This year I set myself the goal of swimming outdoors at least a couple of times a week throughout the winter. The way I can handle temperatures just above freezing is to pile on the thermals and cycle fast to the Women’s Pond on Hampstead Heath. That way I’m at least warm when I hit the chilly depths. When I first began swimming in colder water I would swim frantically for a few seconds in an effort to fight the cold but then I began to realize that this didn’t really affect my core body temperature: the struggle was making me tense and unreceptive. But once I began swimming slower, allowing my limbs to relax, I started to experience greater serenity. The cold was still cold but I wasn’t fighting it. Because less of my energy and concentration was going into furious muscle manipulation, because my mind wasn’t wildly jerking around worrying I was going to have a heart attack, I had more ability to observe what else was going on.
Every few seconds, there is a distinct change in bodily sensation: at the beginning, I feel the density of water, breathing labours with the shock of envelopment; then a deeper discomfort sets in, usually around my breastbone. After a while the sharp pain of that subsides and I become aware of a tingling invading my whole body. The ordinary definitions of ‘wet’ and ‘cold’ don’t really describe what my body’s now experiencing – only the lapping of liquid around my chin bearing any real resemblance to what ‘swimming’ entails when the water’s warmer. And then, as I haul myself out of the water, the terrific thrum of the whole body that’s like a depth charge; the searing warmth, the levity. I’m ‘in’ my body deeper than ever, but also somehow ‘out’ of it, feeling less separate now from the air, the ground making less of a solid impact against my feet.
You could say this is a bit of an extreme way of tuning into the orchestration of sensation involved in bodily movement, and in some ways it is. But what it’s helped bring me is an appreciation of the nuances within other forms of movement I used to take for granted. Walking for example.
Since I was a child, skipping to keep up with my dad as we made our way through the woods to school, walking usually implied a destination, often with a time limit. Or, in my teenage years, it became an opportunity to tune in on my Walkman, to an entire David Bowie album. In other words I spent most of the time I was walking not in my body but in my head.
Now that I go regularly on meditation retreats I’m used to the practice of walking as a form of meditation, deliberately tuning in to it, rather than tuning out. I find it one of the most powerful ways of exploring the interface of body and mind, and between volition and action, movement and stasis. Walking, like breathing, is one of the functions our bodies perform almost automatically, but unlike breathing, it requires a little more intention. (You breathe continuously when you’re unconscious but most of us don’t sleep-walk!).
Try the following exercise for a few minutes when you have time and space to unhook from a routine or destination.
Find a pace of walking that feels natural to you and pleasurable. As you step be really in the body. Where are the sensations? How do they change? Keep enquiring, What is this? And investigate your answers in the feeling of the walking itself, in your body’s response rather than in the brain.
Does it sometimes feel like the body is walking itself? And, if not, where is the control of the walking coming from? How little effort do you need to make in order for one foot to follow the other?
Does being aware of walking in this way enhance your awareness of other phenomena in the environment or make them seem more distant?
If you’re finding it hard to stay with the sensation of walking without thoughts taking over, then you can use thought itself to help you by simply repeating the phrase: No where to go, no one to be, nothing to do. This may have the effect of softening the need to propel yourself forward, to GET anywhere; of surrendering to the experience of walking rather than exploiting it.
You could say this practice is a little like finding your eye in the centre of the storm of life; a place of refuge in the midst of the cutting and thrusting. Sometimes this place is one of energetic intensity, or of release, but occasionally it is paradoxically, gloriously still.