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Staying Afloat in Life’s Rough Waters

"Ocean View" - Photo by Diana Ensign

In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside of you.”
—Deepak Chopra

“Breathe. Let go. And remind yourself that this very moment is the only one you know you have for sure.”
—Oprah Winfrey

After taking a delayed honeymoon trip to Hawaii, I thought I’d return to write about the spectacular Na Pali coast or my hike through Waimea Canyon. While these sights were amazing, what I find myself wanting to discuss instead is snorkeling; not the wonders of snorkeling but the capacity to work through our fears and to try again when we falter.

Having seen young children playfully snorkeling in pools, I never put that activity in the “risky adventure” category. Nevertheless, during a boat ride off the coast of the island of Kauai, when I placed the mask on my face, flippers on my feet, and plunged into the water, I realized snorkeling wasn’t as easy as it looked. Perhaps it’s because I’m from the Midwest. Perhaps it’s because I watched frightening shark movies in my teenage years. Perhaps it’s because I’m older and more keenly aware of my mortality. Whatever the reasons, my initial reaction was slight panic as the ocean waves rolled over me. Salt water quickly filled both my mask and my snorkel, going up my nose and down my throat. I came to the surface coughing, while visually reassuring myself that the boat remained nearby.

The boat captain had explained the buoyancy of salt water. He advised us not to struggle or flail in the water. If we relaxed, he said, we would easily stay afloat. As I cleared my mask of excess water, I mentally told myself to stay calm—not splash around or continually lift my head up and down. After reattaching my mask, I remembered that I just needed to put my face in the water and float. Even so, breathing through a narrow tube in the middle of the Pacific Ocean didn’t feel natural. I felt panicky. I could hear my breathing—loud in the snorkel tube—and could feel my heart racing. I tried to slow my breathing and internally stay calm while observing my underwater landscape. What I saw seemed murky and alien. I didn’t stay in the water long that first time.

However, I did try snorkeling again later that week, this time from the shore of a rocky beach. Once in the water, I didn’t know how to orient myself to shore. Getting accustomed to bobbing with the large waves also took some measure of surrender and trust. Afterward, the woman who rented me the snorkel equipment asked if I had relaxed enough to feel the harmony with nature and view all the interesting fish. She talked about the breathtaking magnificence of the ocean scenery.

My story here is not about becoming one with nature—not yet anyway. My story is about my willingness to try again—despite being afraid—and becoming slightly more comfortable with rough, crashing waves the second time. My achievement is that I did learn to breathe through the snorkel. I learned to calmly float with my hands on my back, using my fins to navigate. Baby steps. Likely next time, I will feel more confident. Next time, I will stay out a bit longer. Next time, I may see the miraculous ocean world in the way that woman sees it when she snorkels.

Isn’t that the way life is? We know the views we would like to see. We know rare beauty is available to us. Yet we are afraid. Maybe we have mental blocks—images of danger lurking nearby. Maybe we do not have enough experience, knowledge, or skills to enjoy the gifts that surround us. Maybe we don’t always recognize that more practice is required of us. Maybe we have additional work to do before we accomplish our goals.

Here’s the good news: We don’t have to be expert snorkelers (or expert meditators, expert yoga practioners, expert fitness gurus, expert artists, expert musicians, expert parents, and so on). Expert status is not required of us in order to benefit from our experiences. We can bring our unique life conditions, fears, and abilities to each activity we pursue. We can also learn from individuals who have acquired greater proficiency.

We won’t always find our bliss as easily as our teachers. Still, it’s possible that when we continue our work—even when it’s scary or hard—we will greatly appreciate the results when we finally do achieve our goals.

Slowing down and mindfully breathing are useful skills regardless of the activity. We can practice them when we have arguments with a spouse, concerns about a teenager’s behavior, or disputes in our place of work or worship. We can practice them when we feel frightened about a family member who is ill or when we are devastated by the death of someone we love. Maybe life’s on-going lesson is: Slow down. Breathe. Ask for help. Don’t panic. Stay afloat the best we can. Keep learning. And when we falter, remember it’s okay. We can try again.


In joy & gratitude, 

Diana J. Ensign

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