Swimming Lessons

I never really wanted to learn how to scuba dive.

My parents brought me along in the process of getting certified when I was 12. My brother had returned from a summer spent sailing and learning how to scuba dive and had insisted that the entire family would love it. Being the adventurous world-travelers that my parents had become in their 40s, they immediately signed the three of us up for classes. 

I had always been nervous around water as a child. I still sort of am today. I don’t love boats that rock too much--not because I get seasick, but because I just get irrationally frightened, the way some kids are afraid of spiders. That same anxiety would strike me whenever my family went snorkeling. I was constantly looking behind us, turning around in the water, trying desperately to scan everything despite wearing goggles and nozzle that allowed you exactly one plane of vision: straight down. 

With all of these worries, you can imagine how thrilled I was at the prospect of going even deeper into the ocean. And something that no amount of time spent training in a swimming pool could have prepared me for was the moment I first took the “giant stride” into the ocean and realized I couldn’t see the bottom. I panicked.

I was luckily with a scuba master experienced with taking people on their first open-water dive. Feeling trapped by the inflated vest that kept me on the surface, I began frantically yelling at him that I couldn’t see the ocean floor. 

“Yes,” he replied calmly. “You can’t see the bottom. And it’s okay.” 

His voice stabilized me. I turned around in the water in all directions and realized, no, I couldn’t see the bottom; but I could see enough to know that I was alright. And that’s how scuba diving taught me the first lesson: 

Sometimes, you can’t see the bottom, and that’s okay. Jump anyway. 

The second lesson is one that I believe is responsible for why we meet so many people on our diving trips that are addicted to scuba diving, like the guides we’ve met who tried scuba diving once and then picked up their entire lives so they could do it every day. I believe it’s also the reason that we feel a sense of camaraderie with other regular divers. 

Scuba diving is the only conscious time that I’m totally cut off from the world (sleeping being the unconscious exception). While diving, I don’t have any electronics, I can’t receive any updates, I can’t be reached even in the case of emergency. I can’t even talk to the people swimming next to me--although I can tug on their arms and point at something interesting and wait for their sounds of appreciative bubbling. 

While diving, you exist in a completely present moment. What brings this home more than anything is the silence. The ocean isn’t silent, exactly; particularly not if you’re lucky enough to come across dolphins or whales. But it’s a different kind of sound than the background electric noise of our every day, whether that’s the typing of the keyboard, the hum of the air conditioning, or the whir of passing traffic. The ocean is muffled, it’s enveloping. It’s quiet. 

With no one able to reach you and no sounds to distract you, you’re freed of any obligation to do anything except observe. And when they only thing you can focus your mind on is what you see one foot in front of your face, you’re surprised by how much detail you can find. Staring at dozens of tiny fish moving busily about their lives and knowing that their movements are holding up an entire ecosystem makes you feel very small and part of something very magical. It brings a sense of calm when you realize that something this beautiful simply exists in the world. Which brings me to the second lesson:

There is a whole wide world existing outside your own mind. Get out of your head and exist in that world for a while. 

Our lives are busy. Scuba diving more than any other activity forces you to be present and disengage from the fast pace of regular life. And when you’re forced to focus on the little things, you finally find the breathing room to appreciate the big ones.  

I still get a bit nervous every time I get on a boat. And there are moments while scuba diving, like when my mask gets extremely foggy, that I feel the old anxiety creeping back up. But scuba taught me that never jumping unless you can see bottom guarantees that you’ll only find those opportunities that you already see in front of you. But there’s a whole world out there that you may not even be aware of, and to find it, you have to be willing to jump. And once in a while, you need to let yourself just exist in that world, and let existing be enough. 

Take the jump. Be present. Save the oceans.

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Sonja K. Eliason

August 14, 2019