Friday, September 12, 2008

Swimming Therapy

As appreared in Bangkok Post Real Time Friday September 12, 2008

Photo from BBC News, UK

What do Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Michael Phelps have in common?

For sports enthusiasts, the answer could be - plenty. Categorising all the superlatives known to describe them, we can perhaps narrow them down to two. Besides their physical prowess, the other extraordinary strength these athletic superstars have is their superhuman quality of focus.

Sports writers liked to describe Woods when he was closing in on a title as "in the zone." That is common parlance for the psychiatric diagnosis called hyperfocus. Before this year's US Open the press seemed to zero in on Woods' legendary nerves of steel, fuelled by Woods' own account that his late father's efforts to test his focus included dropping a golf bag while he was practicing a putt and even hiring military psychological specialists to try to "break him down."

If you think honing on concentration skill is tough enough for a healthy person like Woods, imagine what it would be like for a person suffering from ADHD, or Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Wouldn't it be, well, simply a nightmare?

Ask Michael Phelps. He was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 9 and was on medication until 11. But, according to his mother, swimming was his saviour. It is very regimented, sequential, and, shall we say, requires a monumental amount of focus. Phelps' ADHD was finally in control. And, let's just say, the rest is history.

But you neither have to suffer from ADHD or train for the next Olympics in London to reap similar benefits from a healthy swimming therapy. Swimming is relaxing yet invigorating. Think "runner's high" without damaging your knees. Besides, living in Thailand means the blessing of being able to swim all year round. Even in the current rainy season, it hardly rains all day. You are almost always guaranteed to have a healthy morning sun.

Interested? Here are a few meditation techniques you can try adding to your routine the next time you go swimming. Just choose the one that feels right for you.

First, the samatha approach. Samatha is often translated as "calm abiding" or "peace abiding." It is designed to enhance sustained voluntary attention, and culminates in an attention that can be sustained effortlessly and for hours on end.

The easiest and perhaps most fitting for an activity such as swimming is watching your breathing, anapanasati. Simply glide through the water and pay most attention to the way you inhale and exhale. Do not force it. Just keep your regular breathing rhythm you normally use when you swim. Continue to do it throughout the swimming session.

You may be surprised to discover that your mind keeps wondering away from your focus on the breathing, and may be away from swimming altogether! Don't worry, it is the nature of the mind. Just bring your attention to the breathing whenever you realise the drift. If the wandering mind bothers you too much, use anchor words that would keep you focussed on your breathing: in/out, etc. Count each lap you are doing in your mind, if you want, while focussing on the breathing.

Want an added feel-good bonus? Try another type of samatha technique: the metta or loving-kindness meditation.

In practicing metta meditation, you are cultivating your loving-kindness for others. Although, a typical metta meditation session starts with giving loving-kindness to yourself before moving on to your loved ones, friends, teachers, strangers and even enemies, in swimming it may be more practical to just focus on only one target for the whole session.

Many meditation teachers believe that, with activities that involve bodily movement, the "unlimited" type of metta may be the best. This means you give your loving kindness to all sentient beings.

Use a short phrase in your own language that feels right and natural to you, and repeat it over and over in your mind as you are doing laps. For starters, you may begin with the standard, "May all beings be happy, peaceful, and free from suffering." Feel free to adjust the wording to fit your own style. (The author likes adding the number of the lap to the phrase.)

When you use your own language and wording, it feels more natural for the mind to feel a "boundless, warm-hearted feeling" towards all beings. Use positive wording. For example, "May you be happy," instead of "May you not get depressed."

NB: As you go on swimming with metta, you may feel that your swim become slower as both your body and mind become more relaxed. If you love speed, go for mindfulness meditation (see below) and save metta swimming for the warm-down laps.

The benefits of metta meditation are immense. HH the Dalai Lama wrote many books about it. If you feel that you are the active type that could not stay still on a meditation cushion, try adding some metta and compassion to your swim!

Do not want to focus on your breathing alone or do not really feel like giving loving-kindness to all sentient beings yet? There is another type of meditation for you, vipassana, or mindfulness meditation. The basic idea is to heighten your total body-and-mind awareness while you swim. Be careful, this is not the same as swimming while letting your thoughts take over.

For an easy start, try "mindfulness of the body" first. At each stroke, kick, body turn, or when you come up for air, pay attention to how your body moves without analysing or judging. Again, you may find that this is difficult at first as your mind would always drift. But once you get the hang of it, you will be able to enjoy swimming in an extraordinary way. You may notice, for the first time, the different ways the water moves against your body and the pleasant warmth of sunshine on your back and shoulders. If you feel happiness arise, note it and simply let go. Then, go back to paying attention to the way your body moves through water.

What is the dhamma for this story? Well, for one thing, if you continue to do mindfulness type of meditation, dhamma will arise by itself in your mind. Sceptical? Curious? Well, just try for yourself and you will be amazed.

By the way, all the athletes cited above have set up their own foundations to give back to society, especially children, the blessings they themselves have been receiving. A sign of "boundless, warm-hearted feeling toward all sentient beings" resulting from their rigorous mental training? Quite possible, really.

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