I headed to the Med this morning to release my internalized stress in the cool sea water. I have been feeling some stress the last couple days. All that tensive unchanneled energy collects in my chest just below the heart and I desperately needed to get it flushed out. I suspect such stress, such concentrations of mis-placed energy that congregates in certain locations in a person’s body causes a lot of silently developing, long-term damage to health.
As I started quietly slipping my way through the cloudy swells I meditated on some of the ideas and themes I have been reading in Born To Run, by Christopher McDougall- the idea that we, as humans, are meant to RUN, and run a lot (and barefoot!); the idea that if we run more a lot of things might be a lot simpler, a lot more peaceful in our lives, in our communities. An interesting, and appealing idea for sure. I would like to think that swimming too (barefoot!), as un-natural as it may be according to the theme of that book, has the power to simplify, the pacify the mind and life.
Indeed, there I was gradually dialing in my FLOW state with each stroke over the course of an hour, letting the cool water refresh the skin I left exposed outside my sleeveless wetsuit, practicing the simplifying, peace-inducing art of TI distance swimming.
As I studied and focused my swimming form I also studied my heart as I swam. I asked, “But today, are you swimming to escape your stress, or swimming in order to deal with it?
It can be a fine line, can’t it? And who can tell but my own heart when I’ve crossed the line in my practice on any given day from mental/spiritual-health-promotion into escape-from-reality?
There’s a huge benefit to using exercise to release stress, like the kind I described, that can even be felt physically in the body. But the even more imporant step (or stroke…) to take is to dig deep and examine the root of what is causing that stress in the first place.
For me, I know exactly what is causing my stress- the struggle between what I fear and what I hope in. The fight has been won by hope in many important points in my life, but I have had a few recent situations come up that have exposed a few areas where I am still vulnerable to discouragement.
When I am out there swimming, or running, or rock climbing life becomes so simple, so focused, so peaceful for a while. I feel powerful to affect my situation, to make progress toward my goal in that moment. I feel HOPE, because I have tools and skills and attitude that I can count on. What I fear in those contexts feels manageable, surmountable because I am confident that patience, wisdom, and persistence will overcome them.
But when I am staring at my computer screen contemplating a financial or business uncertainty, or looking at the chaos of some relational/parenting crisis, these are times (too often) that the obstacles seem insurmountable, their solutions inconceivable. At these times I feel powerless in the moment to affect progress or relief, or to bring a solution to the urgent need. My hope wanes because I don’t know what to do, or where to turn for help. What I fear might happen looms heavy on the horizon of possibilities.
Those are great times to head out for a long swim.
Fortunately for my wife and children, I acknowledge that the problem will be waiting for me when I get back- and I intend to come back to face it. They trust me, and know it is good for Daddy to get out there for a few hours.
I’ve come to appreciate the power of a good nights sleep. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to refresh my perspective on the situation.
I’ve also come to respect the daily need my body has to keep the ‘ducts and plumbing and wiring’ flushed and clean- get the air, blood, and neuro-circuits flowing in sync for an hour or two and it does wonders. It’s amazing how much regular physical and mental exercise (and the best when the two are combined) supports the spiritual life- what might also be called hopeful, peaceful, creative living.
Ultimately, the beliefs I hold deep in my heart, what it is I believe in (or don’t believe in enough) must be examined, and whatever is in conflict there, whatever it is that is undermining my hope, those fears that are dominating my perspective, these must be confronted and dealth with. This is the key to preventing the stress from congesting in my body in the first place.
For me the rhythm of swimming over distance is meditation; I am in prayer- both with myself and with my God. Sometimes, out there while cutting through the crystal clear waters I get the answer I need. But most often I come out of the water after a good, long flow session with the energy and courage I need to go face what needs to be faced. I may not know how to work out yet, but I am encouraged to just go see what happens. Something always does.
And here I am: I’m still alive, still very blessed, and still swimming.