Why are sky and scuba divers, skiers, surfers, and other intense athletes often the most relaxed people, even though they do such extreme activities? Why do I feel like a completely different person when I’m underwater? Why, ever since I started doing intense, long-distance sports, have I become calmer and happier? What is it about less than three total hours of scuba diving (a crucial point to understand this post is that last week, on the island of Koh Tao in Thailand, I got my open-water scuba certification. It was the first time I had dove) that has completely changed my outlook on life? My thoughts are below:
I think it’s fair to consider scuba diving an extreme sport due to the inherent danger of being 18 meters (or more) underwater. But unlike most extreme sports, you lack adrenaline in scuba diving (rock climbing is similar). In fact, adrenaline underwater is about the last thing you want. In diving, you are rewarded for going slowly with wildlife sightings and a longer air supply.
And while I was underwater, alone with my thoughts, I wondered: how many activities do I do that encourage me to go slow? This is different from activities where you should go slow—like, I should write this post slowly, but I don’t have to. And honestly, I think diving is the first serious activity I’ve done where I was rewarded for my lack of speed.
Realization number one: Diving forces you to slow down. Slowing down is good. What else happens underwater?
Notably, when I’m submerged, I become hyper-aware of my breath. In fact, the sound of bubbles rushing past my ears becomes so loud that it’s the only thing I can hear, unless a boat passes by. I actually meditated better once I dove because I got a new appreciation for how good the breath sounds.
Realization number two: You become hyper-aware of your breath underwater.
Furthermore, when you’re diving, you’re forced to communicate with your fellow divers exclusively via hand signals. Even if you saw a pack of twenty sea turtles swarming a great white shark while it ate a jellyfish, all you could do is throw up a “that’s cool!” hand signal and move on (you’d be surprised how hard it is to even make facial expressions underwater with a mask and regulator covering most of your face).
With few outlets for expression underwater, you are literally forced to observe your thoughts and let them go. I’ll say that again because it’s really important: You are forced to observe your thoughts and Let. Them. Go.
You notice a thought and notice as it slips away. Back and forth, like the tides. Notice a thought. Observe it. Let it go.
You can’t write it down. You can’t say it out loud. You can’t Google it or Tweet it. You can only let it go.
Realization number three: You practice letting go of thoughts underwater.
Let’s combine these three realizations: Underwater, you slow down, you become hyper-aware of your breath, and you let go of thoughts. Sounds like meditation, yeah?
After I dove, I read the book Blue Mind by Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, which describes the many ways water positively impacts our mental and physical health. I was pleased to learn that multiple studies have confirmed that the brain under or near water is very similar to the brain when it meditates! Interestingly, while meditation takes a lot of work and many people think it’s “not for them,” Nichols writes that “you don’t need to meditate to take advantage of [water’s] healing effects because it meditates you” (emphasis mine). The slow motion of the tides, the balance between the static and fluid landscape of the ocean, and many other factors calm your mind to the point where it literally feels like it’s meditating, one of the many reasons we naturally feel calmer by the ocean.
Honestly, anyone who’s daunted by meditating should try diving. You’ll get a very similar experience with the bonus of seeing fish.
Think about this: One of the main objectives of basic meditation is observing the breath. And underwater, a primary concern is maintaining what’s called neutral buoyancy (sounds similar to neutral observation in meditating, right?). Neutral buoyancy allows you to be suspended at a certain depth so you can swim horizontally. When you inevitably need to move up or down, one of the easiest ways to do so isn’t by inflating or deflating your buoyancy control device (BCD). It’s to take a deep breath in, or a long, controlled breath out, increasing or decreasing the amount of air in your lungs and therefore changing your depth. That’s amazing!
If you’ve never dove, which I hadn’t until last week, then you’ve spent nearly every waking minute of your life rooted to the ground. But underwater, suddenly, you can move up or down with only your breath. It’s like a real magic trick.
And the more I think, the more I realize that breathing to maintain buoyancy is really just an analogy for life. We’re always trying to strike a perfect balance between our work and social life and hobbies, but it’s a balance we’ll never achieve. The currents (both water and events) are always out of our control. Even when we do maintain buoyancy, we’re still in motion, we never just STOP.
But we still must try to maintain buoyancy, we still must keep ourselves afloat. And to do so, we must return to the breath. There are very few stressful situations that aren’t aided by slow, deep breathing.
Reality in Motion
Talk to anyone who just discovered scuba diving (if you’re at a hostel, you will meet many such people), and you’ll hear the same thing: “It’s like another planet! Who knew all this stuff existed!?” Well, we all intuitively knew it was there, right? We’ve seen pictures of coral reefs and videos of fish. But it’s another thing to experience it.
Now, I think back to every time I’ve gotten in a fight with someone. It was usually caused by one of the following issues:
a) I acted too quickly
b) I failed to remember that I didn’t have the full picture of events
c) I didn’t doubt myself
And then I went scuba diving, and it was a pretty tangible reminder that we don’t know what we don’t know. I can’t see below the surface of the ocean until I actually go looking for it. And some days, even when you do get to see below the water, it’s murky and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Sometimes people are murky too. Sometimes we don’t know what’s below the surface, and assuming what’s there will give us an incomplete and distorted picture. Sometimes it’s a better choice to observe, and not act.
Maybe diving is a reminder to accept that we don’t know most things, most of the time. If we can spend 30 years in therapy trying to figure out ourselves, we'd better think twice when we assume we can understand others. We are very, very often making assumptions about other people and the world.
For example, color is seriously distorted underwater—it’s much duller than on land. If a fish came above water, and that fish could think in sentences, it might say “wow! Everything is so vibrant up here!” But that’s only relative to color underwater. Likewise, the color spectrum we can see isn’t “right.” It’s just the one we’re capable of seeing. Diving is a nice reminder that even the most seemingly fixed part of our experiences, like color, are actually completely relative.
Why are extreme athletes so calm? Conversely, why are people with desk jobs so consistently stressed? Jumping out of a plane should be more stressful than responding to emails.
But after doing my fair share of extreme sports and reading quite a bit about other athletes far more talented than myself, it’s fair to conclude that extreme athletes are calm because they have an outlet to release stress.
In Blue Mind, Nichols cites study after study that proves this is true. For example, extreme rock climbers performed better on a test (a typically stressful situation), because they learned, through climbing, how to handle anxiety. Addicts used surfing to overcome crippling cocaine addictions because surfing releases the exact same cocktail of dopamine as cocaine. And scuba divers were found to be less inhibited to and prone to anxiety, and healthier than, the control group. The list goes on.
Frankly, nature humbles us in a way a cubicle can’t. Faced with such vastness, we are forced to adapt ourselves to the environment, rather than adapting the environment to us. We literally become subservient to something bigger and more important than ourselves. When you swim against a current, you realize how powerful such a small amount of water is over your entire body. When you fall face first in the snow and momentarily can’t breathe, you realize how powerless you’d be in an avalanche. When you look up from sixty feet below the surface of the ocean and see the sunlight peeking through the water, watching your bubbles float away, and you slowly move your limbs through the water and just sit there, completely suspended in time and space…it’s like a wrecking ball to your ego.
Diving opens you up to a world whose size your brain literally cannot comprehend. It’s worth it for that experience alone.
While I was diving, I had a strong urge to watch Finding Nemo. I was inspired by the reefs and wanted to relive a bit of my childhood.
And after watching it, I realized that amid all the noise, amid all my theories, finding Nemo nailed the best life advice of all time.
Because when you’re trying to maintain neutral buoyancy and you can’t, when you run out of air and need to use your backup regulator, when you want to quit at mile 25, when you get fired or broken up with or mess up a magic trick in front of 1,000 people, you can’t quit. You can’t complain. You can’t blame anyone. But you can get out of bed. You can take a deep breath. And you can “just keep swimming.”
You can just keep swimming.
You can just keep swimming.
You can just keep fucking swimming.