I learned to swim when I was very young and have very little memory of thrashing around in the deep end of a pool or a lake. As a lifeguard in high school and college, I can remember seeing kids start to panic and suddenly their arms and legs were flailing like an egg beater on full speed. Arms and legs beating the water into a frenzy of panic. Most of the time the panicking child was still in the shallow end of the pool and only needed to stop beating the water, relax, and put their feet down to be safe.
I remember distinctly when my father taught me how to float in the water. It seemed like magic. I could lie on my back, arch my spine, let my head sink into the water, spread my arms and legs, and the water would hold me up. As a kid, I spent hours floating on my back in neighborhood pools looking up at the sky and with my ears in the water the whole craziness of an afternoon at the pool disappeared and all sound was muffled and my only vision was the sky. As an adult, floating in a smooth ocean is one of the most calming experiences, until of course a wave crashes over you and gets water up your nose and in your mouth—but that’s life—calm punctuated by chaos.
I had that image today in my meditation, the thrashing—not the floating. That feeling of being gripped by so many problems, difficulties, and responsibilities that I was just thrashing in the water to stay afloat. Kicking and flapping my arms to no avail, only churning up more and more frustration, not moving forward, not floating, barely even surviving. And then came the image of floating, of letting go into the water. Letting go into the realization that this surface which we can brush our fingers through can also hold us up and sustain us, if we let go and relax.
Floating on top of the water is the art of relaxing and trusting in the physics of the water to hold us afloat. Meditation is the very act of stretching out our arms and our legs, arching our spine and letting our head sink into the ocean. Meditation is first an act of surrender, of letting go. We have to stop the useless thrashing to realize the calm of floating.
Rest in natural great peaceThis exhausted mindBeaten helpless by karma and neurotic thought,Like the relentless fury of the pounding wavesIn the infinite ocean of samsara.--Nyoshul Khenpo, in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche, p. 63