Swimming Toward Enlightenment — and Failing (Sort of)

I was hoping this 10K swim would crack me open

After a summertime 10k lake swim, from L-R: Tom, Scott, Tricia, author, Jo. Photo by Patty Grandine.

I was only going to swim for two hours — max.

“I don’t think I’ll do the whole 10K,” I told my friend Tricia a week before. “My shoulder.” I nodded toward the offending body part.

Tricia is preparing to swim the English Channel this August. Since November, a generous club manager has provided three hours at an outdoor pool once a month for distance training. This brings together five good friends and Masters swimmers who, during covid, have scattered to the few available pools around town for the allotted 45 minute slot; so, we’re always super psyched to see each other and swim our heads off.

Except that this month, I was having some Very Practical Thinking about doing my shoulder in and spending a week recouping.

Let it be known: Very Practical Thinking is not in abundance over here.

Let it be known: A sore shoulder, a lack of training, sleep, preparation or the idea of being rendered motionless after a long-haul sports adventure has not stopped me before.

It was 7 a.m. on a February morning on Mercer Island, a Seattle suburb. Still dark. No moon, no stars. Air temp was 43d, water temp 83d.

I got into an end lane, five minutes late, unconcerned with promptness because I probably wasn’t swimming the whole thing anyway. My four swim pals were already underway, and I followed along, knowing there would be a break at the 1000 meter mark and I could catch up on the plan then.

When we stopped, I learned the strategy: Tricia and Scott (Tricia’s mentor and a world class open-water swimmer) were doing sets of 1000 meters straight, on the far side of the pool from me. Tom was breaking up every 1000m into mini-sets; Jo was following Tom’s plan, and doing some of her own thing as well.

I greed to follow Tom’s lead, and then let everyone know: “I’ll probably get out at 9.”

In a far distant field of my mind I heard laughter.

The second set of 1000s was: 2 x {200, 150, 100, 50}

So far, I felt good — no shoulder problems. I was almost able to keep up with Tom. Each time we got to the wall, we waited for Tricia and Scott to make their flip turns and that was our queue to go. The shorter the distance, the shorter our wait, which dropped a game element into things.

A crease of daylight was visible on the horizon.

The third set was: 5 x {125, 75}

At this point I thought I was swimming pretty magnificently, feeling strong and ambitious, enjoying the steady challenge of the sets. I remained committed to two hours, even though I wondered if I’d surprise myself with some unexpected rush of stamina.

By the end of 3000m, my shoulder felt perfect! My arms, however, were stiff; my biceps were imbued with a strange weight, as if I was turning over 30 pound dumbbells stroke after stroke. Not even an hour in.

Daylight was everywhere, the sky stuffed with silver clouds. Birds flitted between evergreen trees, chirping, chirping, chirping.

The fourth set: 2 x {200, 150, 100, 50}

Boy, did I feel like crap. I had these tree trunk arms, a sluggish body, sinking legs; no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t keep up. There was a bit of light-headedness. Was it due to the previous night’s sugar splurge: handfuls of licorice nibs, Toblerone chocolate peeks, See’s lollypops?

Tom slipped farther ahead. I barely made our send-offs. I resorted to paddles, not great for the shoulders. Tricia and Scott held their steady pace lap after lap. Jo swam with a smile.

Enter: a desperate seeking of enlightenment

I searched for calming devices. I thought about the non-duality course I was taking, which, in a nutshell, looks at how all suffering comes from identifying with a separate self that feeds us lies, lies and more lies — when what we really are is the beauty of life being lived in the moment and nothing more.

The thoughts we have about ourselves don’t define Who We Are. This is a mind f*&k for anyone who has spent decades setting up house in the theater of their imagination.

I had resorted to using this pool as my laboratory, a place from which to stare deeply into the pain abyss and retrieve some giant reckoning with . . . Life.

At the end of 4k, my mind-body-self was spiraling south.

“Oh man I’m struggling!” I panted. “Good thing I’m getting out at nine, it can’t come soon enough.” I forced a smile.

Then I put on my fins.

The fifth set: 200, 175, 125; 2 x (100, 75, 50, 25)

“This might be my last one,” I chirped to Jo and Tom.

To endure this final thousand, I tried to plug into the infinite power source of the universe. I imagined all of my energy coming from out there rather than in here. It didn’t work. I fluttered my finned feet and focused to maintain an artful streamline; I imagined sinking deeper into and out of myself.

I know you can’t whistle at enlightenment like it’s a dog. Still, I tried. I kept reaching for the enlightenment rope. With each stroke, I focused on rotating, staying streamlined, bending my elbows, entering the water outside the body line with my middle-to-pinky fingers (never the thumb, you’ll ruin your shoulders).

I thought I could crack my inner Buddha right open by staring down the physical discomfort. If I was going to suffer through this swim, I might as well evolve in the process.


There’s something about reaching the midway point that changes everything. All we had to do was swim one more teeny-tiny length and we were over halfway there— that is, if I were to swim the whole thing which I wasn’t.

We swigged our water, electrolytes and carbs; Jo handed out Rice Krispie treats, I gobbled up a Larabar.

“This is fun,” I said, “but I’ll be glad to get out early.” No one answered. Tom told me the next set.

Set 6: 2 x {175, 125, 100, 75, 25}

“I think I have one more thousand in me,” I announced, at 8:50 a.m. Tom nodded. Tricia and Scott took off. Jo moved into my lane to make room for some arriving swimmers. I put on fins and paddles.

Somewhere during this set I glanced over at Tom just before we went into a turn. I can’t leave him, I thought. Of course I could; Tom wouldn’t be alone. But we were in this thing together, he and I, side by side, creating something that I didn’t want to interrupt.

I was grateful to have Jo in my lane, to have the intimacy of her warm and playful nature swimming so close to me. After a while my antenna reached over toward Tricia and Scott, a little duet of perseverance, carving through the water.

Look at us all, swimming away like this, I marveled to myself.

“Look how strong Tricia has gotten,” I said to Jo in between the sets.

Seventh set: 4 x {150, 100}

“I think I have half a set in me, so if I’m not here when you’re done . . .” I explained to everyone. Tom was staring straight down his lane, smirking.

Somewhere around the 6500 meter mark, enlightenment dreams and tired-body obsessions had disappeared. Instead, I swam hard to stay up with Tom, the good kind of flow-state “hard.” The desire to get out of the workout was replaced by a pull to stay in, and keep the connection with my swim mates.

The more I felt a part of everyone else’s swim the more I forgot about my self, and the more I was simply living life through this expression o f swimming.

7000 meters: check!

Eighth set: 2 x {200, 150, 100, 50}

“Ok, one more!” I laughed.

I put on my paddles; my shoulders were absolutely fine.

Five of us pushed off the wall to adventure through another thousand meters, together.

Ninth set: 3 x {100, 200}, 100

The paddles came off, the fins went back on. At this point it was clear what was ahead. I forgot about the deadweight arms, the stiffness, the fatigue, the sugar-fueled body.

The mind was liberated from the thinking cycle. I was all in and nothing else. Is this what we mean by “freedom”?

I swam with the friends I love; an eagle circled.

Final set: 10 x 100

We swam this one together, on a 1:40 send-off, with all our might. After the tenth and final 100, we leaned back against the wall, panting and laughing. We looked at each other and smiled, chlorine-covered, weary, fulfilled. The clouds chugged along with their fat bellies. The eagle passed by.

We did it.

And then: the gift

Afterwards, we floated on our backs, using the time to catch up. In a quiet moment, Tom breaststroked over and gave me this gorgeous little gift:

“All morning long, I watched you wrestle with how you felt versus who you are,” he laughed.It was so fun watching who you are triumph over how you felt.”

And there it was, today’s lesson. A reminder of Who I Am — of What We All Are:

wild creatures, vaster than our thinking, infinite with possibility, and always full of surprises.

Three wild creature-mermaids after a November 10K. Photo by Q Glaze.

CODA: Our 10k swim in sets of thousands:

4 x {150, 100}
2 x {250, 150, 100}
5 x {125, 75}
2 x {200, 150, 100, 50}
200, 175, 125; 2 x (100, 75, 50, 25)
2 x {175, 125, 100, 75, 25}
4 x {150, 100}
2 x {200, 150, 100, 50}
3 x {100, 200}, 100
10 x 100

Writer, coach, swimmer, runner, late-marrier. I coach writers, professionals & re-inventors. Everyday Creative Coaching, www.everydaycreative.net

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