I swam in horrible conditions the other day. It was not long after dawn on a mucky Monday morning and big, unpredictable swell, with huge surges of cold, dirty water, was moving me around like so much flotsam. I tried to use my usual landmarks to keep my bearings while at the same time avoiding being swept on to them. The further out I went, the more vulnerable I felt, but I kept throwing one arm over the other, trusting both history – this was not the first time I’d voluntarily been in this situation – and the mechanics of my body even as my brain objected, triggering a contradictory fugue state of heightened awareness and total dissociation. Satisfied I’d done as well as I could, and thinking the hard part was over, I turned in a large semicircle and began my journey back to shore. But as ever with one of those big water days, the sea has a way of making you feel like a wasp in a dog’s mouth. I rose and fell as I urged myself onwards, buffeted off-course constantly and constantly correcting for it. I finally found myself approaching my re-entry point into ‘the cage’, the wry nickname given to the barred sea baths from which I exited almost twenty minutes earlier. Roared on by the strong south-westerly that was blowing towards the city, the current here was at its strongest. I had to dig very deep to actually cover the short distance – an effort that mostly felt like I was swimming on the spot – but it still seemed to take an age to get my alignment right to squeeze through the space in the bars which allows swimmers to come and go into the open water. The alignment was important because the bars are rusted from years of immersion in salt water and can give quite a nasty cut if forced against them. Not only that, if a wave catches you just right, it can shred you along the bars before hurling you into one of the huge wooden uprights that support the surrounding boardwalk that overlooks the baths. I got my timing right and whooshed through the bars and safely past the uprights. The final danger averted, I reached for the vertical steel steps that allowed me to pull myself up out of the water. After I’d looked back out at the churning, slaloming sea, I proceeded relievedly along the boardwalk to get my reward – a hot shower. Ushering me on my way was an unexpected downpour of hailstones, which pelted me furiously in my Speedos until I removed myself from sight. After that, the rest of the day was going to be easy.
Being in open water, especially when it is rough, can feel like a surreal continuum out of which it may be impossible to escape. For regular sea swimmers, it is a compelling challenge that calcifies over time into a sort of fatalistic addiction. It is a rigged compact which depends simply on this premise – as long as the sea is there, I will get into it. Global warming permitting, the sea’s not going anywhere; therefore, neither are any of the swimmers, myself included.
I have just swum through my tenth Melbourne winter. Before that, I cultivated my sea swimming habit in Ireland over about eight to nine years where I swam from roughly late May until December, when I would have my final dip of the year on Christmas Day. Here in Australia’s more temperate climate (this year in Melbourne, though a mild winter, the water temperature still reached its usual low of about eight degrees) it has become a year-round, almost daily fixture.
So, what’s the attraction?
There are doubtless various motivations for different individuals, but I believe a common theme would simply be an appreciation of the sea or the ocean or whatever body of open water is available to the swimmer in question. For many, it is the most natural place to swim. For others, it is the continuation of a relationship started in childhood. It can be profoundly therapeutic, physically and psychologically, prescribed or otherwise. For still others, it is simply the aesthetic, visceral pleasure of taking in and being taken in by water in its natural environment.
I didn’t start off appreciating water. I was afraid of it. The beach didn’t feature as much in my childhood as the two local rivers which ran towards a conspicuous union at a celebrated beauty spot a mile or two downstream. I fell off a raft in one of those rivers when I was a (non-swimming) child and was dramatically rescued by my father, my abiding memory of which event is not the thrill of being saved nor the panic of perceived helplessness, but the wet pound notes he removed from his trousers after his valiant efforts. There was a little weir further upriver from my near-death experience* where kids from the nearby village would gather in summer for watery hijinks. Seeing their rambunctious horseplay added to my conviction that I would be the first to be dunked and plunged and ultimately drowned. That copper-brown water held no enticement for me. *in no way was it a near-death experience
It was in a couple of indoor swimming pools, a large community one in London close to where my grandmother lived, and a small, somewhat dilapidated older (19th century perhaps) one in my alma mater, Maynooth University, that I finally overcame my fears and planted the seeds of what would become a staple in my regimen of self-care. I learned how to swim in the former and discovered the methodical seduction of lane-swimming in the latter. Upon graduation, a four-and-a-half-year period ensued that saw me live in three cities of different size – Kilkenny, Exeter, London – and which featured little or no swimming.
During that sabbatical from the water I didn’t specifically replace swimming with anything else. I had been a runner (road, cross-country, track) since childhood and had started karate in university, so I just kept going with those, satisfied with what the demands of each brought to my desire for a physical and psychological challenge. I didn’t miss swimming and had no sense of how much it would become part of my future.
I left London to return to Ireland and subsequently fetched up in the coastal town of Wicklow, not far from where I grew up. I hadn’t been living there long before the sea drew me under its spell. I began with occasional dips after some land-based exercise (if not running, often thirty or forty minutes of poncing around with a ball, practicing what I self-deprecatingly referred to as my ‘skills’). Gradually becoming aware of a little community of regular sea swimmers, I realized I could perhaps be a little more ambitious, and following their example, I started to swim both further and more frequently. And that really was it. I was hooked.
I almost always swam alone, and that inclination hasn’t changed in the intervening years. Running was a solo sport and karate, like all martial arts, is fundamentally designed for individual endeavor, no matter that you train with others and require them to help you hone your techniques. That solitary practice, and the focus and concentration of one mind and one body, is still the great allure for me.
I referred above to physical and psychological needs being met, but it strikes me now, after what feels like a lifetime of physical exertion across a variety of sporting and corporeal spheres, that a desire for a spiritual challenge has also always been there. And I believe that’s where the solo nature of most of my exercise and sport choices has been the true motivation. Of course, I continue to profit from the established benefits of regular exercise, most obviously strength, mobility and physical wellbeing, all of which are enhanced by the associated release of endorphins that occurs with each concentrated spell of activity. But what of the spirit?
Personally, I think of spirit as one’s essential character. It is something that is quite easily felt by others but is not readily identified or quantified. It is a spark or a light in the eyes that works in song with a palpable energy that one way or another is clearly attached to the same being. In karate, the concept of spirit is central to everything we do. It is what illuminates each individual’s own karate. It is their inner fire. It is their willingness to push themselves and those around them to ever greater efforts. It is the determination to leave nothing of oneself behind. If karate is an empty vessel, your spirit is what you try to fill it with. Not just once, but every time you train. Not just against lesser adversaries, but against those who are bigger, fitter, faster and stronger. And if you didn’t know you had spirit before you entered a dojo, we like to think that karate is the tinderbox that will help ignite it.
The relationship between karate and that kind of fighting spirit probably feels quite obvious, but it is not as one-dimensional as being tough or trading blows. Far from it. The true challenge is presenting yourself time and time again to the scrutiny of your instructors and your peers, regardless of ability or physical condition or temperament. More than that though, is the scrutiny to which you subject yourself. Because only you know if you are training honestly. Only you know if you have really pushed yourself as hard as you could. Whatever about outward appearances of grit, only you know the truth.
And it’s in that communion with self that we can join the dots with swimming and running. You can’t hide on a solo run or a solo swim. Putting on the runners and trying to run off the stiffness in the legs and wake up uninterested lungs so you can face another hill or take yourself around a habitual route involves the same repeated commitment and the same honesty of effort. The walk towards the water in cap, goggles and togs is much the same. You’re committed, and you know you are going to persevere, one arm over the other, regulating your breath, kicking hard and kicking soft, until you are home. The perseverance is the physical embodiment of spirit.
But what is truly spiritual is the day after day assertion of self into the great arena of life. In my last post, I laboured the analogy of life as warfare, as battle, as uphill struggle. I think we all experience and negotiate life’s toughness in different ways. I am not trying to advocate or proselytise, but I know what works for me.
Inner and outer adversity can conspire to represent a comprehensive negation of self. But if I can roll through my regimes and rituals, my systems and routines, whether they involve water or a Japanese combat style that is philosophy in motion; whether they involve yoga or cycling or football or tai chi; whether they involve playing with my daughter or sharing with my wife; whether they involve writing blogposts or short stories or poems or messages to friends and family; whether they involve repetition and mundanity or inspiration and impulse; they are all a negation of the negation. And that, to me, is the spiritual component.
I don’t need to be kneeling on beads in a hair shirt to engage with my humility and frailty; I feel no compunction to atone to any god. Even if it has a stripe through it that is somewhat ascetic, I do not embrace my lifestyle as something punitive or anti-social. Quite the contrary. It is a program for survival. It is a multitude of minor victories that need only be of significance to me.
Each single victory is an affirmation that says I still have the appetite to fight. It says I still want to participate. It says I am here to live, and I am here to love. And that, not the hot shower, is the real reward.
Do you recognise your victories? Do you have your own rituals of self-preservation? How do you keep your heart pumped for life?