In my childhood, being unplugged just meant not watching TV. Neither cell phones nor smartphones were present. This was in the 70’s and 80’s when we played outside, ran around in the woods and went swimming. Unknowingly, these experiences taught me to focus.
Why? Experiential learning, especially in the outdoors, trains the body-mind connection. I have very distinct memories of being present in my body. I remember climbing trees and hanging out in trees. The colors of the leaves and feel of the bark under my hands is still with me. These memories are strong because of the holistic, sensory experience. These memories live in the body more than in the memory cells of my mind.
Reflecting back, I now understand that open water swimming was my first presencing teacher. I learned to swim around the age of three, in the Atlantic ocean at the Marine Biological Lab beach on Cape Cod, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
This is a small beach in a protected rocky cove. Two granite rock jetties mark the swimming area. We swam laps between these jetties or did long-distance swims out to a far away orange buoy.
When you swim in a dark ocean, you learn quickly to use the body as the 360 degree sensing organ that it is. The body listens for rocks, jellyfish, seaweed, water temperature changes, waves and shifts in current.
You also notice what it is like to be present, in your own body. You know what it feels like to inhabit the small container of your body in the midst of a vast open sea. You are aware of your breath, and the absence of it when you accidentally inhale salty water. You find rhythm and synchronicity between your breath and your limbs moving through the water.
You gain a heightened awareness of your relationship with planet Earth. You notice how small you are and how Earth is holding you, supporting you. Open water swimming is almost like being inside the Earth because you are in fact in a big hole filled with water.
The other amazing thing you notice is the social body, i.e. the collection of other people and wildlife, seen and unseen, who are with you in that same container called the ocean. The noticing of the social body on land is different. There is space and furniture or architecture between us. In the ocean, the social body is connected by water, swishing about between living beings, touching the skin.
All of that noticing brings us into the present moment. Time slows down. While swimming, there is no spoken dialogue. There is only dialogue between movement, breath and water. The anchor of attention rests naturally on the breath or in the body’s movement. It is a state of dynamic relaxation, enveloped in water.
I haven’t had an open water swim since summer of 2019. COVID closed both pools and beaches. I believe the lack of this unplugged practice has had its effect. My brain is less relaxed. When can I get back to this mix of presence, physical ease and mental relaxation?
Unfortunately, I won’t partake in swimming as a favourite activity for the National Day of Unplugging March 5-6. It is too cold in Canada to swim outside unless you like polar bear dipping. Pools are still closed due to lockdown so walking in the woods will have to do. But I do look forward to the summer of 2021. I have high hopes that my swimming holes, the Caledon Quarry and Professor’s Lake, will be open again so that my brain can focus better again.