Swimming Into the Present Moment

If you’re familiar with the wonderful TV series Flight of the Conchords, about two would-be rockers from New Zealand, you might know that their manager, Murray, likes to call roll at band meetings.

“Present?” he asks his two musicians, Bret and Jemaine (guitar and bass).

“Present,” they answer, one by one.

It’s funny because it’s obvious. He can see they’re present.

But what’s visible isn’t always true.

I’ve been tempted to do my own roll call—at the RMV, at the dentist’s office, during strained conversations. “I’m not really here,” I want to say. I can account for my physical entity, but my mental or emotional attention is far, far away.

To be present is to be aware, invested, able to absorb what’s happening as it happens, even if it’s unpleasant. To “be here now” is to be less distracted by the future and the past.

It’s a great idea. But how do I actually get there? When do I feel most present?

One of the joys of summertime is swimming. There are few finer sensations than weightlessness in lake water. While floating on my back, I realize that the shell that holds my thoughts, worries, aches, grudges, plans, is just that—a human container buzzing with static. I consider the frogs and fish, lurking below; I feel more connected to these creatures because I share their element for a time. In the lake, I can literally enter another dimension. I can relish this otherworldly sensation and engage less in the distractions of Homo sapiens. I’m one small part of a much larger swamp.

It takes a long while to get there. All winter, I think about swimming. I try to summon the lake smells. I envision the buoyancy; the meditative, repetitive strokes. And then, once summer finally arrives, I pause knee deep instead of charging in.

I worry about the cold, about my hair. (How long will it take to dry and frizz?) I think about the weeds swirling just under the surface. As a kid, I was a fearless diver. I remember the shock of frigid Maine lakes (and the ocean!), a thrill I welcomed again and again. What happened to that girl? Now I’m the woman I used to make fun of—my mother—squeamish at the water’s edge, cringing in my still-dry bathing suit.

Hold on, I think. My refusal to be here now is preventing me from stepping forward into the muck. Be present, like Bret and Jemaine! Be lakeside in this moment.

I force myself to swim. It is cold, but the reward is in experiencing it fully. I face the weeds, the bad hair day to come. I employ a mantra I learned in a Kripalu Yoga class: “It's only sensation.” In other words: Whatever you’re experiencing is probably manageable. You don’t have to run away from it. In that class, we held Goddess pose for what seemed to be far too long. But the teacher reminded us, “You can come out of the pose anytime you want.”

It’s only sensation. No one is forcing me to hold this pose in the lake—or anywhere.

In the water, I stay where I am, because I know it will soon be worth it. I’ll get to the place where I’m floating with the fish. It happens, eventually, every time.

Lara Tupper is an author, performer, teacher, and swimmer. laratupper.com

Lara Tupper, MFA, is the author of two novels, Off Island and A Thousand and One Nights, and Amphibians, a linked short story collection forthcoming in 2021.

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