The competition pool at Montreal's Stade Olympique
A couple of weeks ago, I started swimming laps again after a hiatus of nearly twenty years. There's a neighborhood indoor pool in easy walking distance of our studio, run by the borough of the city in which we live, and it's free, so I started out there. I was surprised to discover that, after six or seven sessions, I'm approaching the same distance I used to swim, which probably has more to do with general conditioning than anything else -- I've been in much better shape in the past ten years, since moving to the city and having to walk or cycle to get places.
Last week I discovered that the Centre Sportif at Montreal's Stade Olympique was running a special offer - a free week for those who'd like to try the facilities, and a significant discount on a yearly pass. The Olympic Park is not too far from us - a twenty minute bike ride in good weather, about the same distance as downtown, in the other direction. So I decided to try it out: how often does anyone have a chance to swim in an olympic pool? I felt a little intimidated, but toted my red gym bag of gear, including new prescription goggles (who knew you could buy these now, inexpensively, in off-the-shelf diopter measurements?) over to the iconic stadium, got my temporary pass, changed in the very nice locker rooms, and plunged in.
The Centre Sportif is a complete fitness facility offering many classes - the weight room is under the walkway in this picture, to the left of the pool.
It's a beautiful pool. To my surprise, the lanes were less crowded than at the neighborhood pool: one day I had a lane entirely to myself. Competitive divers were practicing on the 10m platform, and swimmers honed their strokes in a closed-off section of the competition pool, accompanied by their coaches. After my laps, I sat on a bench and just watched for a while, fascinated. Then I went back to the locker room and took a shower and sauna before going home.
The famous tower, like most of the rest of our fair city, is currently under repair, and the worksite means access is closed off - after parking on a nearby street, I ended up walking twenty minutes and finally sliding down a snowbank just to get to an entrance!
The problem for me is that this new activity takes a big chunk of time out of my working week. On the other hand, it has made me feel ten times better. I love swimming, always have, and the moment of slipping into the water and pushing off, weightless, always feels like a return to a natural element. But there's more to it.
When I'm in a worried or agitated state of mind, as has been the case since the U.S. election, and even before, I gravitate toward repetitive, meditative activities, often without really even thinking about it: quilting, knitting, drawing, practicing the piano. I've been knitting a good deal lately, and I walk a lot, but it's been hard to draw or do art, and hard to write. I hadn't thought of swimming seriously again, though my recent swims in Iceland and in the cold Cascade Lake in the Adirondacks filled me with longing. This Christmas, though, J. gave me a new swimsuit - a sleek black fitness suit with wide criss-cross straps in the back - and, as he had suspected, that was all it took. I researched the goggles online, bought two new silicone caps - one blue and one orange - and a couple of days after the order showed up, I was in the water.
Of course, my body hurts! I'm getting older. I have some slight lower back issues, and my shoulder and neck are protesting a bit, but the discomfort is manageable and not getting worse, so I think I can keep at it. I certainly hope so, because besides the cardio benefit, the mental and emotional benefits are huge.
The time in the water is time apart. My breathing and strokes settle into a pattern that slows my mind and suspends time into a series of present moments; for me, it is definitely a form of meditation -- and walking or moving meditation has often worked better for me than sitting still on a cushion. Swimming has allowed me to regain some equilibrium, and with it my focus for work; my mood is better, and it's easier both to accept certain aspects of the world as they are, and find the emotional space to tackle what I can try to change, without the two being constantly all mixed up.
Fr. Richard Rohr, whose reflections from his Center for Action and Contemplation I usually read each morning, always stresses the distinction between the dualistic mind -- which categorizes everything as good/bad, right/wrong, black/white -- and the nondualistic mind, in which, as he says,
"mind, heart, soul, and senses are open and receptive to the moment just as it is, which allows you to love things in themselves and as themselves. The broad rediscovery of nondual, contemplative consciousness gives me hope for the maturing of religion and is probably the only way we can move beyond partisan politics."
It is impossible for most of us to exist in our daily lives without dualistic thinking. But it is equally impossible for us to abandon that dualistic mindset without some actual, lived experience of nondualistic consciousness, which is why meditation/contemplation is so important and so helpful for seeing past the polarization that entraps present-day society. You can't "will" it to happen, however; you just have to do the practice(s) and open yourself, as this quote from James Finlay expresses so perfectly:
“I cannot make moments of nondual consciousness happen. I can only assume the inner stance that offers the least resistance to being overtaken by grace.”
Water: less resistance. We come into this world from a watery place, and I have often wondered if my attraction to water is partly a deep memory. My most significant dreams usually involve water, and in those dreams water is never a source of fear, but a place that represents hidden, deep knowledge, whether as a symbol of the subconscious itself, or a source of wisdom beyond this earthly world.