Open water swimming: an exercise in contemplation and discernment

June 9, 2021 in News

BRENDAN McMANUS SJ :: It seems like a piece of madness, to swim in the lake or sea outside of peak summer. Even in the spring when the water is starting to warm up, it’s still pretty cold in the north of Ireland. So why do it, why put yourself through this ordeal of fending off hypothermia, getting cold changing in carparks and trying to keep warm standing shivering in bulky coats? This article is an attempt to explain that paradoxical lure.

It’s a summer evening and the sun is out, casting its rays into the peaty brown water that is Lough Erne. Rolling into the front crawl, it seems effortless and beautiful really. It’s that feeling of freedom, wellness and simply being connected. Off your shoulder other swimmers’ hands puncture the glassy surface as they too enter this underwater world, coming up for air every few strokes. It is a rare thing, to be out in nature’s pallet in all weathers; but not only that, to be part of it, immersed in it and engaging with it. There is a certain fear of the unknown and hidden depths to be overcome and safety in numbers certainly. But it is an adventure into a new world, where your swimming keeps you afloat and a healthy respect develops for this wonderful water-world. Coming back to shore you are like a triumphant explorer, having found new worlds and made it back alive. The sense of solidarity with others and the world is exhilarating, indescribable really.

The health benefits are many from positive mental health, combating depression and dementia, and generally fending off all that Covid apathy that ties you to the house. It is one of the few ‘socially distant’ sports that has taken off during Lockdown. What you don’t see however, is the immersive ‘being in the moment’, thermic shock almost that initially takes your breath away, and then as it calms, radiates relaxation and feel good hormones through the body. Sometimes even a few minutes is enough to achieve this skin tingling, endorphin high that can last all evening. A small bit of pain for a huge amount of gain!

One of the keys is being able to read your body and making good decisions about how long to stay in, when to turn back and being able to warm up quickly. This is a lesson in awareness, mindfulness and individual discerning of decisions. Not everyone is the same, some can go for ages in just a swimming costume and some need a wetsuit and all the extras just to get in the water. It all depends on your own tolerances and limits, and the beauty of outdoor swimming is that it teaches you to respect these limits. There is a direct connection between your body and the limits, the consequences are keenly felt and getting it wrong can mean shivering by a fire all evening. However, you learn and there comes a happy day where you understand the body’s signals well and are able to operate in that ‘feel good’ zone where you get the balance and make the right decisions. The water is a great teacher and you have to be a humble follower, learning, discerning and implementing this wisdom- often others play a crucial role in dispensing advice, noticing symptoms when you overdo it, and keeping an eye on each other.

There is a great sense of community amongst outdoor swimmers that you only get on somewhere like the Camino de Santiago or a walking pilgrimage. It amounts to a rare acceptance, openness and lack of judgement or competition. The sheer fun and craic that passes between people alone makes it worthwhile. It is a great leveller; everyone is equal in the water, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, you are a human among others who submits oneself to this often daily ritual of re-humanisation to remind yourself of what’s important and of value. It is a baptism in life and humanity that strips away the superficial pretence and airs that separate people. The standard uniform of swimming costume or wetsuit brings attention back to the face, the person, and the personality. Strangers are chatting in seconds as they speak of the water, the weather and real things. It is liberating not to have to pretend.

Inevitability there is a spirituality to it: it is a return to the womb in a sense, an escape from invasive technology and an immersion in nature’s fundamental element. There is a natural reverence and awe about these wild places that encourages contemplation. Also there is an essential earthiness about the body, its tolerances and limits induces a healthy respect. You are not in control in many ways; there is a huge degree of abandonment and commitment to the water. You have to trust; trust yourself and the unpredictability of nature’s powerful beauty. Every swimmer has to exercise discretion and caution, recognising limits and risks, and yet live the incredible gift and graciousness of being able to operate within them. Every swim is unique, another invitation to experience one’s mortality and frailty, and yet something divine pervades the experience in all its aspects. There is a transformation that happens: at the level of mood and well being, but also in learning what it is to be human and relating to others.

Many people reject it out of hand, not aware of the riches it has to offer, often on your doorstep. It has been a blessing during lockdown especially, one of the few socially distant sports that has seen an explosion in popularity. Be part of it!