Once Upon a Swim…


I was in the middle of a long training swim one afternoon, preparing for a triathlon, feeling pressured to complete the session, already thinking ahead to the impossible list of things I had to do after leaving the aquatic center. My ‘to do’ list was turning into a ‘begrudge’ list. Over the previous few weeks, I experienced a growing sense of dissatisfaction. It seemed that joy was evaporating from my life as I tried to pack more and more into each day. And today, I had reluctantly gotten into the pool, and had been swimming for about thirty minutes, more out of a sense of duty than anything else. My training had lost its excitement, and had become hard work and terribly boring in the longer multi-hour sessions. I listened to the conversation my brain was having with my body, as I front-crawled my way from one end of the pool to the other. Left-right-left – breathe, right-left-right – breathe. Length after length, my thoughts rolled on: This is so boring. Why am I doing this? How many more lengths? I can’t wait to be finished. Sad, when my swim was to be the high point of my day.

Outside of the pool, it would be back to the mundane tasks of buying groceries, cooking dinner, doing laundry and wading through a mountain of unfinished paperwork I had brought home from my job. I felt the heft of daily life and its routines turning into joyless obligations, one stacked upon another, like stones on a growing pile.

Then halfway down the pool, as one more weighty stone of responsibility dropped onto the heap, an unusual thought drifted into my consciousness. It occurred to me that I didn’t need to be pushing myself through this workout. I didn’t have to fulfill the mile-long list of chores that faced me after my swim. I didn’t even have to get out of bed today, or any day for that matter. Nobody was holding a gun to my head.

Still plodding along in my lane, oblivious to other passing swimmers, I kept hearing the conversation within. Why am I doing this? Because you chose to. Nobody’s making you. Why am I so miserable then? You think for some reason you have to do this?  My inner dialogue started sounding ridiculous. Then the chatter stopped. My mind was quieted and I felt only the rhythm of breathing and the rocking motion of my body surging through the water.

After a few minutes of mental silence, a profound realization struck me. I became aware of the immense freedom, choice and ability I have in every moment of every day. I didn’t have to do anything if I didn’t want to. I get to. I get to train for races. I get to work in a career of my choice. I get to work with resilient teenagers and a dynamic group of professionals. I get to visit family, and clean the leaves out of the rain gutters of my parent’s house. I get to spend time in creativity, writing, painting, taking photographs.

With that one simple awareness, incredible waves radiated out in all directions from the center of my mind, like concentric rings on a pond, after a pebble has broken its surface. A few beautiful truths rippled across my consciousness with each stroke I made; that every breath is a gift, that each task I have to do – in every area of my life – I am free to do. Any moment tainted by ingratitude, grumbling or complaint, clouded in a pall of obligation, is a huge loss for me, and anyone with whom I come in contact. The fact of the matter was that at no other period in my life was I likely to experience greater personal freedom, independence or physical mobility. Most of all, I had the freedom to choose my thoughts and attitudes.

In flooded an abundance of joyful energy and a desire to do all those things that I was, moments earlier, bemoaning and dreading. My pace picked up. My lungs filled to their limit. I torpedoed through the water, while the lightness of these new thoughts danced around the circuits of my brain. I’m not sure what caused my thoughts to shift, although I’ve had plenty of epiphanies during my longer swims and runs. I guess it doesn’t matter. What counts is that I’ll never forget that moment. When I feel the weight of everyday life pressing down on me, and joy seems to dissolve, reminding me of everything I have to do, I’ll always remember, I never have to. I get to.

Right-left-right – breathe…left-right-left – breathe… right-left-right – breathe…

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