Cold water swimming mindfulness

The Wisdom of Being Present

Games of Guess who’, ‘I spy with my little eye’, cold rivers and a source of wisdom: Three moments of mindfulness that brought me into the present

There are three short stories that I would like to tell; stories that speak to me of the aliveness and radical sensing found within the present moment. I would like to suggest these present moments are a possible source of wisdom for us as we live our lives. My first story emerges on the 9.01am Eurostar to Brussels. I love to travel by train and on a long journey, I often plan to complete specific pieces of work, read an unfinished book, listen to a favourite podcaster and then… I find my seat is on a table of four with a mum and her 3-, 5- and 7-year-old daughters. The youngest has stomach-ache and demands her mum’s attention, the elder two girls want to talk (the cuddly dog is called Rose) and play games; they are not aware of or interested in my plans. I have some choices, I could ignore them and get my laptop out and do my anticipated work (in this case write a blog), I could even see if there is an empty seat nearby so I can concentrate; or I can be present with these wonderful human beings.

Well, let’s just say I had great fun with the inevitable laughter that comes from spending time with the innocence, plain speaking and plain seeing of young children. The journey sped past as we played ‘guess who’, a childhood favourite of my own children and lots and lots of ‘I-spy with my little eye’. I accepted I would likely be forgotten in the time it took them to leave the train, but I hope I helped their journey be a slightly more enjoyable (and for the mum a slightly less stressful) one. For me it brought me rushing into the moment, it was an invite to be with those in front of me, to allow them to infuse my life with joy and curiosity and be transformed away from any sense of role, position, or the anticipation of what might happen at the end of my journey. I had been asked to turn up.

My second story is different, far away from trains and children. It’s midwinter and it’s cold, wet, and windy, I strip down to my cycling shorts and enter rapidly flowing, cold water. I have learnt there is something intoxicating about the tingling of the body and rushing of the blood to keep vital organs warm. I know much is being written on the positive impacts of wild swimming on mental and physical health, however, I am not here to convince you to wild swim, it is not for everyone and there are other ways to rejuvenate. What I am acutely interested in is the moment when nothing seems to exist apart from the deep breathing, the physical sensation of cold, and my bodies responses to the environment. There is something different about this type of attention, where nothing distracts me from the experience that is happening right now.

There is something primal and deeply grounding when awareness is narrowed to intense experience and sensation; something life-giving when distraction disappears, worry dissipates and past and future become irrelevant. In these moments, I am human just like any other; not greater or lesser; not significant or insignificant, neither known or unknown; it’s just me and the river. In my wild swimming I am often shocked into being wonderfully present in the NOW. In this NOW I have access to many of my senses, emotions, and bodily wisdom yet, sadly it is often fleeting. Cycling home from my favourite spot in the river an unknown future begins to call to my emotions and thoughts; the next task, the unfinished conversations, they all begin to invite me further from the present moment. I leave the cold and the currents of wild water and become drawn outwards to the clatter of ‘ought to’ and ‘should do’, to the rumbling of expectation and anticipation and the noise of obligation and progression.

For me, my experiences of playing ‘guess who’ and ‘eye- spy’ on the train with complete strangers and being in the river remind me of the potential of being fully alive to any moment and the joy of immersing myself in all that moment brings and trusting it as a source of wisdom for how I might live in the world.

Now I might have started to lose you in my metaphysical ponderings and the usefulness of this blog may have begun to slip from your grasp so let us make a jump to my third story; that of two schools in a deprived, poverty-stricken and ostracised part of an English city. To live in the moment here takes courage and tenacity, the power and volatility of this river can be unnerving; emotionally, and physically dangerous. Yet amid this sometime raging torrent the Executive Headteacher of these two schools has developed an amazing capacity to be fully present in the NOW. When there is conflict and challenge, despair and disappointment, anger, and agitation she stays open to the present, noticing her own responses and triggers as if a witness to herself. She breathes deeply, accepts what is happening, listens to all that is that moment. It is from this place that she behaves, speaks, and decides as an Executive Head but more importantly as a compassionate human-being. She is aware of her own position and vulnerabilities, her power, and her fragility. This witnessing of herself allows her to experience others and sense what this moment might be to them. She allows not only her own experiential wisdom to be uncovered but allows the wisdom and learning of others to be noticed.

I am hoping that I am not being naïve, I know that at some level we need to consider the future; to plan and prepare, to learn from what has happened before to reflect and review. If I want vegetables to eat in September, I need to prepare the soil and plant the seeds in March. If I want to complete a project in time, I need to put aside time in my diary to do this. If I am going to learn from previous experiences, I need to evaluate outcomes and adapt accordingly, (although as no situation is ever the same this may be problematic, but that is for another blog).

However, if I go back to the Executive Head, her decision-making seems to be increasingly based on her sense of herself and others in the moment;

what is happening for me, them and the system at this time and how can I be most aware of all this so I can respond with compassionate wisdom and organisational purpose?

As I write that statement, I am struck by a deep sense of the present moment rushing in; emotions, thoughts, physical sensations, sounds, sights, smells, internalised values, and beliefs, learnt responses, purpose, destiny, synchronicity, potential. It all is here, a breadth of data focussed in one moment: this moment.  Maybe through awareness the whole of human experience can flood in and provide us with the information we need to both be and do wisely.

If presence is a source of wisdom, I wonder what I miss when I move too quickly from the moments that life present me. What do I lose? What wisdom is left unsourced? What do I miss? What do I not notice? What information do I unconsciously reject?

If there is an invite that I would like to leave you it is this: experiment with spending some time each day noticing all that is present; the emotions, the thoughts, the body sensations, the sounds, the senses, and hunches; you may be surprised by the breadth and depth of what is…

A bath filled with ice, a cold shower or a dip in a bubbling river may help you dissipate the noise of everyday life before you take this conscious pause, but that is entirely up to you!