Exercise, Meditation & Solitude

“Swimming is the trifecta for me – exercise, meditation and alone time.”  Brene Brown, “Atlas of the Heart,” p. 18

I had been thinking the same thing about swimming lately, and it was so good to have those feelings affirmed by someone whose work I admire so much.  As some of you know I took up swimming as my primary form of exercise about a year ago.  It happened almost accidently when I began doing some of my physical therapy for recovery from back surgery in the water.  One of the blessings of the pandemic is that our YMCA’s began letting people reserve a lane in the pool to control numbers of swimmers and maintain social distance.  The reservations are for 45 minutes; so the first time I went to the pool it only took me 15 minutes to do my PT exercises, and I still had 30 minutes left in my allotted time in the pool.  So I decided I might as well see if I could swim a few laps – with the emphasis on “a few.”

That first time I managed 3 laps before I was exhausted.  I have never been a strong swimmer.  When I was in Boy Scouts many decades ago I needed to earn merit badges in both swimming and lifesaving in my pursuit of becoming an Eagle Scout.  I passed both of those, but just barely.  I was literally a 98 pound weakling in those days and also had a very hard time passing the requirement for running ¾ of a mile in under 6 minutes.  My 13 year-old self would never believe that as a 40 something I could actually run 5 miles in 37.5 minutes; nor would he believe that I can now swim 900 yards in less than 45 minutes. 

Because of several health concerns swimming is the ideal low-impact aerobic exercise for me.  And over the last 12 months I have not only increased my endurance but have come to truly enjoy swimming.  Dr. Brown captures some of the reason for that when she says, “When I’m swimming laps you can’t call me or talk to me, it’s just me and the black stripe.”  As an introvert I need solitude, and especially since I got a new mask and snorkel and can actually do most of my laps under water where I can’t see or hear anything that solitude has been like icing on the cake. 

Even though I was a fairly serious runner for 25 years I never experienced what others describe as the “runner’s high.”  Running was always work for me, I think in part because I ran most when I was going through some particularly rough patches in my personal, professional, and married life.  I wasn’t running for fun but literally running away from problems I didn’t know how to handle.   But I realized today as I set a personal record of 900 yards that I am feeling a swimmer’s high.  The water supports me, relieving pressure on my joints, and I truly felt like I could have gone much further today.  Today I was in a pool that does not reserve lanes; so I had no time limit on how long I swam.  I enjoy being in the pool so much now that I can even do it without resistance or hesitation even on very cold winter days.   

The meditation aspect of swimming has taken the form for me of repeating a couple of mantras that resonate with where I am now in my faith journey.  Those phrases include several Hebrew and Greek words for God (Yahweh, Elohim, and Abba), spirit (ruach), justice (mishpat), and love (agape).  I hope my seminary professors will forgive me for my awkward combinations of several languages, but my current mantras are: Ruach Abba, Ruach Elohim, and Yahweh Mishpat.  I especially like using “Abba or Daddy” for God as Jesus did because my other inspiration for swimming is remembering the 12 frightening hours my dad spent in the cold North Atlantic waiting to be rescued from the crash of his B-17 at the end of WWII. 

Everyone needs to experiment and find what works for you, and that can change as we change.  Today I added a new combination inspired by our congregation singing “We Are Called” in worship yesterday.  That hymn is based on my very favorite summary of faithful living in Micah 6:8; so I swam several laps today repeating “Do Mishpat, love Agape, and swim humbly with Abba.”  I have had trouble creating a regular meditation practice on land—too many distractions, but in water, which has so many theological conotations for me, I feel especially focused, close to, and sustained by the mystery we call God.