Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Mind/Body Problem

I had sound reasons for missing several of my swimming classes, I told myself, a trip to Alaska, a painful sinus problem, an appointment made in error for that same time slot on Tuesday. It wasn't until yesterday, when I had a new surge of energy and the sun was shining (Coincidence? I think not), that I packed up my suit, towel, and swim cap and set off for class.

As I walked toward the pool, I had an urge to go right past it, which puzzled me. I was certain I was no longer aquaphobic; I could get my head underwater, bring it up for breath and return, open my eyes, get water in my ears and nose, all of which I thought was impossible at the beginning of the year. I'd told the instructor I was ready to learn to float and felt eager to do that. So why was I tempted to play hooky now?

I reviewed my cluster of classes and remembered how much I'd enjoyed being in the water; then I imagined floating and my mind clamped shut.

"My body knows I can do it but my mind is frightened," I told my instructor.

"I'll walk you through this," he promised.

I walked away from my wall, closer to the center of the pool than I had ever been, and a flicker of panic hit like a small shudder. I put my head in the water and my legs obediently floated to the surface--and I floated for a couple of seconds. Then my hands instinctively grabbed for the wall. The second time, they felt my instructor's hands and clutched desperately, as though they were independent organisms, but I knew they weren't. They were following directions that were coming straight from my very resistant mind.

"When you want to come out of the water, put your chin up and then bring your knees into a sitting position," I was told. The third time I began to float, I forgot to do that. My legs began to flail idiotically in three feet of water. I went back to the wall to practice putting my chin up again and again, hoping it would become a natural act.

In the next few minutes, I put myself in floating position repeatedly, then chin up, knees under, and out. But always, at least my fingertips were in contact with my wall.

My instructor came back and said encouraging things, followed by "Keep your hands on the wall but put your head back and make sure your ears are under water." I did; it felt wonderful.

For the rest of my thirty minutes, I was on my back, happy, but one hand still touched my wall. I was the last person out of the pool when my time was up, for the first time ever. Next week I have to make my mind know that my body is ready to do this. A good hypnotist wouldn't hurt.

But it's okay. I have all year to learn how to persuade my mind to follow where my body is willing to take me. It's been sixty years or more that I've refused to trust the water; old mental habits are hard to break, but not impossible--especially when my body really wants to know how to enjoy the pleasure of being weightless and surrounded by a whole new element.

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