In the Swim: Musings on Meditation under Water

1. Wendy’s “Water”

On May 24 last year, I went to the Steynberg gallery on Monterey St. to attend a concert by Shadowlands, a new local musical group consisting of Bob and Wendy Liepman and their collaborators Mark Davis and Karolyn Hausted. They were introducing songs they’d written in preparation for recording them on a CD to be released early in 2015. I’d made a contribution to their crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter because I admired Wendy’s dedication to feeding the Homeless and because I enjoyed her earlier songs, many of which seemed to me more like religious hymns than folk tunes.

Their first piece was the album’s title track, “Shadowlands,” a dark evocation of the mental condition we usually call depression, but which in earlier times was known as melancholia—a state associated not only with illness but also with deep thought, fertile creativity and spiritual awakening.

Next was a busy, nervous piece which began, “O restless mind you’re working overtime,/when you chase (thoughts) what do you hope to find?”— a rebuke of the annoying monkey mind that meditators try to quiet.

Then came a long anthem whose chorus repeats “Every worldly thing will evaporate”—an adaptation of the perennial poetic refrain, Ubi Sunt, or where have they gone?–and an explicit assertion of the first of Buddha’s four noble truths.

The song which affected me most that night was called “Water.” It was about a connection between swimming and meditation.

Your religion is water,

you pray when you swim

Your church is a shining pool,

you worship within

When your breath and your body

And Mind and Water are one

In synchronized motion

Your prayer has begun

WATER, WATER

Your religion is water, into the waters you dive

It washes away the pain,

It keeps you alive

Let the water surround you

All your worries dissolve

And when you go with the flow

No problems to solve

WATER, WATER

…. You pray when you swim

…, you worship within

When your breath and your body

And Mind and Water are one

In synchronized motion

A Meditation

WATER, WATER, WATER, WATER

As promised at the concert, the complete Shadowlands CD became available to Kickstarter contributors in late 2014. After listening to “Water” again a number of times, I asked Wendy for permission to play and talk about it tonight and she said, fine.

The song is shaped overall by a tiny introduction, three stanzas, and a refrain consisting of the word “Water” repeated after each of the stanzas. There’s a good deal of repetition of both melody and lyrics throughout, which for me evokes the rhythmic repetition of a swimmer’s strokes and the repetitive movement back and forth across the pool.

The song begins with three slow plinks suggesting the formation and fall of water drops as well as the sound of the gong starting and ending a session of meditation.

This double association introduces the song’s theme pairing the body’s immersion in water with the mind’s awareness while sitting. An accelerated repetition of the plinks blends into the continuous flow of a voice backed by a babbling piano line that immerses the listener in sound.

Your religion is water,

you pray when you swim

Your church is a shining pool,

you worship within

These words reinforce the idea of immersion: in the shining stained glass light of a church and in the shining water of a swimming pool. “Worship within” adds another immersion–into the inner sanctum of the mind.

The flow of voice, piano and cello sweeps up the listener in a current of sound. The alternation of stressed and unstressed beats evokes the swimmer’s pumping arms and in-out breaths. The returning sound of the bell superimposes the association of purity and silence upon the vigorous flow of energy.

In the next two lines, as the melody changes, the lyrics elevate the metaphor of swimming as worship into an abstract equation: breath=body=mind=water. They suggest a state beyond the separation of opposites: matter and spirit, self and surroundings

When your breath and your body

And Mind and Water are one

As the first melody returns, the lyrics return us to a temporal narrative:

In synchronized motion 

Your prayer has begun

That prayer consists of the refrain’s accelerating repetition of the single word “water.” Its two syllables splash into multiplying phonemes as the solo voice is joined first by another in luscious harmony and then by a flood of instrumental chords expressing both multiplicity and unity:

WATER, WATER

In the second stanza, the metaphor of swimming as communion is replaced by swimming as baptism. The voice here takes on a priestly tone, conferring absolution on a tormented soul in a ritual of cleansing and healing. The immersion is now a head-first dive, relaxing the tension of anxiety and selfhood in the brain:

Your religion is water, into the waters you dive

It washes away the pain,

It keeps you alive

Let the water surround you

All your worries dissolve

And when you go with the flow

No problems to solve

The final stanza reprises the lyrics of the first, but with a few significant variations. Earlier phrases referring to religion and the church are swapped for instrumental passages emphasizing the cello, and the final line in the first stanza, “your prayer has begun,” is replaced here by the near-rhyme, “A Meditation.” The little trill on the word’s third syllable to me suggests a quick dip into the world within:

….

you pray when you swim

….

you worship within

When your breath and your body

And Mind and Water are one

In synchronized motion  

A Meditation

Instead of being repeated once as after the previous stanzas, here, in the concluding meditation, the refrain’s prayer of WATER is repeated three times.

2. The Theme

This song’s theme of the connection between swimming and meditation is rare but not unique. For Henry David Thoreau, swimming in Walden Pond was analogous to immersing himself in the Dharma. “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta.” The water of the lake allowed him to “worship within”:

To be calm, to be serene! There is the calmness of the lake when there is not a breath of wind. . . . So it is with us. Sometimes we are clarified and calmed healthily, as we never were before in our lives, not by an opiate, but by some unconscious obedience to the all-just laws, so that we become like a still lake of purest crystal and without an effort our depths are revealed to ourselves. All the world goes by us and is reflected in our deeps. Such clarity!

If with closed ears and eyes I consult consciousness for a moment, immediately are all walls and barriers dissipated, earth rolls from under me, and I float . . . in the midst of an unknown and infinite sea, or else heave and swell like a vast ocean of thought… (Walden, chapter 16)

Leonard Cohen, during his regular pilgrimages to India after leaving the Mount Baldy Monastery, lived anonymously in a small rented room, meditated, read, wrote and swam daily in a nearby hotel pool.

In recent years a number of dedicated swimmers have explored the relationship between swimming and meditation.

Bonnie Tsui, wrote in a NY Times opinion piece about swimming as a rare way for moderns

to unplug; the blunting of the senses by water encourages internal retreat. Though we don’t all reach nirvana when we swim, swimming may well be that last refuge from connectivity — and, for some, the only way to find the solitary self… We enter the meditative state induced by counting laps, and observe the subtle play of light as the sun moves across the lanes. … Submersion creates the space to be free, to stretch, without having to contend with constant external chatter. It creates internal quiet, too.

In a book entitled Swim: Why we Love the Water, Lynn Scher says

Swimming is my salvation…an inward journey, a time of quiet contemplation, when, encased in an element at once hostile and familiar, I find myself at peace, able—and eager—to flex my mind…The silence is stunning….The lane line keeps us centered in more ways than one. Swimming forces you to focus and sets the mood to meditate…

The idea of the connection between meditation and swimming elaborated in these quotes and in Wendy’s song recurs in a book by Stephen Snyder and Tina Rasmussen:

Purification of mind can be likened to the clearing of a cloudy glass of water. At first, there are particles of dirt floating throughout the water. Over time, with stillness, the particles settle, revealing a clear, sparkling pure glass of water. (8)

The authors develop an extended analogy between the serenity experienced in Samatha meditation practice and the experience of scuba divers:

… the water immediately off the beach where waves are breaking is referred to as the surf zone. … The scuba divers’ primary intention is to get through…and into the calm ocean quickly and safely without being knocked down by the crashing waves. … …sometimes it takes many trips through the surf zone…. But eventually, if you stay focused and persist, you will break through the surf zone and into the open sea…plunging to greater depths into the stillness where the waves no longer crash. There, it is peaceful, beautiful, and even easy. You can look up to the waves overhead and not be touched by them. (55)

3. Anapanasati

When I was in my twenties, under the influence of drugs I fleetingly experienced the state these writers describe. Later I tried to reach it with meditation, but was unsuccessful. Nevertheless I continued sitting regularly for the next forty years, determined to spend twenty minutes a day for the general health benefits, and resigned to leave it at that.

Things changed when I retired four years ago. Entering the stage of life that feels like a continual battle between decay and growth, I felt a last-chance urgency to give it another try.

My spiritual practice shifted from a morning hygiene routine to a quest. I kept a meditation journal. I joined the White Heron Sangha for its community of support for meditators. After being invited to join the program committee, I volunteered to give occasional dharma talks to seal my commitment.

A workshop offered by Sangha members Nancy Hillyard and June Kramer at Mary Renard’s local retreat center, Crow’s End, provided an opportunity to take one more step. They introduced me to Anapanasati Meditation, a practice traceable to original directives of the Buddha, as interpreted by the Burmese Monk, Pa Auk Sayadow, and popularized by Snyder and Rasmussen. This practice, also called Samatha meditation, promises access to a deep tranquility of mind that makes it possible to attain expanded states of consciousness. Samatha is achieved through the technique of focusing attention exclusively on a single object for long periods of time. In Anapanasati Meditation, the single object is not simply the breath, as in other forms of meditation, but specifically, the movement of the breath as it passes a place between nostrils and upper lip called the anapana spot.

This fulfillment is likely to occur only during lengthy silent retreats. But preparation for it requires strenuous daily practice to overcome the mind’s normal tendency toward flightiness and chatter. According to Snyder and Rasmussen, such preparation will result in “momentary concentration,” a state of tension between distracting mental impulses referred to as “hindrances” and the incipient energies of more advanced stages of the practice, referred to as “the Jhana factors.” The five hindrances are classified as 1. sense desire, 2. hostility or aversion, 3. sloth and torpor, 4. restlessness and remorse and 5. doubt. As the practice strengthens, these are gradually supplanted by the five Jhana factors: 1. applied attention, 2. sustained attention, 3. joy, 4. bliss, and 5. one-pointedness. As they prevail over the hindrances, the meditator enters the state of “access concentration.” Here the “supercharged energy of the jhanas” (29) makes itself felt, but only in diluted form. More intense and lengthier practice leads to a mental state called “absorption,” consisting of unwavering concentration on the breath passing the Anapana spot. Absorption opens the door to full reception of the mystical experiences of the Jhanas.

The first landmark of progress in this effort is the intermittent appearance of a light known as the Nimmita during access concentration. Later the Nimmita becomes stable, “solid and energized” and then merges with the anapana spot. At that point the meditator may be “drawn into the first…jhana,” the lowest of seven higher stages of awareness.(62)

These teachings at first seemed as alien to me as the Burmese name of the teacher, Pa Auk Sayadaw. But after some conversations with June and then watching videos of presentations by Stephen and Tina and studying their book, Practising the Jhanas, I made up my mind to jump in. I was encouraged by the dharma talks given to this Sangha by Brian Gavin, their leading student-teacher, a geologist from Spokane who came to San Luis Obispo every Spring, to take part in a bicycle race before his recent untimely death. Brian attested that he was able to reach first Jhana during a three-week retreat within a few months of being introduced to the practice.

I was intrigued by the idea of a short and sure-fire approach to spiritual growth offered by this simple, if bizarre, technique. But it turned out not to be that easy. The anapana spot itself is not a feature of the physical anatomy. You create it with your attention rather than find it, and you have to hang on in order not to be dislodged by the natural flow of other thoughts. At the same time you have to attend to the movement of the breath. This is not the movement of the muscles in the chest or diaphragm but the movement of the airflow, and only as it passes that spot. And even when you latch on to that, it’s hard to exclude everything else. Stephen and Tina acknowledge the difficulty of overcoming the hindrances and persisting in the effort. “When you start anapanasati meditation, your physical and mental energy need to be high…”

In February 2014, I attended a four-day “Introduction to Concentration Meditation” at Cloud Mountain Retreat Center in Washington State led by Stephen and Brian. During exchanges when it was over, I heard from people who’d seen the Nimmita and from one who had passed into Jhana, and I was frustrated by my own failure to do either. But I was gratified by the retreat’s interlude of quiet solitude and not ready to give up. A couple of months later I paid the hefty deposit to reserve a spot and arranged with my family to leave me time to attend a thirteen-day Anapanasati retreat that will take place in October 2015.

4. Swim

Stephen and Tina say, “We encourage yogis to come to the practice with an Olympics mentality.”(30) I never had an Olympics mentality. Always a schlemiel at sports, my athletic activity was limited to running–by myself and unobserved. I had no desire to race but ran as a way to stay in shape, get high on endorphins and enjoy the freedom of letting my feet decide where we were going.

At about the time I retired, my body commanded me to stop the high-impact exercise. Neither expensive shoes nor ipuprofen could overcome the effects of osteoarthritis. Grudgingly, I relinquished the open road for swimming back and forth between lane lines in the Cal Poly pool.

My motivation to continue with this routine was shored up by our grandson, Ian. After dropping out of soccer, baseball and karate, he’d recently taken up training with the Sea Hawks swim-team at Sinsheimer Pool and was sticking with it of his own accord. The repetitious and grueling hour-and-a-quarter daily workouts demanded by his coaches were enhancing his self-discipline, confidence and overall well-being in addition to improving his performance, measured in hundredth-of-a-second units of progress.

I observed him and his teammates and most of my fellow swimmers at Cal Poly gliding across the pool like aquatic mammals in graceful uninterrupted flow while I thrashed and flopped like a dog. I chafed with envy at the way the water seemed their ally rather than antagonist.

If my grandson and the others could learn to swim like that, why not me? If after 40 years of uninstructed meditation I could take up Anapanasati as a beginner, maybe after 60 years of uninstructed swimming I could find a teacher to help me start anew.

At the Rec Center I was referred to an imposing man known simply as “Coach,” who trained the Master Swimmers on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I knew I’d never become one of them, but he agreed to take me on for weekly private lessons. He offered many tips—leave the arm forward until after starting the next stroke, at each stroke rotate at the hips, lower the head in the water to float the legs, keep the eyes on the black line at the bottom of the pool, slow the motion of the arms through the air.

It was far more than my mind could absorb or my body could follow. We agreed to slow down to shorter lessons at irregular intervals of a month or more. I resolved to work out for 40 minutes a day. I saw the college students in the Stroke Improvement class showing more progress in six days than I did in six months. But nevertheless, after two years, I can feel the swivel of my hips drill me forward through the water and I can see the tiles of the center line pass by smoothly below. At the last lesson, Coach high-fived me saying, “Hey, now you’re swimming Free Style.”

I appreciated the irony of the stroke’s name. To do Free Style had taken a lot of restraint: of the impulses to windmill with the arms and keep the head up, of the fear of sinking and running out of breath, of exasperation at not going faster. It encapsulated the larger irony that the desire for serenity in swimming and in meditation had lured me into daily activity demanding struggle, risk, and willingness to fail.

5. Skillful effort

I understand now why the notion of an Olympic mentality needs to be qualified both for swimming and meditation: “In using this metaphor, we are not emphasizing the competitive aspect of the Olympics but rather the sense of excellence that can be experienced just by participating,”(30) say Stephen and Tina.

I still tire after my 40 minutes in the pool, and I’ve given up looking at the big clock to track my speed. I haven’t reached the stage of access concentration. I’ve learned that I cant afford to think in terms of success and failure or winning and losing, but that along with effort, I need to cultivate the ability to wait and, particularly in this stage of life, to be patient: “…many retreats can pass without the appearance of the nimmita…meditation moves, changes and progresses in its own time.”(56)

Stephen and Tina also warn about the pitfalls of effort. The “proactive effort” required to combat the hindrances by repeatedly pulling the awareness back to the object must be offset by “receptive effort,” the ability to be open to the influence of the Jhana factors arising from beyond the ego and its will. “The appropriate balance of effort without striving and discipline without attachment is what makes attainment…possible.” (36)

Such a paradoxical and unstable balance is often referred to by Buddhists as “skillful effort.” According to Stephen and Tina, continued exercise of proactive effort gradually reduces the need for it. With an athletic metaphor, they offer reassurance that each falling away produces a step in the right direction: “Every time we bring our awareness back to our object, we are ‘building the muscle’ of concentration…With many repetitions, over time and with consistency, our capacity increases.”(12-13)

In another water-centered metaphor, they refer to what kayakers call “riding the rail,” that is, finding an unseen current that carries them along with only the effort of small strokes to keep them centered on it.

A different way of understanding the paradox of skillful effort is with the concept of habit. As John Dilworth pointed out here a few weeks ago, the mechanisms of habit have been studied by behaviorists as early as Aristotle, and are a hot topic among neuropsychologists today. Habitual repetition of a task, whether by “building the muscle” of concentration or by developing “muscle memory” in the swimmer’s limbs, produces a thickening of the myelin coating of the nerve pathways involved in the action.

When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems. “Muscle memory”

Or, alternately, in a figure of speech often falsely attributed to Thoreau:

As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.

Conclusion

I find striking similarities in the skillful effort required by swimming and by meditation. Both involve heightened concentration during repetitive movements: situations when consciousness is most likely to wander and the monkey mind most likely to take over. Both involve steady correction to stay on course. Both involve a mysteriously flowing interplay between intention and action. Both take place in solitude and quiet, a world where, in Wendy’s words, “mind and body and breath are one.” What I have realized recently is that these similarities allow the two efforts to reinforce and strengthen one another. I’m grateful to her for leading me to that realization and to all of you for listening to me reflect upon it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Response to “In the Swim: Musings on Meditation under Water”

  1. Mary Renard Says:

    thank you for publishing the talk and music, Steven. I was bummed that I had to miss the evening at sangha. I spent the day at Esalen with my daughters, in the waters!

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