I went swimming today. Or rather I went to the pool and played in the water. I don’t yet know how to swim despite having made it my goal to learn the skill two years ago. Today was the first time I entered the pool since that time and I had to wear a circular balloon around my ribs to prevent myself from drowning.
Going to the pool was extremely uncomfortable for me. As usual, I did my very best to dissuade myself from going: Is it necessary? If you don’t go will you die? Is swimming really worth risking your life over? That pool has no lifeguards, remember?
I am learning to tune this voice out. In the past, I have always had to wrestle with such internal objections whenever I made plans to go out for any leisurely activity. But usually, when I go out I end up having a fabulous time. Even though today wasn’t exactly fabulous, it did exceed my expectations.
When I stepped into the pool the water and the balloon about my ribs felt treacherous. In the first 15 minutes or so, it felt like a silly idea to have come in the first place. I could barely move in the water.
Never having consumed any material on how to swim, the first thing I did was paddle furiously with hands and feet, hoping that my ferocity would make up for my lack of skill and coordination. Here’s how this worked out for me:
Beating haphazardly against the water did actually move me forward a little bit, but this did not help because it also moved me backward. The same current that propelled me forward also tossed me back. For every 50 centimeters I gained in the forward direction, the water pushed me back another 40 centimeters, leaving me with only 10 centimeters gained for all my hard work; and even the 10 centimeters would not be in the right direction; so I often found myself starting at one end of the pool and ending up at one of the sides when I had been aiming for the other end.
After a few minutes of pointless paddling, I paused a moment and tried to apply some sense. Clearly, speed and ferocity were not working. I also noticed that I was swimming with my body and not with my mind. Lastly, I wasn’t listening to the water.
I went so far as to reflect on how fishes swim. Most fishes seem to just glide through the water with hardly a fin moving. Their body seems to be so in tune with the water that simple muscle contraction and relaxation suffices to propel them through the water. The reason I was constantly sliding backward was that I didn’t have any rhythm to my movements. I just pushed the water forward and backward almost simultaneously and expected it to move me only forward. I needed to listen to the water. A rhythm is set up when I move the water the first time; my subsequent movements needed to follow that rhythm.
I was trying out these new ideas as I thought them and found that I was making some progress. Finally, I decided to turn over and swim backward with my back against the water instead of my belly. This was a stroke of genius. It made swimming incredibly easy. My hands and legs could easily achieve some synchronization in this position. I know I won’t always have to swim in this position but it was a good start.
I would place my legs in an open diamond shape with my hands spread in a V-shape on either side of my head. Then I’d push my feet into a straight position while at the same time paddling my hands down to my sides. My body would then assume a horizontally straight position, allowing me to easily move in the water. I would stay that way until I perceived my speed diminishing, at which point I would give another paddle again. I think that’s how the jellyfish moves in the water.
At the end of an hour, I was impressed with the progress. The balloon was still wrapped around my chest of course, and I’m sure if I had removed it at any point, I would have sunk to the bottom like a rock. But the fact that I was able to paddle and move in the direction I determined was a good start.
I learned a life lesson in that pool. Too often, we are so engrossed in our strive for results that we forget to even pay attention to the process much less enjoy it.
I want to experience life as I go through it; I want to experience it in all its shades; the pleasant experiences and the not so pleasant but inevitable experiences…I want to experience them all for what they are. I don’t want to gaslight myself. I don’t want to live in denial. I don’t want to engage in some frantic struggle or a mighty but futile effort just to give myself the impression that I am making progress when in reality I’m only avoiding certain unpleasant truths I need to face.
Sometimes some experiences are necessary for the lessons they will teach you. And sometimes, the pieces of our lives are so arranged that without needing help from an external party, we can turn our lives around radically for the better if we would only pause and give it some careful thought. That is all I needed to be able to swim on my first day without an instructor.
I have known many staunch individuals who regard activities like swimming, working out, singing, dancing, reading fiction, e.t.c as purely juvenile indulgences. But life is so intricately connected that you can learn about engineering, medicine, and so on from swimming or dancing or writing; perhaps not directly but your sense of rhythm, pattern recognition, poise, general keenness to details, creativity, etc will sharpen thereby making you a better engineer or doctor.
Like the Polymath, Leonardo da Vinci once said: “Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
Thanks for reading!