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Finding Peace & Presence Underwater

By Underwater Cat.

I have always loved being in the water since I was a baby. I was told that I would clench tightly to the bathing pail when it’s time to dry and dress up. When I was about ten years old, my parents enrolled me in swimming classes. I loved them. But at the same time, I was also struggling with distorted self-image, thinking that I don’t have the type of body “suitable” to be in a swimsuit. Eventually, I stopped swimming because I felt so ashamed of my body.

I was a little on the chubbier side as a teenager. I’ve been called unflattering names like “Doraemon,” “big-waist girl,” and “penguin,” when I dressed in a blue pinafore. My parents had high expectations of my academic performance. I was forced to drop all the co-curricular activities in school, outings, and sports to focus solely on scoring my papers. The stress, lack of exercise was detrimental to my weight and self-esteem. I threw myself into a cycle of binge eating and self-starvation to redeem the physical expectations I have on myself.

When I was in university, I was diagnosed with clinical depression after a suicide attempt. I underwent electroconvulsive treatment (ECT) and was faced with memory problems. The disease itself also made it much more challenging to focus on such a difficult course. Or course, I failed most of my papers in dentistry. The dean was very kind to speak to my father personally and advised him to switch me to a less demanding course. After changing course, I was determined to gain control of my health and well-being. I started exercising and swimming.

Immersed in water, I feel safe and calm, shielded from the noise above the surface and in my head. I love to curl up into a ball, exhale and sink to the bottom of the pool. I feel present, calm, and connected to my surroundings. It is as if the water is enveloping me into a safe embrace.

Breathing rhythm and relaxation are crucial to survival in water. The focus on breathing technique helps me to be mindful of my inhalation and exhalation. A full exhalation is longer than inhalation, which also helps to relax muscle tensions and feel calm. For me, it feels like blowing off the steam from a pressure cooker. The more time I spend in the water, my mental health started to improve. But at that time, I was unaware that something as mindless as breathing could be so powerful and transformative.

As I started working and making my own wages, I ventured into scuba diving. I discovered more about the mechanism of breathing and how it can help me navigate the depths of the ocean safely. I found a different sense of self and wonder from scuba diving. Other than the ethereal and magnificent underwater world, it feels surreal to listen to me breathing through the regulator while watching air bubbles ascending to the brightly lit surface of the sea. Navigating above the corals feels as though I’m flying over colorful tiny buildings bustling with an abundance of flora and fauna. The experience was truly magical.

Not long ago, I started freediving. Relaxation and mindful breathing are even more crucial as there is no other breathing apparatus other than the lungs. We’re required to hold our breath underwater, either staying still or swimming underwater to the other end of the pool. While holding my breath, I would often close my eyes. Sometimes I see colorful patterns dancing around. At times I focus on the sound of the swimming pool pump, filtering and expelling water from the bottom. I became more aware and sensitive to my body cues. When I am out of breath, I could feel my skin tingles coldly, and tiredness started creeping into my proximities. The sensations seem to heighten when I am holding my breath underwater and relaxing. It's mindfulness in action and in water.

I find myself constantly challenging my relationship with the water, seeking new experiences in these molecules. I’m always curious about what I can do and achieve with it. One thing for sure is, I know I'll always be able to find my way back to sanity, peace, and mindfulness when I’m underwater.
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