There’s no escaping it. When you get into the water, particularly cold water, there’s something about that shock to the system that brings you right into that moment, into the present and what is happening, physically, in you and around you.
You’re there. Alive. Uncomfortable. Aware of everything around you as well as what’s going on in your body. The shock makes it almost impossible not to be. The loudest voice in your mind is likely to be the one that is telling you this is cold, and, once you’ve quietened that, suddenly you are there, alive to the world, hearing, seeing, feeling.
Most wild swimmers will talk about this sensation of being in the moment – and when they talk about it, they will often use the word “mindfulness”. But you don’t have to be a deliberately mindful swimmer to experience this thereness. The bracing cold, the immersion, the all-senses nature of the experience bring you, whether you like it or not, right into the now. Psychotherapist and mindfulness coach, Angie Cameron, has long been encouraging people to find this in swimming.
She observes, “What I think the sea does is make us really feel alive. The sea is there – there’s no disputing it. When you’re in the water you’re not going away off into your head thinking about your work and kids, or whatever else. The experience of the water is right there and, because of that, it creates that mindfulness that comes with being present. We’re not thinking about our bills and our shopping, or whatever has caused us hurt or pain.”
For Angie, the sea is itself an “anchor” to help us focus in the “here and now”. The physical sensations it creates work in the same way as the breath might in other deliberate mindfulness practices.
“When the mind stops churning so much,” she says, “and we get into our bodies more, we are in touch with the physical sensations. That in itself is mindful. We’re using it as an anchor. Every time our thoughts are flitting off to something else, we come back to the swimming or our physical sensations when in the water and this allows us to feel more embodied. If our mind wanders off again, maybe we see something that distracts us or a thought pops up, the sensation of the water keeps bringing us back to the present. So, in that way it’s definitely mindful.”
These days mindfulness can seem like it’s everywhere – so common that versions of it have been dubbed McMindfulness – while also seeming elusive and difficult to pin down. But mindfulness, as ice swimmer Gilly McArthur points out, is already there in all of us. “We human beings are all mindful, but we just don’t realise that we are. So, when you have that first sip of coffee in the morning, for that three seconds you are being present. You’re just thinking, ‘I’m here and not anywhere else.’ Mindfulness is observing the present moment without judgement.”
For Gilly, the mindfulness of wild swimming comes to her at the point at which she immerses herself in the water, feeling its coldness, listening to the birds, observing the light on its surface. “You are just there,” she says. “You’re in that moment without any extra judgement of time and other things. Obviously, it takes practice but the more you do it the more you can just be in that moment.”
Gilly has been through her own hard, dark times. In 2012, she lost her daughter, Elsie, when she was stillborn 41 weeks into her pregnancy. “How you can swim out of that is unthinkable,” she says. “What was interesting in that experience, looking back, is how I have a broader understanding that everyone has difficult times in life and that from deep roots into darkness it’s possible to grow a more beautiful tree. So now I have, with hindsight, more understanding of hardship and how your mind can, if you set it off in the right direction, grow new buds and new flowers, to make things different.”
She and her husband were both rock climbers – a pursuit she took up after she became burnt out in a retail career at Gap. “If you could have cut me in half,” she recalls, “I would have been Gap all the way through.” In the year after their daughter’s death, they decided they would go crack climbing on sandstone pillars in Utah in a bid to do something they loved to help them through the dark times to a happier future. While 100 feet up one of those rock faces, she fell, hitting a ledge, before being left dangling on her rope with a broken back.
It was while Gilly was recovering that she found a new space to be mindful, and a love of swimming again. “What I really enjoyed about open water swimming was that it was similar to rock climbing. For me it was an extension of just being in the place, rather than about a measured time and a distance, or monitoring things with a device like a watch. It was always about kicking off my shoes and getting as close to nature as I could. It was about getting away from distraction and calming right down to being in that moment, in that breath.”
As the water got colder, towards winter, she discovered “you had to be more in your body” to appreciate the cold. “If you set an attitude when going into cold water that it’s cold, it will be. If you go around screaming and yelping, ‘Oh my God, it’s freezing,’ then your mind creates what you tell it to create. If we accept it might be uncomfortable and we are OK with that, that’s where the magic happens. That is how our minds work. When you’re getting into cold water, you have to be really aware of what your breath is doing and through practice via meditation and breathing techniques, you can calm everything down. It’s hugely liberating.”
Some people, like Gilly, come to the water with an already developed mindfulness practice. Others find their way to mindfulness through swimming. As Gilly points out: “There are loads of people swimming who I guess didn’t have a mindfulness practice, but who are now using it. It’s almost like reversing into a mindfulness practice. I see it as, instead of getting to mindfulness through an app or doing a course, this gives people an experience of how to simply be present. They then might delve further into a course, or into reading about meditation.”
Taking the Plunge: The Healing Power of Wild Swimming for Mind, Body and Soul by Anna Deacon and Vicky Allan is available to buy now
Images: Anna Deacon Photography