Effortless strokes

Returning to England one of the things of being new to everything (again) is being forced to be more conscious. Nothing yet is routine. It is no exception in the swimming pool.

I am feeling my strokes, remembering doing the same movements as a teenager (in the exact same pool) and now in middle age I am literally stroking myself into a new form. Where should the hand be again? What angle? How to kick the legs? How to coordinate this body? Where do I find most joy? It is fun to learn again.

Recently there were just two of us in our lane. The man was racing, timing himself. I copied. It was a blast. Once again, at the other end of time, I was consciously observing Julie swim as fast as she can: arms feeling like the axes of a machine, legs kicking wildly, gulping for breaths. In the middle of splashes, testosterone and joyfully pushing through limits I relived old galas that I can hardly remember. A strange, nebulous sensation of swimming crazily through time.

While we were chillaxing between madness, the pool attendant joined in the conversation about the data on the wrist bands. The attendant who was a wonderful swimmer, twice as fast as my fastest –wow– told us that the stroke rate isn’t ‘the faster the better’ but that if you go too fast all that happens is the hands slice the water with nothing to push against. It’s a waste of energy and you actually go slower.

There is also another swimmer who I regularly swim with who has found his own rhythm. He looks like an oil tanker to me, slowly going fast (he laps me continuously). He can continue for a long time with minimal effort. At the moment I’m very stop and start…puffed out. When I asked his secret he shared, ‘I glide more’. So I tried it, gliding and trying to find the rhythm that I can keep going at.

Yesterday, I started counting strokes per length. It felt great to glide through the water. It took less effort (though I was still puffing). The app afterwards told me my average speed was quicker.

Learning a lesson with my body, I find it goes in deeper than just thinking it. On the sofa, I meandered about effort in life. In me there is still an idea that we must make a big effort in to ‘get there’. I’m not sure where. That there is ‘no gain without pain’. I’m not sure what for. That we must suffer if we are to succeed. At what?

I’m not suggesting not pushing through barriers and fears (are they synonymous?) but how to proceed through them as they arise within self and within life. If I hurtle myself at ‘it’, going too fast, perhaps I slice through time unnecessarily, while obviously too slow becomes inertia, negation, sludge.

The middle way…someone said that before…

I learnt this too playing in a gypsy jazz combo class. One of the most beautiful types of music throughout cultures is the ballad. The love song. But too fast it’s cheesy, too slow it’s a dirge. Just the right tempo, which happens to be around 60 beats a minute—like a healthy heart—is the timing that pierces straight into our emotions. A well-played ballad moves us effortlessly.

We each compose our own song of life. As I find myself building a life in England, I want to shape the movement, the non-doing, the glide, through my days, through tasks and hobbies, through relationships and emotions so to move into greater inner stillness. Ajahn Chah described the middle path like a koan, where ‘There is neither going forward, nor going backward, nor standing still.’

When I am more present the further I sink within, with less ‘I’ control and more trust. I find I have greater freedom and that things arise in a way I could never have foretold.

And onward we tread, or swim.

More quotes on the middle path:

  • ‘Most softly will you tread the middle path,’
  • — Ovid.
  • Our task is to strike a balance, to find a middle way, to learn not to overextend ourselves with extraneous activities and preoccupations, but to simplify our lives more and more. The key to finding a happy balance in modern life is simplicity.
  • — Sogyal Rinpoche
  • The middle path is the way to wisdom
    — Rumi
  • ‘Forget black and white and try on gray. In hair color, wardrobe or life choices, it may feel more enlivening than you imagine.’
    ― Gina Greenlee
  • The middle way is an invitation to realize the unborn Buddha mind right in the middle of everywhere.
    — Adyashanti
  • This is the way to peace and liberation in this very life.
    — Jack Kornfield

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