For me, the world is too much present in an aerobics class—the sight of the other people, the thump of the music. And I never had the competitive thrust or the eye-hand coordination to play a team sport or follow a ball. I like the submersion—into the water, into myself—that swimming brings. This isn't because I'm a solitary person. On the contrary, I love engaging other people to find out what drives them. All the more reason, then, to regularly disengage, to disappear from the hurly-burly of the world for a short while.
Sometimes, when I first get into the pool, I have trouble breaking through my initial sluggishness. It's then that I attempt to do something similar to what Zen meditation teachers suggest. I follow my progress up the lane and back; the very thing its detractors find so tiresome about swimming—the repetition, the ceaseless back-and-forth—becomes my saving grace. As I stroke up the lane, I count: One. On the way back I repeat: One. And I proceed from there: Two-two. Three-three. Thoughts and ideas may crowd into my head, but they are all eventually banished by the slow, steady, rhythmic need to keep count. Four-four. Five-five. And usually around the tenth lap, or perhaps, on a bad day, the twelfth, that amazing lifting sensation comes: the reward, when I take off and begin to float, to flow.
There's a freedom that comes with letting go of the busyness in my mind and wholeheartedly embracing each stroke and kick. Time is erased, or else it expands—I'm not sure which. Stephan Rechtschaffen, MD, a holistic doctor with a strong interest in spirituality, talks about this process in his book Timeshifting. "There's a word for the conscious focus in the present moment: mindfulness.... It means conscious awareness of the present, using all our faculties, all our senses—being aware of what's going on around us and within us as well.... When we enter a state of mindful attention, the present moment, the now, eases open. And when it does, life pours in." I had to smile to myself when I first laid eyes on those words. I had immediately conjured a vivid image of life, in the form of pool water, pouring in on me, rushing in on my goggles and my consciousness.
Growing up I enjoyed jumping waves in the ocean and an occasional swim in a bay, but nothing more. Then, in my late twenties, I became friends with a woman I later called Coach. She swam almost obsessively—a mile every night after work and on the weekends, too. She never made dinner plans for earlier than 8:30 because that's when she was finished at the pool. She probably got her lean, wiry body from her genetic code, but her toned shoulders and well-muscled arms could have come only from those endless chlorinated miles. I couldn't understand her devotion, but one day I accompanied her to the pool as a guest.
Next: Falling in love with the water