Friday, October 29, 2010

Conquering Fear

I have always loved the water. I love the sense of freedom of movement when surrounded by its buoyant support. The ability to effortlessly float and drift and move with ease and grace through its embrace. How, when I swim beneath the surface I glide like a bird, water moving through my hair, moisture caressing my skin like a silk negligee of creamy perfection carrying me into the land of dreaming.

I am at home in the water. At ease. Which is why when I almost drowned scuba diving years ago in Hawaii, I was really upset. Not because of the almost drowning part, though that was distressing, but rather because of the consciousness rising part, the realization that I had lost my ‘at home place’ of being at one with the universe, of being a sum of the part of the whole of world I inhabited, like an infant in the womb, breathing under water.

When the accident scuba diving happened, I thought I could breathe under water, that if I just kept gulping in water, it would be transformed like water into wine of Biblical lore. Being that far under water for so long, there was no sense of being wet. No sense of being separate from the air above. And so, when my regulator ran out and the dive master motioned for me to take his extra regulator, I didn’t think twice. I took it and breathed in.

I didn’t know I should purge first. I was a novice diver and this was my first deep sea dive. The instruction on deck had been brief and perfunctory and I wasn’t really paying attention. I was too excited. And so, when that first gulp of air turned out to be water, I panicked. As the water kept flowing, I pushed against the dive master’s arm holding the regulator against my mouth.

I wanted to breathe. Air. I lifted my head as if it would magically appear. But it couldn’t. We were 45 feet under, I thought if I just keep breathing I would become like the fish. Extracting vital elements from water that would feed my body life-giving oxygen. I kept breathing and struggling to find air. Many tense minutes later, I was losing consciousness. The dive master dropped my diving belt and raced me to the surface. When I came to, I was coughing up blood and we were racing for shore.

I remember when they let me out of hospital the next day, I knew I had to dive into the deep end again if I was to reclaim some of what was lost. I dove into the pool at the resort where we were staying and my friend, the water, supported me.

But I never donned a regulator or a mask again. Somethings are best left for the never again I told myself.

Until yesterday when I finally decided I’d go snorkeling with C.C. and Tammy out to the Coral Reef just beyond the point from the house where we are staying. Precious and teeming with aquatic life, it’s a Park Reserve. They’d swum out to it our first day here, and lauded us with tales of colourful parrot fish and graceful angel fish and all sorts of underwater beauty. I had not yet ventured out, and though the seas were rolling, I decided it was now or never.

We hiked down the seawall to a strip of beach that gave the easiest access point beyond the breakers. The lifeguard directed us to the best route out to the reef. We donned our flippers entered the water.

I could feel it. Fear edging at the corners of my peace of mind. An inky dark substance wafting in and out like octopus tentacles in the sea. I took a breath, pulled my mask over my eyes and nose, slid the regulator into my mouth, began to swim and put my face into the water.

And fear rode in on a wave of panic as water clogged my mouthpiece.

I spluttered and splurted. Choked and coughed. I lifted my head and pulled the mask off my face. The waves rocked me, back and forth, back and forth, lulling me with their mysterious pull. I was having none of it.

C.C., who had not yet put his mask on, turned towards me, not quite sure what I was doing.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“I can’t do it,” I cried. “I can’t do it.” I knew it was irrational. I knew it was just fear, but sometimes, fear overcomes reason. I could taste the saltiness of the water I’d gulped in my frenzy to get the mouthpiece out and my head above water.
Not quite understanding what was going on, he swam towards me. “Do you need help with the mouthpiece?” he asked.

“No. I just can’t do it,” I cried again. I could feel the fear. It was a visceral chord of terror linking me unexpectedly to that time years ago when I fought to find my breath under water. I didn’t want to feel it again. I didn’t want to be reminded of the fragility of my place in the sea.

C.C. watched me. Confusion in his eyes. Tammy had swum out already, unaware of my angst. He glanced from me to where she swam, head down, snorkel bobbing above the surface. I followed his gaze.

The water was choppy. Behind us, a steady stream of breakers pushed up against the shoreline. Out beyond the breakers, a couple of surfers bobbed on the surface waiting for the next big one.

The reef was calling. Waiting to unveil its treasures to peering eyes.

I don’t like fear. Don’t like when it controls me and keeps me from doing the things I want to do in my life.

Fear is the opportunity to be courageous.

I took a breath. It’s okay, I told myself. That was then. This is now. Breathe and centre yourself in the now.

I breathed. Deeply.

I pulled the mask back down. I glanced at C.C. “Okay. Let’s go,” I said. Biting down on the mouthpiece, lowering my head into the water, I began to swim.

It wasn’t a great day for snorkeling over the reef. Too much sand churned up by the waves crashing into shore.

It was a great day for feeling the fear and doing it anyway. For slipping out of the moorings of the past to bring myself into the present.

In the end, I didn’t enjoy my swim. My mask kept filling with water. I kept choking on its salty taste. I kept having to remind myself to breathe deeply. Not panic. To relax and stay present.

But I never found that place of comfort. That place where I was at one with the sea. I did see some cute little fishies. A round puffy guy who approached me, eyes peering inquisitively into my mask.

Perhaps that is what I missed the most. Before the unfortunate events of that long ago dive, I had laughed and giggled, been enchanted by the life swimming beneath the sea. This time, even with my body floating on the surface, air just a breath away, I felt tethered to the undefinable fear of knowing, the ocean is not my element, I am just a visitor in its embrace.

We swam for awhile but the murkiness of the water foiled our attempts to see all there was to see upon the coral reef.

And through it all, I didn’t feel comfortable in the water. I yearned to be free of the plastic mouthpiece, the mask against my face. I wanted to be unencumbered.

Weightlessly floating on the surface in angel pose, arms drifting gracefully by my side, ears submerged, face pressed up to the sun, listening to my breath go in and out.

Andy came down the shore to greet us and we swam in. I didn’t use the snorkel swimming to shore. I used my breath, swimming on the surface free to breathe the air above me.

It was a great swim yesterday even if I wasn’t comfortable in the water. I know my fear. I’ve met it. Head on. Many times. Sometimes, it’s turned me upside down. Inside out. Outside in. Sometimes, I hold onto it and sometimes, it holds onto me. And sometimes, I’ve pushed through it, into it, over it and above it. Sometimes, I’ve pummelled it into submission, biting down on my willingness to fearlessly move into that place where fear no longer grips me. And sometimes, fearful of losing its grip, fear has pushed back, pushed into my peace of mind, pounding me with its belief there is no restful place for me to be other than in its embrace.

Yesterday, fear held on and so did I. I snorkeled into the sea and came out knowing, I don’t have to overcome or even get over fear, I simply need to embrace it and acknowledge its presence. I don’t have to ‘do the hard’, I just have to be okay with doing whatever I’m doing. And if in my doing fear arises, the best place for me to be is exactly where I am, breathing freely of the air, breathing deeply of life’s beauty teeming all around me as I live this one wild and precious life fearlessly in the rapture of now floating effortlessly in the waters of life flowing all around me.

And today is our last full day on the island. I've had a swim and am off inland to visit a pottery place and other wonders of this magical place.


Maureen said...

Quite a story.

What you did is what Margaret Wheatley has written about: acknowledging and questioning the fear itself and so transforming it.

I'll look forward to hearing about your visit to the pottery.


n. davis rosback said...

i like to float too.
pottery seeing sounds like fun. said...

Thank you so much for sharing this. The observations in your second-to-last paragraph are so totally in tune with what I've been sensing these last few days. We don't have to hate the fear or give in to it or run from it. Fear is like anyone else at the conference table: mostly it needs to be heard. And so do you. In the listening, we all get to float together; it doesn't have to get resolved.