Forget Calories. Go for Awe.

Excerpts from Julia Baird’s Forget Calories. Exercise for Awe. (May 6, 2017, NY Times):

If you joined the hundreds of people in my swim squad, you might think at first that the routine was simply about getting a solid bout of exercise before the day begins…The caps we wear are bright pink. The name we call ourselves, the Bold and Beautiful, is also quite daft, but it’s a reminder that the squad was formed several years ago by middle-aged women who were too nervous to swim the distance alone. This morning swim was never about skill, but about pluck.

Most days, at some spot along the mile-long route, heads will cluster, arms pointing down under the water at enormous blue groupers, white dolphins, color-changing cuttlefish, wobbegongs (bearded sharks), and even tiny turtles and sea horses. One summer, a white dolphin frequently appeared. At this time every year, gangs of young dusky whaler sharks swarm the bay, several feet beneath us, migrating only after they have already become large enough to make people nervous. There’s a reason a collective term for sharks is a shiver.

It’s not always sheer delight. Sometimes we emerge with red welts from stingers (usually jellyfish) across faces and limbs, and have to battle thickets of seaweed, powerful currents and crashing waves. But the daily difference in conditions is part of what makes it thrilling. One day, a whale glided into the bay and played with the swimmers for an hour — though I refuse to talk about it because I wasn’t there…My atheist friends who were there described it as like a prayer or quasi-religious experience; their faces turned solemn at the recollection…

It’s not just the close encounters with marine wildlife, though, that take you somewhere far from your ordinary life. Something else happens when you dive into a world where clocks don’t tick and inboxes don’t ping. As your arms circle, swing and pull along the edge of a vast ocean, your mind wanders. And you experience awe. Awe, experienced when you witness something astonishing, unfathomable or greater than yourself, ventilates and expands our concept of time…

We are wrong to think of exercise only as something to build muscle and ease anxiety. If we can, we should force ourselves out of gyms and off machines into the natural world, knowing, or hoping, that we may stumble upon awe… Studies have shown that people who regularly feel awe are more likely to be generous, helpful, altruistic, ethical and relaxed. When dwarfed by an experience, we are more likely to look to one another, care for one another.

We hardly need research to tell us about the joy of ocean swimming. Several of my friends have stopped taking antidepressants. Another, who documents the creatures of the teeming bay with gloriously lit photographs, calls the swim her “happy pill.” Others use it to survive. Some, going through illness or breakups or family trauma, have told me how they have cried into blurry goggles while swimming around the headland, before returning to hot showers and coffee…

There are several sacred aspects to how Australians submit to the sea. First is the way we are drawn to it, gazing out at its expanses, and lie down near it whenever we can. Second is the purifying ritual of plunging, and third is immersing in it and exploring its subterranean secrets. A fourth may be the surfer’s learned respect for its powerful swells, tides and curling waves. Chlorinated pools will never have the same charm as the wide blue sea; the lane’s black line can become hypnotic but is also dull…

For me, the swim is a reminder of the vastness of the ocean and all it contains. We spend a lot of time in life trying to make ourselves feel bigger: to project ourselves, occupy space, command attention, demand respect. So much so that we seem to have forgotten how comforting it can be to feel small — and the awe that comes from being silenced by something greater than ourselves, unfathomable, unconquerable and mysterious.

This is what it is to swim in the sea. We become small. And when we shrink in significance, we become better at living alongside and caring for others.


Photo: wsj.com (Mike Comer)

Comments

  1. It’s a good thing I am small already and don’t need much to remind me, because the ocean terrifies me, even though it also fills me with awe. I’m not missing the point though – feel awe, feel the immense universe of which we are infinitesimals. Humble one’s self. Yes.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Everyone should read this wisdom! Love every word, so very true. 🏊🏊

    Liked by 2 people

  3. this is so wonderful and true. puts our place on this planet into perspective. my aussie son-in-law said that their elementary school physical education classes frequently took place in the indian ocean, where they taught them to swim.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. No gym will offer the awe factor. Get outdoors!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This post reminds me of the utter fear I had of the ocean, until I biked the Big Island with my boyfriend. He refused to allow me to succumb to my terror. Eventually, I swam with the eels, dolphins, sharks, turtles, and other incrediblyamazingstupendous ocean creatures. Headed back in December, I can already hear the cry call of the waves and anemones of the sea.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. That’s the way to start the day — swimming with a bearded shark before a shower and coffee.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is so true when we experience the ocean, but also for other nature experiences that make us shrink and find our place in the universe. Loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Reblogged this on RULE13 Learning and commented:
    “If we can, we should force ourselves out of gyms and off machines into the natural world, knowing, or hoping, that we may stumble upon awe… Studies have shown that people who regularly feel awe are more likely to be generous, helpful, altruistic, ethical and relaxed. When dwarfed by an experience, we are more likely to look to one another, care for one another.”

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I am in awe of swimmers who do swim in the ocean. Having almost drowned because of Mexico’s undertow, I have become a wimp when it comes to “wild waters”… I shall watch and take pictures from the sidelines, while doing squats 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Something to add to the bucket.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Now that’s living!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’ll stick to my chlorinated pool, thanks. Shark encounters are not on my awe list.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. LOVE this message. I’m an average swimmer at best, and like Mimi, mildly terrified by the ocean, but having had the pleasure of snorkeling on my last several vacations, I have to agree that there’s MAGIC just below the surface.

    This last trip found me floating several feet above a placid sea turtle as it trolled the ocean floor munching on sea grass, eyeballing a barracuda whom the boat captain delighted in telling me was a regular at this particular spot named ‘Gustave,’ and playing hide and seek with a clownfish who clearly knew the reef much better than I….

    The entire experience was both enchanting and humbling. We are but a cog in the wheel and it’s wonderful to be reminded of that (in a benevolent way) now and again.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Sigh. It’s so true. I love this. Awe. I’m gonna remember that. ❤
    Diana xo

    Liked by 1 person

  15. man gave away much of his soul, when he chose the four walls
    the Sea is a power beyond our meager little limbs, beyond our largest constructions. she will always remind us who we really are.
    David, your recent post selections have been out of the park. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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