Swim with me, Mara

I love books whose subject is the physiological and psychological limits of humankind. James Nestor’s Deep is one such text. I finished it in a single day.

The first feeling that struck me as I read the book was jealousy. Nestor starts by describing the rather horrifying expedition that gave birth to the book: attendance at a freediving competition in Kalamata, Greece, complete with bloodied noses, blue faces and blacked-out competitors. As a result of his experience he immersed himself in freediving and sought to understand what it involved, to learn of its bliss and its risks in equal measure. That was what I was jealous of–he was able to give himself utterly to the exploration of a single subject. I have yet to either receive or create a similar opportunity for myself, though one is on the horizon.

I got past that feeling rapidly, however, and found sorrow. Nestor’s book is about the Earth’s oceans, oceans which humanity are busy making immutable changes to. How we are living is, without a doubt, changing the ability of the ocean to live as it has for millenia past. It is this fact which provoked sorrow–Nestor’s book is riddled with people who love the oceans, but their compassion is contrasted with snippets of humanity’s cruelty, with stories of violence, violation and disrespect.

The next carriage in the train of emotion I felt whilst reading Deep? Excitement. I’ve experimented with the Wim Hof method, I have minor experience with both jhana and vipissana meditation, and I’ve been incorporating nasal breathing into a few different domains of my life. I consider myself a lacklustre student of the breath and so my curiosity was aroused when Nestor talked of the specific breathing protocols associated with freediving. (I was also excited to learn that his next book is about the breath.)

Another feeling that came along was nostalgia. As a child I used to compete in swimming competitions and as an adult I still love to swim. In Devon, there’s a few river spots where I can go for a chill-inducing dip. During a recent holiday to France I went canoeing, and the only thing that prevented me from ditching the canoe and spending all day in the sun-kissed water was the presence of a few companions. Last year, in Greece, I swam in the clearest, calmest waters I’ve encountered in person. Reading the book, I recalled all this and yearned to get back into the water.

The final feeling wasn’t a feeling itself so much as the recollection of one: fear. Here’s an anecdote that explains this. It occured on the above mentioned trip to Greece…

My partner and I took a bus tour. We were taken from the town we were staying in to a number of different spots, one of which was a multi-hour stop at a small, cove-adjacent town. We didn’t bother with the tourist shops. Instead, we headed straight for a little bar-cafe that was set above the mostly ignored cove. While my partner lounged in the sun, I swapped my glasses for goggles and padded down to the beach. I waded into the temperate crystal water and swam out. The pebble-seabed soon dropped away. In its stead there was mundane marine fauna and small fish. I floated face-down and watched. I dove as deep as I could. I somersaulted and hung upside down. I attempted to hold my breath for as long as possible. I also kept my back to the mouth of the cove and the sea beyond.

See, in the water distance and depth scare me. The prospect of taking a boat into the middle of an ocean, hopping out and looking down sends my heart racing. Visibility in that cove’s waters was astounding. It seemed like I could see for miles out to sea. But every time I looked–or considered looking–I imagined something terrible lurking in the distance. I knew there was no such thing, but no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t override my gut reaction to the unknown.

A picture from Jean Marie Ghislain, whose work Nestor cites in Deep. Found here: http://ghislainjm.com/?page_id=137&categories=gallery_invitation&page=3

Nestor’s book really helped me to examine this feeling. It helped me to posit a possible solution. Metaphorically, I need to take my fear in my hand and surrender it. Let it go, let it fall into the depths. Practically, I need to go into the deep and stay there. That means floating out of my depth. That means looking down and looking out, without flinching.

Towards the end of the book, Nestor has an experience with sharks. He is told that they can determine intent, sense fear. But when one encounters a shark one is vulnerable, unimaginably so. Sharks are overseers of the ocean, so it makes sense to surrender to terror when faced with them. But, paradoxically, terror is what compels them to attack. So, somehow, one needs to relinquish it.

I have no plans to swim with sharks (for now) but I do intend to slip into deep water and encourage Mara to join me. And for that resolution I have James Nestor to thank.