This week, I was guiding a mindful walking and movement on the beach session in Whitley Bay. I was enjoying the bracing feeling of the blustery February wind on my face when I noticed a group of swimmers walk past me on their way to the sea. They were wearing swimming trunks or costumes and had walked a fair distance from their clubhouse and across the beach towards the cold North Sea. They walked into the sea with little hesitation and stayed in throughout the remainder of our mindfulness practice session.
As I wound up the session with a short enquiry, I reflected that we were observing members of the advanced mindfulness class moving and swimming in the sea. There are some experiences, including immersing oneself in the cold water of the North Sea, that would be almost impossible to do without the ability to focus on present moment experience and to be fully open to it.
I was reminded of the first time I went on retreat on the beautiful Holy Island off the West Coast of Arran. I had brought my swimming costume and was keen to enjoy a swim in the beautiful and calm sea surrounding the island. On the first evening of the retreat I tip-toed across stones down to the water's edge. As I stepped into the water I winced at the cold. Within seconds my feet were hurting. That first evening I got in up to the waist before beating a rapid retreat. Much as I would have loved to swim, it felt as if the temperature of the water was just too cold for me.
During the retreat we practised Mindfulness for several hours each day. While the practices were varied, the essence was unchanged. I learned to remain in touch with my present moment experience, and to gently guide my attention back if I noticed it had wandered. Sitting, several times a day for an hour at a time was challenging and at times painful. I learned that resisting this pain and impatiently waiting for it to end with the end of a session served to exacerbate it to the point that it could feel unbearable. By contrast, if I could allow myself to simply open to and allow my experience to be as it was in the moment, a lot of the suffering dissolved and it was far easier to hold the physical discomfort as just one part of my experience.
Halfway through the retreat I decided to try swimming again. I resolved to be open and to allow my experience to be as it was. As I approached the water's edge, I repeated the word 'open' to myself over and again. I noticed the sharp cold as I stepped into the water, but this time did not allow myself to be pulled away by thoughts or judgments about this. I simply focused on noticing and allowing the sensation. Instead of bracing against the cold I allowed my body to remain relaxed. The water was just as cold as it was on the first day, however this time I remained focused on the sensation of this in the present moment and continued to remind myself to stay open to what I was experiencing. I entered the water fully and enjoyed swimming for a few minutes. During this time, although the water felt cold, it was not painful. It took little effort to remain in the water. I felt peaceful and at one with the island and the sea.
This experienced reinforced what I had learned during the formal mindfulness practices of the past few days. The more challenging the experience, the greater the need to maintain an open attitude and present moment focus. Without this challenging experiences can quickly feel overwhelming. Yet with mindfulness these same experiences can be transformed and energising.
I'm pretty sure that the swimmers I saw were fully focused on the moment and open to their experience. While some of them may never have heard of mindfulness, it is a capacity that is naturally present in all of us and without which their cold swim might have been a very unpleasant experience indeed.