In these warm summer months, most of us enjoy taking a swim. Swimming can be a Zen experience, and observing how we swim can give us insight to how we approach life. Unlike floating, wading or dangling your feet in the water, swimming is movement toward a direction. Life is moving forward in directions constantly. We collectively create the tides of humanity with our styles of movement. Swimming styles are a metaphor for our how we advance through life.

Swimming under water

The first way most children learn to swim is to get over the fear of putting their heads under water, then using both arms and legs together like a tadpole to push water back to move the body forward. A child can perform a few strokes before needing to stop to get the head out of the water to breathe. The simple stroke provides a good glide, thus a feeling of accomplishment, and it provides a protected feeling under the water where sounds and other sensations are shut out. Swimming under water may evoke feelings of being carried in the womb.

Sometimes we are overly conscious of self and disconnected with empathy for others. Self-absorption is suffocating, and after awhile, we feel the need to connect with community — like taking a breath. When the stimulation of the world feels too distracting, causing us to be restless, we want to dunk our heads back under the water — ignore everything, sit in front of the TV, drink a glass of wine or get involved in someone else’s situation. The temporary relief of shutting it all out lasts as long as the next phone call, appointment or bill payment. Swimming under water is the most primitive style of living.

The crawl stroke

Perhaps this stroke is the most complex of all the ways to move through water. The legs kick in a fast steady rhythm while the arms follow their own propelling motion and the head creates its regular turns to expose the nostrils to the air for breathing. The crawl stroke is more complicated than patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time. Performing different functions with separate body parts requires mature neurological development. If you observe a small child try to lift one hand and keep the other still, you will see that the undeveloped nerve system is unable to completely separate right side movement from the left. The crawl stroke not only demands opposing right and left side movement, it asks diverse sections of the body to perform dissimilar tasks — much like the adult with a job, children and household to run. The assembly of tasks not only need to function well in their own tact, they need to synchronize harmoniously in order to keep your entire being moving forward. The purpose of the busy propelling movements of arms and legs is to create the forward glide. Yet, the glide is short and interrupted by the head turn required to get the nose access to the air. A benefit of this stroke is having forward vision. By opening the eyes under water and in the head turn you can see where you are going and where you are. This stroke works efficiently when you have all the various parts going in a routine functioning together. Relaxing in a rhythm is key to avoid lost energies and exhaustion.

Holding a job and bringing in a steady income is like the arms stroking and pushing forward. There are many fine details to perfect in the arm stroke to get the best propulsion. Personal and family functions are like the fast fluttering feet and legs. Our almost mindless routines of activities like brushing our teeth, preparing meals, getting the children on the school bus and walking the dog need to keep their consistent rhythm so half the body stays afloat. When the legs are not kicking, they are dead weight that put more responsibility on the arms to keep us afloat. The head turn is like the mediation pauses, work out session, massages, vacations and simple “me-time” that allow us to breathe to stay alive through the busy activity. Moving through life in the crawl requires discipline, coordination and balance.

The back stroke

Lying on your back on the surface of the water is a mastery of trust. You need to believe that the same substance that you walk through and that falls through your fingers can hold you up. Trusting the water and trusting yourself are the fundamentals of the backstroke. Without seeing in the direction that you are going, you lay your head back in the water and allow the magical properties of the practically invisible liquid lift your chest back and legs up to the water’s surface. You stretch one arm over your head reaching blindly in the direction of your destination while kicking the legs, like in the crawl stroke. After the one arm reaches toward your goal, you push the water down your side with that arm as the other reaches back. Stroke by stroke, with fluttering legs, you glide through the water towards your destination with your face to the sun and your nostrils free to breath in their own rhythm.

The backstroke is living in faith, like walking on water. You trust the invisible substance of life and your ability to move peacefully on the surface of physical concerns with your face to the source of life’s energy. You need to keep the personal and family functions going with your steady effort while you reach out towards your destiny without needing to physically see it. My father used to tell me a wisdom saying from his Muslim tradition, “Pray like you’re going to die tomorrow, and work like you will never die.” Moving through life resting on faith while making the efforts needed to manage the physical world is a balance of heaven and earth. Enjoying the sun and the sensation of being supported by life while you move creates the most pleasant experience of all styles of living.