesterday, halfway to the turnaround buoy, I found my shoulders were burning quite a bit more than I expected. Even as I tried to think about other elements of my stroke, I kept returning to the discomfort. I kicked harder for a while. I breathed bilaterally (normally I breathe only to the right side.) I increased my cadence slightly (moved my arms faster) but decreased how hard I was pulling through the water. Nothing was working. Eventually I had to accept the discomfort and keep swimming despite it. Of course your shoulders hurt, I thought. When you finish your swim you can stretch them out and you’ll be fine. And they were.

It’s not often that I get to return to religious practice in my academic routine (by way of exercise no less). It’s easy to get caught up in describing what believers do or theorizing about what beliefs mean. We can let it all get pretty theoretical and, gasp, academic.

Swimming is just close enough to moving meditation that it feels natural to use the methods I learned long ago and otherwise rarely develop. As a teacher I value any chance to privilege experiential learning.

Reading about Buddhist meditation techniques is vastly inferior to experiencing them. Descriptions of the great cathedrals of Europe pale in comparison to standing in them. There are few replacements for the thing itself. Our access to similar experiences, however, is vast. A local church may be suitable for getting the sense of space, light, and weight of cathedrals. And any number of physical activities may be opportunities to attempt primary meditative techniques.

If swimming is a great segue to meditation, then I wonder what most accessible analogous activities for communal worship, prayer, bible study, seder, fasting, and so on, might be. We don’t always have access to the thing itself, nor can we necessarily expect students to be free (or open) to every religious activity that a syllabus might merit. (Can you imagine convincing a group of your students to participate in a seance to get a better sense of spiritualism?)

It’s worth our best effort to try. We should be able to be pretty persuasive, too.  But when that is insufficient, then identifying the next best thing becomes a fabulous opportunity for creative experiential learning. I had a great swim and I am thankful for the reminder that pedagogical insights are never so far from us as we’d like to think.


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