February 3, 2016

Swimming Through: On Anxiety, Meditation & Water.

Pic - Lena Bilik

Sometimes, I feel the need to be submerged in water. I need to be reminded of my body’s natural inclination to come up for air.

Irrational fears have always plagued my mind in loopy circles that are sometimes faded, sometimes overwhelming to the point where my vision is altered by their black bony fingering lines.

Often, we call this “anxiety.” About 40 million of us suffer from it in the U.S.

When I was 10, my father would take me to swim laps with him. When we got in the water we each had our own quiet experience that I look back on now like side by side meditations, separated by swimming lanes. There, I found moments of true calm—the rhythmic breathing, the cool on my face, the way the water propelled me, but also made my body feel lithe and strong. I was both weightless and in control, for once.

But occasionally, those black fingers of fear would snake their way around the front of my face like vines. They gave no warning. Suddenly they were just there and I would feel so strongly that there was a shark in the pool. The second half of the lane was deeper and I couldn’t see the bottom, which meant there must be something ominous there, something with teeth.

On an enormous and very real level, I knew this was impossible—we were not in the ocean—but suddenly the comforting cool became shark-infested waters. Obviously there was no shark in the pool, but what if there was? Suddenly the imagined fear from an imagined situation was all that was real. I still swam the laps, but with that fear billowing in my chest.

It wasn’t that I feared a shark was actually in the pool; it was that I feared the image of the shark that, now conceived of, would always be lurking at the bottom of my brain, surfacing to the top of the lake of my mind.

This is anxiety.

We know it’s not rational; it can seem to come up at random, like a wave. Each time, we have two choices: we can try to float with it and allow ourselves a sort of powerful weightlessness, or we can fight it. Fighting it only causes sputtering and spitting—or forces us to get out of the water.

I have been practicing meditation for three years and often recommend it to anyone who weathers these harsh waves. Here is an image to begin with: picture the bottom of an ocean. It is still and calm, no matter what is happening at the top—storms, turbulence, even ice. Picture yourself at the bottom of an ocean. Rather than feeling suffocating, this can feel wide open, like a field. No matter what happens at the surface of the ocean of your mind, you are below. Still. Breathing.

Meditation lets you sit in this powerful well of strong, still water beneath your surface.

The more often we access this feeling, the grayer the black vines of fear can become. By now, for me, they have faded and frayed around the edges. They still sometimes emerge, and they might always be there, but now I can force them back with the strength of rushing water. There is a refuge we can always slip into like a cool pool, and it’s inside us.  There is an underlying stillness in all of us. Meditating helps access this. And the more we access it, the more it overtakes our lives. The less we fear.

Being in water can remind us of this; I recommend this as a form of medicine. Submerge yourself in it as often as you can. If you can, swim naked in water in summer. The water will be the same temperature as the air. Float on your back and notice that the sky is the same color as the water. Everything is really the same. Imagine you are a silky-backed sea animal—not affected, not affecting.

I started swimming laps again. The other day as I was swimming I started thinking too hard about my arms. How could they hold me up? How could that physically work? They are so small, so frail. I am going to sink. I am going to drown. There has to be a shark at the bottom of the pool.

I stopped in the middle of the lane.

I stood. I took a deep breath, went under and felt the cool on my skin, the strength of my limbs, my body’s natural will to bob back up.

My mind clear as water, I kept swimming.


Author: Lena Bilik

Editor: Nicole Cameron

Image: Author’s Own


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