I dove into the lake, sinking down into the water, immediately feeling the silence. I could no longer hear my friends talking on the shore. There it was. Peace; aloneness with water and nature. Floating five feet below the surface, I could look up and see light and look down into the beautiful blue water. Fish swam by. My muscles felt calm and smooth in the gentle motion of the water. The softness and coolness felt good. I was present.
If you feel a certain peace from swimming, you are not alone. It is no accident that many great poets and writers, Lord Byron, Rupert Brooke, Tennessee Williams, Edgar Allen Poe and Alexander Pushkin, to name a few, were swimmers. English poet Swinburne referred to swimming as a way to steady and strengthen his nerves. Writer Charles Sprawson notes, “swimming, like opium, can cause a detachment from ordinary life.”
It first began to dawn on me that there is a connection between swimming and spirituality while I was swimming the Maui Channel. The day before, I had been reading Eckhart Tolle’s “The New Earth” on the beach, thinking about how nice it would be to learn to be truly present. In the middle of the swim I began to feel the exhaustion and frustration that a 10-mile swim can bring to a weekend warrior athlete. I realized that if I wanted to finish, I had to forget how far I had gone and how much farther there was, and simply be in the moment. I focused only on the beauty of the water, my breath and my stroke. Nothing more. I was present. A peace came over me and I was able to finish in happiness, without complete exhaustion.
The thought of the connection between swimming and meditation continued with me and jelled when I attended a meditation retreat. About halfway through the experience, I realized that, with swimming, I had been practicing meditation throughout my life.
Unlike walking mediation, simply focusing on the movement of the body and breath while walking, or other land-based forms of meditation, swimming brings in something deeper. Water has long been considered for its healing powers, beauty and adaptability to change. In focusing on its essence, many believe they can absorb some of this power.
Swimming is, in many ways, the essence of meditation. Repetition and controlled breathing calm the nerves and allow the mind to be still. Emerging from the water with a calmness and new sense of purpose and relaxation is no accident; the ancient principles of meditation have been at work.
Often too, I stand for long periods of time before I dive in, just standing next to the water soaking in the sun and bracing for the plunge. Previously I have viewed this habit as my own procrastination or dread of the shock of the cold water to come. Now I look at those moments for what they really are: a break in my day from action, a moment of reflection, a time out.
Meditation is about stilling the mind and being absolutely present. This gives the ability to clear the mind and bring peace, which can serve as an excellent way to cope with life’s stresses. Most people suffer from stress— sometimes severe stress. Long hours of open water or long distance swimming, with no thought except focus on the moment and enjoyment of nature, can help alleviate this stress for many. For most people who love to swim, something good happens each time they swim; something that they can’t quite put their finger on. That positive energy is not only from the physical health that swimming brings, but also from the mental peace and perspective— the meditative aspects of the sport.
For amateurs, meditation training is about stopping and focusing on nothing but breath. Not worrying about work, to-do lists, losses, suffering, or the future. Another aspect of meditation is, of course, silence. Not talking. This is a natural byproduct of swimming, as talking while swimming, unlike many sports, is almost an impossibility and entirely unnecessary to perform well.
Through silence and clearing the mind, many find they can return from mediation with a freshness and ability to adapt and accept. A quick check on the Internet will show that swimming meditation is starting to gain popularity. Those interested in swimming meditation can also study mediation principles and apply them to their swims. Many swimmers have been practicing meditation techniques, at least at some level, without even being aware of it. This can explain, in part, their love of swimming and the feeling of peace and happiness that comes after a long swim.
Mark Cibula is an attorney, former mayor, and Hellespont swimmer.