Learning to Swim

The Diving In article began as an invitation to “start where you are and jump in anytime” in answering the questions I often get about where to begin and what to do first. It turned instead into a provocative analogy about encountering the sometimes very challenging transformative potential of personal work.

In comments, emails, and even phone calls, it is clear that the article struck a chord for several readers. The deep level of personal work expressed by that analogy appears to be something people long for, but are also fearful of. Their comments and questions, as well as my own reaction to the article, led me on an odyssey of my own.

The Deep End

Looking at photographs of Deep Eddy pool in Austin, you can see there are several zones where people congregate: the shallows, the mid-water, and the deep end. For the most part, the only ones in the deep end are swimming laps or sitting along the edge, slipping in for an occasional refreshing dip.

If I were a real swimmer, I would be a solitary swimmer. Most of my time in a swimming pool is spent in the water just deeper than that of families playing with their children, which puts me in proximity to that place where the warmer shallow water sinks into the colder deep and tends to pull me in. I find it to be an exciting sensation, though I do not want to “get in over my head,” so am cautious.

Learning to Swim

When I was perhaps six or seven years old, I took swimming lessons one summer in order to keep me from drowning should I fall into a pool or into the lake, where I loved to fish with my grandparents. The class always began in belly-deep water, warming up and playing. Inevitably, we would go to the deep end where we learned to dive and swim.

The first thing we learned was called the “dead man’s float.” Lying face down in the water, I would relax my arms and legs and simply float buoyed by the air in my lungs and torso. Frankly, it was my favorite thing to do in class and I could float that way longer than anyone else. It was peaceful and I felt perfectly safe. In fact, it was the only time I felt safe in the deep end.

I could also float face up, but not so comfortably. Something about the buoyancy and distribution of weight of my body makes me float low enough on the surface that water splashes onto my face, and unless I constantly kick my feet to stay horizontal, my legs sink and drag me down. That sends me into a mild but formidable panic.

If you drop a needle horizontal onto water in a glass, the surface tension makes it float. But if you drop that same needle vertically into the glass it sinks instantly. The same is true of a body in water or in quicksand. Horizontal, you float; vertical, you sink. I was terrified of sinking quickly and uncontrollably in deep water.

Another thing that I enjoy is slipping beneath the surface and looking up at the sunlight above. Even though I tend to sink, this is actually quite difficult to do unless your lungs are empty. Holding air in my lungs makes it impossible to stay under the water, so I have push myself down against a ladder’s rung.

My ideal would be to sink to the bottom of the pool, while connected to the surface by a good, strong hose for air.

The Not-doing of Drowning

In reflecting on Diving In and my personal history of swimming, I was reminded of the teaching of Don Juan Matus, as reported by Carlos Castaneda, regarding “not-doing”. A way to describe not-doing is to think of understanding a leaf, not by looking at its top surface, but from underneath. Lucid dreaming is the not-doing of ordinary dreaming.

The not-doing of drowning is not escaping drowning, but rather being aware of not drowning, even when being overwhelmed by water.

The same is true in relation to an encounter with Power in the personal development process. At some point, when you are ready, when you reach a certain edge of your comfort zone, that process, in alignment with your intention for change and in cahoots with Spirit, may very well drag you into the deep end. That experience may be either exciting or terrifying, or both at the same time. The difference between the two is determined by fear.

“In a sense, your old self drowns so you can swim.” The not-doing of drowning has to do with letting go of what is overwhelming you. Though you may be in the throes of a spiritual crisis, it is not Spirit that is immobilizing. The part of your old self that has to die is fear.

There is a way to be with fear in order to overcome it: surrender to it. The “dead man’s float,” in which you stop resisting the panic and relax into the natural buoyancy of your body, can save your life. Similarly, the natural buoyancy of your soul can save you in a spiritual crisis.

When things become overwhelming, get horizontal, breathe, relax every part of your body that you can. Once your awareness is in the present moment your mind can let go of fear and the panic in your body can subside. Then you can find the best next thing to do, and do it. Take action! Eventually, you will become accustomed to the deeper water and become a stronger swimmer.

The Bottom of the Pool

As mentioned before, one of the things I enjoy about being in a pool is looking up from underneath the surface to the light and sky above. For me, it is enrapturing. Personally, I believe I would remain at the bottom of the pool for long periods of time if I had a way to breathe: a long, secure tube that connected me to the air above. With that support, I would not be afraid.

When asked, people who are in that state of overwhelming fear say they feel they have lost their sense of connection to Spirit. They have lost their ability to breathe; they feel that they are drowning and they are. They are afraid, holding their breath and running out of oxygen, and they have forgotten something very important:

Spirit is always with you, even when you don’t feel it’s life-saving tube to the surface nearby.

The ideal in a deeply spiritual life is not to be detached, dispassionate, and never afraid. Spirituality is a state of being fully engaged in the moment, whatever that moment might give rise to. It is to be aware wherever you are in the pool – the shallows, the playful middle, the deep end – that you are connected to Spirit. It is always there, present, with you.

As with learning to swim, part of learning to be in such equanimity with Spirit and to be prepared for falling into the deep end is to dive in to it, on purpose, as many times as you can.

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