Why Swimming is an Important Part of My Mindfulness Practice

Attention is not one-dimensional, but rather rich and luxurious, writes founding editor Barry Boyce. And this complexity is what empowers us to navigate the difficulties that are always part of our lives.

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As a teenager, I had some pretty severe sports injuries—to my ankle, foot, and knee—so swimming became my exercise of choice. I can’t say I always love it. It’s refreshing when you first hit the water, but lane swimming is a lot of back-and-forth. You go nowhere over and over again. Naturally, then, it lends itself to a form of meditation practice, and that’s the part I think I do love.

As I’ve spent years going back and forth in pools one thing has stood out for me: the line (usually blue) on the bottom of the pool. That line is the reference point to let you know you’re on track. It’s what the attention returns to. There are also buoy ropes on either side that define the lane, guardrails as it were, but the blue line is the thread of attention that pulls you along.

Going Nowhere Over and Over Again

The restless and restlessly wandering mind does not disappear when you enter the pool. In fact, it intensifies, because there’s nothing to provide engagement or entertainment. There are headphones you can wear in the pool now, but I don’t bother with that. Swim time is a time away from all that. All you hear are splush splush and the muffled sounds above the surface. All you feel is the wet. And all you see is your immediate surroundings—and the blue line.

In the pool, I’ve discovered over the decades, everything that comes up in life, that comes up in regular meditation practice, comes up in the pool. With no other stimulus to take my mind off whatever is consuming it, this simple blue line takes on different qualities depending on what’s emerging in my mind. It’s always just a blue line, and yet it isn’t.

Attention is not one-dimensional, a gold star for not committing the crime of spacing out. Attention is rich and luxurious, a portal to freedom.

If I find that I’m angry and resentful, that I’m simply not getting what I want, people are not behaving the way I want them to, and it’s bothering me something fierce, the blue line can be gratitude. It’s a reminder that rather than complain about my life, I could appreciate what I do have and even appreciate the opportunity to be grateful in the face of angry feelings, to have a journey of mindfulness, to cultivate compassion by not resisting and rejecting the people and circumstances I want to shun and shy away from.

If I am finding myself wallowing in depressive storylines, down and pessimistic, the blue line is cheerfulness, taking simple enjoyment in the coolness of the water and the chance to move freely weightlessly.

If I’m feeling jealous, that others are getting what I should get, that I’m not getting enough, or that I am not enough, the blue line is equanimity—the sense that whatever happens, whatever I get or don’t get, is workable. Resilience rules.

If I’m agitated, anxious about the future, worrying about the worst kind of outcomes, the blue line is trust, an embryonic feeling that while the worst can indeed happen, it hasn’t yet, and if and when it does, with the help of others, together we will bring the best of our resources to bear.

Down the Line

The blue line is there too when I get out of the pool. It’s not the actual blue line, but the sense that reminders are available to bring attention to immediate conditions and surroundings. Not because becoming distracted makes you a bad person, or because the mind should never be permitted to wander or to ponder the past or the future. The value of anchoring our attention is not in being an Olympic Attention Champion.

Attention is not one-dimensional, a gold star for not committing the crime of spacing out. Attention is rich and luxurious. It’s a doorway, a portal to freedom, freedom from fixating on what’s over there, away from what’s actually happening. Attention takes many shapes and gives many gifts. When we return to the blue line throughout our lives, we find peace and power waiting there for us.

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  • Barry Boyce
  • December 4, 2021