I love the early mornings. The house is so still and the air is fresh and smells like the sea. The salty crispness makes me think of those early swimmers down at Aquatic Park, the little cove off the San Francisco Bay that is a short walk from my apartment.
The San Francisco bay is an estuary, which means that the ocean washes in and out and the water is surprisingly clean, at least at Aquatic Park. It is the cleanest beach in California. How bracing it is to step into that water first thing in the morning. Your mind gets wiped clear when you swim in ice water as the sun rises.
Since I have lived in SF, I have wanted to believe I have the stuff to make this happen every morning. As of this writing, I just don’t. It is so cold I can’t catch my breath, even in a wetsuit, even on warm days. Then, I can’t stop thinking of sea lions and how years ago there was one who took umbrage to the swimmers and took a few bites. The movie Jaws really screwed salt water swimming for me. When I have tried to swim here, I made sure to be the closest swimmer to the beach, seeing the other swimmers as chum, I guess. Some Buddhist I am.
There is something about man-made objects in the water that just freaks me out. Watching footage of divers coming upon sunken ships sends an electric thrill and queasiness through me, and I can barely watch. The underside of buoys or boats, the still, barnacled legs of piers, even the pavement of a boat launch shivers dread through my body. When swimming, I can never touch down until I am in a couple of feet of water, terrified of what my feet will encounter. In the Bay, I stay far away from the bend in the cove where all the mossy rocks lie still and sleeping underneath. I could never swim over to proximity of the big ships on the right edge. My map of available swimming area in the small cove gets smaller and smaller as I imagine all possible underwater encounters.
The dream of swimming in the Bay is fueled by the vision of being able to relax into a nice long swimmer’s stroke, without the need to flip turn, without the claustrophobia or ickiness of the public pool. The regular swimmers there are marvels. Their even and meditative forms slide through the water with a kind of still elegance. When I try it, I get into a rhythm and then panic as I drift a little further out than normal, or I get close to a buoy, or the dark of the water changes, or I encounter one of those pockets of very cold water, and dread tracks through my body. I stop mid-stroke and sort of flail around, gasping, until I find some strength and buck up again.
There is a swimming club there, and maybe if I joined it I would befriend regular Bay swimmers and learn their tricks for fearlessness. A woman I met from this club had a lovely, easy way about her. She didn’t seem to be afraid of anything. She just looked at me curiously when I asked her if the water was cold.
I did love to float on my back and just watch the sky. Once or twice I made it there as the sun was rising or setting and the sky was a marvel. Those moments were worth it all. I didn’t think about what was underneath. I just watched the rose clouds blossom and change, and I allowed that peaceful, floating-on-my-back joy to wash through me. Eventually though, the thought of those fit folks and their steady paces behind me brought that old shame to the surface: I can’t keep up. I’m a failure. Or suddenly, my vision would drop below me, to the bottom looking up, and I would see my body up there on the surface, with all that space and darkness in between bottom and top. I would flail about with a kind of vertigo, panting. I would berate myself, power through, fall into a stroke to mimic the real swimmers out there, finding strength and pushing away the fear for short bursts. Then, the recognition that I was kidding myself would dawn on me. Then, I would paddle in defeat in to shore.
It’s funny to watch myself unable to get over these fears. The thing is, what am I really afraid of? The underside of things, the unknown, things being out of order, the unexpected. As someone who sits in meditation and observes all manner of deep shame and fear tracking through, contorting the body, manifesting as pain and then releasing, you’d think that I would be able to get over it and make a regular morning practice of getting in the water. As someone who regularly performs feats of strength, drives for hours, loads equipment, plays drums for two hours through pain and illness, you’d think I would at least be able to power through the uncomfortable aspects of a morning swim.
I love to swim. I love the ocean and the water, and as a Southern California child I was in the Pacific Ocean and lakes and swimming pools for hours and hours and hours. I feel like I could swim to China. I have endless stamina. In a short walk, I could step into a relatively clean, relatively safe body of water and spend an hour in that long, slow freestyle that I learned as a child and that I love. I was never on swim team because my swimming style was, as my mother said, perfect form and very slow. I love the rhythm of the breathing, three strokes on the right, breath, three strokes on the left, breath. I love how long I feel, how weightless. I love all the little adjustments I make as I go and then how I let go of thinking about form and how my mind sails away into stillness, or into story, and how I just begin to watch my thoughts as they rise and evaporate. I love the peace. I love the way my body feels as I rise from the water after a swim, powerful. I love the exquisite warm shower after.
So why doesn’t this practice become a part of my life? The first answer my mind always gives: it is too cold. That is a truth. The water in the Bay is really cold. Even in a wetsuit, my feet, hands and face go numb. The center of my body clenches so tightly, I guess protecting my organs from the shock, that the pain in my back becomes agonizing. Temperature is the first battle to overcome. Physical pain is the easiest to avoid. The underwater issues, those are probably the real reason that I avoid the experience, but the mind uses the pain of the cold to keep me snug on the couch in the early mornings instead of experiencing the shock of 54 degrees.
My mentor’s experience of awakening involves cold. She says, there was a certain feeling, or awareness, that she kept feeling over a shoulder. She kept avoiding investigating this feeling because it felt cold. It was only when she finally realized that this was an opportunity there might not be there forever, and she turned into this feeling, really investigated this cold, by sitting and opening to what she would find there, it was only then that she dropped through all of the patterns and conditioning that was holding her back from realizing her infinite self.
The sky is lavender at 6:30am. As I write this, I imagine getting up, throwing on a sweatsuit over a swimsuit, grabbing the wetsuit and leaving the pug nestled in bed. I imagine walking down the hill to the beach club, through the morning streets, which in San Francisco are always surprisingly warm and still. It’s often the warmest time of the day, I have found, as the ocean breeze quiets. I imagine pulling on the suit and wading in to the cold water. I imagine finally committing to falling in fully, starting the stroke and noticing how long it takes for my muscles to let go of the clenching protection, noticing the mind and how soon it quiets, watching as fear tries to take hold and fails. I watch as I make my peace with the underneath, all of its mystery and unexpected lessons.
It’s a beautiful vision. I feel strong just imagining it.