The sea is cooling down now. It takes a certain amount of will and clenching to get in. But one never regrets a swim.
We undress, perhaps body conscious, perhaps with a distracted mind racing with problems to resolve. By the time we’re up to our knees, all that gives way to a riot of sensation through tingling skin.
Directing my attention consciously to the senses as I dive in, I am suddenly a lover of bubbles rising from fingers, a horizontal arrow shape, a land mammal dependent on breath.
Becoming animal like this is glorious respite from our conditioned achiever and performer roles. At the level of our identity, it’s also an empirical reminder of the truth.
There’s no knowing what experience the sea will give us. Today was a tranquil love affair with rainbow ripples and the slow slinky shimmy of kelp.
Yesterday I was slamming across rising walls of opaque grey-green wave. Swimming, we are under no illusion of control or dominion over the sea. That’s a wise humility in relation to the planet, in these ecologically pivotal times.
Neuroscientists tell us that our emotions swell and crest and dissipate just like waves. No wonder so much language of emotion is watery the surge of passion, the ripple of delight, the flood of anger . . . We can take any emotion into the sea and know we’ll come out in a radically different state. Even in a pool, the sinuous whole-body movements help discharge a nervous system that is holding on to stress.
To swim in a swelling ocean is to be held by a bigger living body with its own moods. We can duck-dive down to where the splashing and ruffling settles into silence, remembering our own steady centre beneath the complexity of our lives.
We can swivel in all dimensions, be flotsam bodysurfers, or circle with a school of fish. Such activities put our passing ripples of emotion into perspective. They can transform our adult concerns.
And in the end, this brine we kick against when swimming is not so separate from us. In its 3.8 billion years, this water has crashed as waves, risen as cloud, fallen as rain and become groundwater, making its way into the blood, the ectoplasm, cerebrospinal fluid, the very joints that enable us to kick.
When I invite swimmers to reflect on their own salinity and participation in the water cycle, they report feeling more interwoven with their surroundings, enjoying a greater oneness than they usually allow.
These conscious swimming practices are clearly nourishing for the individual; they may also have a wider role to play. In the field of ecopsychology, research shows that as people actually feel their interconnectedness with nature, they become more likely to support measures of protection and regeneration for it. After all, we care for those we feel closest to.
An uncomfortable truth is that, as Auckland has grown, the life in its oceans has declined alarmingly. It’s hard to tell because while the species dwindle and the sedimentation keeps growing, the surface has continued to sparkle, and the swimming remains great.
In this context, it seems important that Aucklanders deepen their felt sense of relationship with the waters. Maybe sweet moments of interbeing can help ignite the collective will to develop Auckland city in a way that restores the beautiful, ailing Tīkapa Moana/Hauraki Gulf.
So next summer, in partnership with the Waiheke Marine Project, we are developing a series of public Conscious Swim workshops for people who engage with the ocean for different reasons.
You might join us for a conscious swim as a beach lover, boatie, mana whenua of coastal land, as a fisher, conservationist, marine tourism worker, for example.
The Waiheke Marine Project acknowledges there are many interests in the ocean and that the differences of opinion have typically delayed Auckland’s ability to enact marine protection in a timely way.
After a hugely diverse community conversation co-led by Ngāti Pāoa, the project is experimenting with initiatives that find common ground, boost the mauri/life force of the ocean, and inspire integrated care from land to sea, among other things.
Sea swimming already gives us vitality and uplift. Adding an extra layer of attentive awareness can bring even more expansive, embodied experiences of interconnection with the ocean.
It may turn out to be that most elusive of things a healthy life-sustaining pleasure.