2016-06-30
Soon after I turned 54, I took up scuba diving and began to understand the true nature of what it means to breathe. I had been a less-than-impeccable student of Buddhism ever since I found a copy of D.T. Suzuki's "Introduction to Zen Buddhism" in a used bookstore when I was 15. Over the years, I had practiced various forms of meditation, Buddhist and other, eventually settling down to a vipassana practice that I would periodically strengthen with a silent 10-day retreat.

At the time I began diving, however, my life was becoming more complex, my work more demanding, and my practice was unraveling. I was ruled by task lists that grew like kudzu. As a temporary solution, I escaped to Hawaii for a vacation. I love the ocean and am fascinated by the coral reef environment, so after a few days of snorkeling, learning to scuba dive seemed a natural move. It would also be another notch on the belt of my rapidly aging male ego.

The Brooklyn-bred dive instructor drilled the central rule of diving into us: "Nevuh hold your breath." On land, unconsciously holding your breath is, at worst, a stress-inducing, unhealthy habit. But holding your breath while making an underwater ascent of as little as 20 feet (if you've been breathing compressed air) can rupture your lungs and kill you.

My diving was full of effort and compulsiveness. Why was I still having trouble achieving neutral buoyancy--that perfect balance of breath, weight, and motion that allows you to hang suspended at any depth?

We were also told, over and over, to practice slow, deep, even breathing. Not only would this lead to a more economical use of our limited air supply, but it would promote a state of calm alertness necessary 60 feet down. All this counsel seemed like old news to me. After all, I had spent hundreds of hours sitting on cushions watching my breath.


Before I knew it, I was a veteran of eighteen dives and the vacation was over. I carried home images of brilliant turquoise and yellow parrotfish, exquisitely formed coral canyons and the songs of dolphins. But at the same time, I knew I had missed something essential. I was always the first in my group to run out of air. My diving was full of effort and compulsiveness. Did I see as many fish as the others? Why wasn't I learning to use less air? Why was I still having trouble achieving neutral buoyancy--that perfect balance of breath, weight, and motion that allows you to hang suspended at any depth?

The longing to find some heart of stillness in the deep roiled through my thoughts and dreams in the months that followed. I decided to give myself the diver's equivalent of a sesshin, a meditation retreat, and made plans to spend three weeks on Bonaire, a tiny island 50 miles north of Venezuela where I would dive every day.

After one of my first dives there, a rather gruff Dutch divemaster growled at me: "You move too fast. You must do nothing fast underwater. Slow. Everything slow."

All the minute fibers of fear, worry, disappointment, and expectation loosened their grip as I floated. In this moment, there was no difference between the ocean and my breath.

On one of my next dives, I found myself slowly turning away from the reef toward the deep blue of the open. I finned myself into a vertical position and hovered over the void. I began to sink slightly. Instead of immediately adding air to my BCD (Buoyancy Compensation Device, a vest that can be inflated or deflated to change a diver's buoyancy), I took a long, slow breath and felt myself begin to rise. I exhaled and stopped rising, but before I started to sink again, I took a smaller breath. I stayed where I was. I discovered a still point in which I could dwell as long as my breathing stayed slow and regular.


I felt the surrounding presence of ocean holding me, holding all of me. The muscles in my neck and shoulders, back and abdomen, began to relax. Then something deeper than muscle and viscera relaxed. All the minute fibers of fear, worry, disappointment, and expectation loosened their grip as I floated. I felt suspended in my own breathing. In this moment, there was no difference between the ocean and my breath. Each contained the other. This was the timeless dream of flying made real at last.

Slowly, a six-foot-long tarpon with skin like moonlight glided out of the deep. Surprised, I inhaled sharply and before I knew it rose out of the embrace of stillness. I was back to my normal, agitated mind. I noticed that the other divers in my group were heading back to the boat. I still had plenty of air left. I'd been down for close to an hour, almost twice as long as ever before.

The next day, on the short boat ride to the dive site, I didn't join the conversations about other dives, other islands, large creatures, rare fish, lost luggage and recommended restaurants. Instead, I closed my eyes and paid attention to my breathing. Why wait till I was in the water? For the first time in several years, I was meditating, not out of obligation, but desire.

When we reached our dive site, a tiny island half a mile from Bonaire, the trade winds were blowing fiercely and the water was rough. Annette, the divemaster, recommended that we enter the water with no air in our BCDs in order to spend as little time on the surface as possible. "The reef starts at 30 feet. Just do your back-roll and drop down."

Underwater, I remembered the classic meditation instruction: to notice that the mind has wandered is the very point of meditating, for in such moments of awareness lies the chance to "come home."

The captain hooked the boat onto the mooring line as we began attaching our tanks, checking air pressure, donning weight belts, masks, and fins. I found myself moving more slowly than usual, in order to keep some attention on my breath and not get lost in the general rush to begin the dive. Nevertheless, as I hoisted myself up to the gunwale and balanced awkwardly, waiting for the signal to roll backward into the water, a rush of adrenaline sent my thoughts zooming off like a school of anchovies who've just noticed a barracuda. Annette said, "Go!" I hit the water and dropped onto the shoulder of the reef, heart pounding, sucking air like a Hoover.

Lavender sea-plumes bent and swayed, revealing the direction of the current. I began finning against it. (You always begin a dive by swimming against the current. When you've used half your air, you turn back, using the current to help you return to the boat.)

I'd been assigned a "buddy," a large, quiet man named Dick who was close to completing his 3,000th dive. Earlier, he had modestly suggested that I set the pace for this dive, and he would follow. I kicked off, determined to hold my own with this vastly experienced diver. But soon, the idea of going anywhere began to seem faintly silly. How could there be "more" to see further on? There was so much right here: a large tiger grouper with a downturned mouth as big as my fist; a midnight parrotfish bluer than lapis; tiny fairy basslets swimming upside down under a coral ledge.

I finned more slowly. As the interval between each kick grew, I found my breath again. I remembered the classic meditation instruction: to notice that the mind has wandered is the very point of meditating, for in such moments of awareness lies the possibility of refocusing the mind on the breath: the chance to "come home."

Again, I felt my muscles release their work against gravity. The movement of the sea replaced my own will to go any place in particular. I slowly turned my head to check on Dick. He was hovering above the coral, legs crossed beneath him, watching a pair of blue tangs circle each other in a mating dance. I noticed I was only a foot or two away from a three-foot-long trumpet fish, hanging motionless, narrow as rope, nearly invisible among pale green branches of soft coral. I let myself drift even closer. It paid no attention. A young princess parrotfish, all rose and yellow, swam under my arm as if I were as much a part of the place as coral.

On the boat, I tried to recall some lines from Achaan Chah, the Thai Buddhist master, about stillness and water. Back home, I found them in a book I had not opened in years: "Try to be mindful and let things take their natural course. Then your mind will become still in any surroundings, like a clear forest pool. All kinds of wonderful, rare animals will come to drink at the pool and you will see many strange and wonderful things come and go..."

I long to return to the subaqueous world. Many times in the course of the day, I catch myself in fantasy: planning trips back to Bonaire or other tropical destinations, figuring and refiguring how long it will take to save the airfare or earn the airline miles. This is a very different activity of mind from simply touching the bodily memories of the stillness I experienced underwater.

When I remember to remember, the underwater world becomes a three-dimensional mandala I can enter in my imagination. Gradually, I return to stillness and my breath settles somewhere deep in my body. I remember what it is to be held by an ocean. I let myself hang in the boundless blue spaces between breaths, unhurried, as many strange and wonderful things come and go.

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