Floating Lessons

I’m finding that a lot of the inner spiritual life is about release. Strangely, I’m discovering this through teaching swim lessons. Last night I taught a class of four adults, and for the full 45 minutes we focused on floating on their backs. For an adult, especially someone with a fear of the water, floating is a terrifying thing. It is a place of complete surrender, vulnerability and humility. Giving it a try, my students began to sink, flounder, trying to stand up, swallow water, splutter, look at me sheepishly with their wet faces full of strange shame, and I understand the shame. I know just as well as they do that this is one of the hardest parts of swimming: letting your body hang in space between air and water, wrapped in gravity and buoyancy, held together by the power of the human mind. 

It sounds very, very trippy. As I said to these four people last night, that’s because it is. Learning to swim at 40 or 50 is a completely psychological battle, where you unlearn the coping mechanisms your body has created to survive in the water. You must reteach your body what it is capable of. You must learn to trust in the water’s power to hold you. It’s one of the most bizarre experiences life has to offer.

I have them practice with noodles first. They all lean back, secure in the feeling of the solid thing at their heavy backs. They relax. They float. I help them to focus on extending their spine, to focus on the feeling of their hips being weightless. Then I take away their noodles and have them practice with one hand on the wall. I can see their fingers tense and grasp, then relax as the weight moves through their body to their hips, and they begin to sink. They all struggle to stand, splashing, and are confused at their heaviness and the disobedience of their body.

My class looks to me for an answer. I sigh. This is the weird part: you’ve got to tell yourself that you can float. You’re sinking because you feel the weight of your body pulling you down... but there is no weight. You’re making it up. Whatever weight you feel is weight that you are imagining is there. You are taking that weight onto your body – a weight that does not exist.

I place my hand underneath one woman’s back and my fingers connect to the tightening muscles of her body. (In a world where people are connected through impersonal interactions devoid of intimacy, it is a shock to interact with strangers in such a physical way.) I am connected to her fear, to her struggle of trying to accomplish the impossible possibility of floating. I coach her through relaxing the muscles in her neck and shoulders, to stop kicking, to breathe. One by one, I slowly take my fingers off her back until she is floating above my index finger – and there it is. For one fleeting moment, I can feel the last muscle relax, release. She briefly floats to the surface away from my finger, and for one moment, she believes. Then: the doubt, the struggle, the splashing. She is sheepish again. But the magic of the impossible possible moment has hooked her, and she begins to try in earnest for the rest of the hour.

I am no scientist. But I do know that there are nerves that connect intimately with my muscles, nerves that wrap around the way that I live. When I lean back into the water and float, I have to release each of those nerves and muscles, give them permission to loosen and breathe. It is an act of faith. Faith or trust might just be more theological words for release. Shaking off the tension, relaxing in reality, letting truth hold me up between water and air.

My body and my soul inhabit each other’s spaces. I can feel those nerves in each muscle tense when I feel hatred toward someone. I tighten my back, my fingers, my ankles, everything, when I am disappointed, tightening against the world I can’t trust and a God who is as invisible as water. Something within me pulls in all my muscles into myself when I am hurt or when I feel trapped or alone, shrinking away, wrapping up, closing off. I don’t float. I don’t trust. I don’t release. I forget that I am not a heavy person suspended in emptiness.

After all, life is not leaning back into darkness and falling, tense, until a crash at the end. Life is not leaning back into that darkness and wishing against hope that some person or job or place or other happiness will catch me and save me from that crash. Life is not tensing, bracing myself against pain, shrinking away from death, a tightened survival. That dark world is not my reality, because I am in the ocean of God.

Here, I lean back and I find he is already there, catching me, wrapping himself around me. My choice is simple: do I let myself rest, or do I struggle and thrash against him? Do I let go of each of those muscles and nerves, breathe, relax, and trust? Do I dare to have this childlike faith?

I felt this choice here, at my computer, tightened with sadness over a frustrating and seemingly futile search for direction in my life. Spending most of my days alone in my head, digging deeper into myself and finding nothing there but recycled questions about purpose and existence that overwhelm me to the point of a small, quiet despair. I am bitter, driving through traffic to pick up my brother from class, who has never thanked me for making the drive. I look for God in my email inbox, waiting for an interview from one of the 13 or so jobs I’ve applied to. Nothing. Only darkness, emptiness.

Then I remember the beautiful phrase I read this morning in 2 Corinthians: “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” The law is over. Grace rules. We can behold the glory of God with unveiled faces. This is everything. This is the ocean. There is freedom, there is release. I can float, despite how impossible it feels. I can let go of needing love from my brother, and instead rest in the love of God that defines my entire existence. I can release myself from finding worth in labels or positions, and instead relax in this season and let it carry me where it will.

This is how I want to move through life: floating, not struggling or spluttering. Resting, not striving. Releasing, not controlling. Letting a vast, deep, fathomless God hold me, vulnerable, weightless, believing.

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