I try to escape to a warm locale each winter. In a wonderful alignment of planets my parents were hatching the same escape plan this year, so we packed our bags and headed south to Costa Rica last week, returning to a place we fell in love with 10 years ago.
Tulemar is a resort community in Manuel Antonio, a small town on Costa Rica's western coast famous for its national park. Dotted along a steep, jungled hillside, bungalows gaze over the Pacific and are connected by a winding road leading to a private beach on a breathtaking cove. Days begin with coffee on the patio balcony and the sights and sounds of the jungle coming alive. Toucans screech their good mornings. Monkeys leap from limb to limb. After coffee, I pull on my swimsuit, grab my goggles, and head to the beach for a swim in the warm ocean water.
Open-water swimming is the one exercise that I would choose for myself if forced to give up all others. It is a powerful meditation, as much a mental exercise as a physical one. Away from shore with only water beneath you, you are at once vulnerable and powerful, and inevitably, lessons learned in the ocean become powerful lessons in life. Moving in harmony with ocean forces requires complete acceptance of what is and what comes. Michael Singer writes beautifully about the struggle of acceptance in our daily lives in The Untethered Soul, reminding us that, "as you grow spiritually, you will realize that your attempts to protect yourself from your problems actually create more problems. If you attempt to arrange people, places, and things so they don't disturb you, it will begin to feel like life is against you. [...] You're either trying to figure out how to keep things from happening, or you're trying to figure out what to do because they did happen. [...] Life is continuously changing, and if you're trying to control it, you'll never be able to fully live it."
Loosening our grip on this need to control is to first acknowledge and accept the massive fear that arises in the face of its loss. No matter how many times you step into the deep unknowns offshore, fear is always present. As it should be. Fear is what keeps you alive. But moving forward and making progress in both the water and in daily life isn't the elimination or exorcism of fear but the acceptance of it, the embrace of it, and the keeping on in spite of it. Kristen Ulmer, author of "The Art of Fear: Why Conquering Fear Won't Work, and What to Do Instead" asserts that "...fear is not a sign of personal weakness, but rather a natural state of discomfort that occurs whenever you're out of your comfort zone. It's there not to sabotage you, but to help you come alive, be more focused, and put you into the present moment and a heightened state of excitement and awareness. [...] If you're willing to feel it, and merge with it, its energy and wisdom will appear." ¹
When we first enter the water we are excited, anxious, and, yes, fearful. Our breath tightens and quickens controlled by the sympathetic nervous system and the "fight or flight" response to stress. This is natural and necessary as we prepare to stay alive in the water. In our modern daily lives, however, we are inundated by stressors that our bodies fail to recognize as false threats. Our system responds to a critical work deadline or a heated argument in the same way as it would to the immediate threat of drowning, flooding our bodies with cortisol in amounts that result in anxiety, depression, addiction, and obesity. One of the critical skills we develop and employ while swimming - focused management of the breath - stimulates the opposing parasympathetic reaction promoting relaxation, altering the body's stress response, and as Harvard researcher Herbert Benson posits, possibly even altering our gene expression.
Mindful focus on breath is meditation. Yogis call it pranayama. Wherever you chose to practice it, on the mat or on the ocean, mindful focus on the breath is the conscious act of accepting all present energies (and all present fears) as they are and as they come. "Bringing awareness to our breathing," writes Jon Kabatt-Zinn, "we remind ourselves that we are here now, so we might as well be fully awake for whatever is already happening."
During my last swim of the trip I felt the sudden sting of a jellyfish tentacle across my ankle and panic begin to trickle up my spine. I stopped, took a deep breath, accepted that I had been stung, decided that I didn't want to get stung any more, and turned around.
In life and in the water, there are moments we face fear or pain or both. Spiritual growth is the decision we make in the moment to acknowledge our pain, breath through it, and let the waves carry us back to shore.
"Embracing Tao, you become embraced.
Supple, breathing gently, you become reborn.
Clearing your vision, you become clear.
Nurturing your beloved, you become impartial.
Opening your heart, you become accepted.
Accepting the World, you embrace Tao.
Bearing and nurturing,
Creating but not owning,
Giving without demanding,
Controlling without authority,
This is love."
- The Tao-Te Ching, Paul Carus translation
1. Ferriss, Timothy. Tools of titans: the tactics, routines, and habits of billionaires, icons, and world-class performers. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.