Book Club · Book Reviews · Rowing

We’re interviewing Tori Murden McClure: Send us your questions!

Awhile back I posted about an amazing book I was reading A Pearl in the Storm. It’s a memoir (the subtitle is “How I found my heart in the middle of an ocean”) and an adventure story about rowing solo across the Atlantic. Lots of themes in the book about growing up as young athletic woman in a country and at a time when that wasn’t allowed or encouraged will resonate with readers.

Two updates:

The musical version of the book just opened this summer: “Tori Murden McClure was the first woman – and the first American – to successfully row across the Atlantic Ocean. She succeeded in 1999 after an attempt in 1998 was foiled by a hurricane. Her vessel? A 23 foot rowboat she had built and named the “American Pearl.” The story of her accomplishment has inspired the new musical “Row” – with a book by Daniel Goldstein and music and lyrics by singer-songwriter, Dawn Landes.”

And, drumroll please, Tori Murden McClure has agreed to a blog interview! I’ll be interviewing her at the end of September.

SEND ME YOUR QUESTIONS! I have lots of my own, but I’m also collecting questions for the author (now President of Spalding University). We connected through blog guest and fellow feminist philosopher Lauren Freeman who it turns out is a neighbour of the author. Thanks Lauren!

A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean
A Pearl in the Storm cover
Book Club · fitness · swimming

FIFI Book Club: Why We Swim, by Bonnie Tsui. This week: Flow

Hi readers– we’ve been reading a new book for this installment of the FIFI book club. It’s called Why We Swim, by Bonnie Tsui. We’ve been reading and commenting on the various sections of the book over the past several Fridays. Today we wind up with the last section of the book in our final group post.

Five weeks ago, we introduced ourselves in terms of our past, present and aspirational relationships with moving around in water.

Four weeks ago, we reported on the section of the book titled Survival.

Three weeks ago, the topic shifted to Well-Being.

Two weeks ago, we talked about the section on Community.

Last week, we turned to Competition.

And now here we are, at the last section: Flow.

First up, Kim:

As we finish reflecting on Tsui’s book, I’ve been watching the city staffers tasked with sprucing up my local outdoor swimming pool. Just 250 metres from my house, it’s a gem: it’s the “beach” for all the older folks on fixed incomes who live in the supported housing building over the road, play-pad central for neighbourhood kids of all stripes, and the place I long to be every single time I pass it on a dog walk when the warm months are here and the sun is glinting off the mirror-glazed blue surface. Oh how I cannot wait the 11 days until it’s open!

“Flow” refers to being so in the zone you are In-The-Moment 2.0 – a state I’ve never experienced. I think of it like deep meditation, like the perfect Savasana, a state of intense being that borders on the dissolution of self with task, with state of play. Maybe I’m overthinking what flow feels like, but I know I’ve never experienced what Tsui talks about here – and yet, at the same time, there is no place in the world that makes me feel more fully alive than the swimming pool. And I’m not even talking about swimming; I’m most alive at the end of a swim, with the endorphins surging, when I float, weightless, bobbing and stretching and revelling in the touch of my skin to the water, and, in outdoor pools, in the unobstructed view of the wide open sky.

I confess Flow was not my favourite section of Tsui’s book, and I’m not really referencing its details here because, to be totally honest, I finished reading it a week ago and (unlike every other section) almost none of it has stuck in my memory. What will stay with me from Why We Swim, though, are individual stories: the human seal; Kim the unbreakable (who returns in Flow, FYI, and that is a wonderful bit of the section); the samurais. Like others I wanted more sometimes – more critical engagement with the racism embedded in swim access; a perhaps more potent ending – but there is no question that Tsui helped me connect with my deep love of the water, and to think about it in ways that I hadn’t been prompted to do before. I’m grateful to have read this book and excited to pass it on to others!

Next up is Bettina:

Like Kim, I finished reading this section a while ago. And also like Kim, I don’t think I’ve ever really been “in the flow” except maybe when writing, but swimming would still be the closest I have come. When I’m in the pool, the outside world does sort of retreat into the background as I focus on my strokes and breath.

Likewise, I don’t think I’ve ever been “in the zone”, where physical performance is absolutely optimal. But again, I’ve never felt as physically amazing and strong as I have during some swimming sessions.

What I think I have experienced is “blue mind”, “a ‘soft fascination’ to let our focused attention rest and the default-mode network to kick in”. As I think I’ve previously mentioned, I’ve definitely had some of my best ideas and found solutions for some vexing problems in the pool.

“Flow” is home to the sentences that most struck a chord with me in the entire book: “Submersion creates internal quiet, too. […] We enter the meditative state induced by counting laps and observe the subtle play of light as the sun moves across the lanes. We slip from thought to thought, and then there’s a momentary nothingness.” I have definitely felt that. And “Even in grief […] I have marked time by water. […] I will say that swimming, in all of its permutations – in a pool, in a lake, paddling a surfboard out to sea – has always helped me come out on the other side of a difficult time.

“Despite all these truths, overall “Why We Swim” fell just a little bit flat for me. I can’t put my finger on why. I have to say that I felt the same with other “swimming” books before, such as “Turning”, by Jessica J. Lee. I think in my case it might be a problem of expecting too much? I get so excited about books about swimming that they have a high (impossible?) standard to live up to. Even so, I enjoyed “Why We Swim” and would recommend it to other water enthusiasts.

Next up is Diane:

There were bits and pieces about this section I really liked, but overall I found it disjointed. I did like the bit about Lake George and the Tsui’s extended family there (it’s a place I only heard about this year. It is a famous open water swim spot, apparently, and will be doing its annual race as a virtual event – I won’t join officially, but I will track my distance for the race period). However, the poetry and problem-solving sections didn’t resonate at all. I am usually too busy working on my strokes or enjoying the sensations of being in the water to have big ideas or solve problems. Non-fiction of this type is not my preferred reading, but several swimmy friends liked it. Overall, I’m not sorry I read it, but it isn’t something I will read again.

Here’s Sam:

My own experiences are pretty far from Tsui’s when it comes to ‘flow.’ I don’t think I’ve ever been a flow state while actively swimming. It’s not that I am worried about drowning. I can swim some pretty long distances stopping to float for a bit when I get tired but if I am swimming I have to coordinate my breathing and that gets in the way of anything like ‘flow.’ I’ve always wanted that from swimming but it’s eluded me even when I’m swimming regularly. That said, I do have a happy relaxed feeling in the water but it’s not flow and I associate it with floating, not swimming.

Like everyone else I loved Tsui’s story of swimming across Lake George. It reminded me of my own lake swimming as a child. In a book that flitted about themes quite a bit I liked coming home to Tsui’s own swimming story.

And last up is me, Catherine:

I agree with the other reviewers that the last section didn’t quite live up to our expectations. However, writing about the experience of flow is like trying to describe something ineffable. What this section did for me is encourage me to go seek out my own ineffable water experiences. I’m a competent swimmer and I love the water. I’ve never competed, other than two triathlons that felt like swimming in a giant washing machine. I don’t think there’s any flow to be had there– more like agitate and then spin…

I do, however, profoundly relate to the idea that being immersed in water can create shifts in our perception of time. For me, it’s shifts in all spatial things. My body feels freer, less gravity-bound. My shape feels sleek, even hydrodynamic. I’m a seal, flipping around, diving under, flapping in greeting at my friends, floating on my back, comfortably held.

One of my favorite spots is the middle of Walden Pond. Whenever I go, I swim out to the center and hang out, floating on my back, looking at the blue or gray sky and the formations of clouds. Walden is a very popular spot in the summer, but the water muffles the voices. Everything and everyone recedes. This isn’t the flow you experience through movement (I have felt that on the bike many times), but it is a sort of blue-mind sort experience.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who loves water, or even wants to know more about loving water.

Let us know if you’re reading the book, or read it already. We’d love to hear from you.

Book Club · fitness · swimming

FIFI Book Club: Why We Swim, by Bonnie Tsui. This week: Competition

Hi readers– we’ve been reading a new book for this installment of the FIFI book club. It’s called Why We Swim, by Bonnie Tsui. We’ll be reading and commenting on the various sections of the book over the next several Fridays. We’d love to have you join us and add your comments to the mix.

Four weeks ago, we introduced ourselves in terms of our past, present and aspirational relationships with moving around in water.

Three weeks ago, we reported on the section of the book titled Survival.

Two weeks ago, the topic shifted to Well-Being.

Last week, we talked about the section on Community.

This week, we’re turning to Competition. Here’s what we have to say.

First up, Kim:

I HATE RACES. They make me incredibly anxious. I visit the bathroom A LOT in the half hour before go time. This is probably why I never really raced my bike seriously; I’ve done some sportif races (Gran Fondos) but not lately, and I don’t miss them. So I’m incredibly glad that I am not a super-strong swimmer and would never be competitive even at Master’s level; it takes all the pressure off! That said, the idea of competition appeals a lot to me, and I found this section of Tsui’s book delightful. She ranges from stories of Olympians historical and contemporary to stories of her and her son competing in local clubs – something that brings Tsui back to her high school competitive swimmer self, and in that looking back she honours the strong middle aged woman she is. Even though I have no desire to do what she’s doing, I love and appreciate the story she tells here and felt joy in reading of her achievement.

The most satisfying part of this section for me is the end, though, when she explores the remarkable (and to me entirely unknown!) tradition of Nihon Eiho, aka JAPANESE SAMURAI SWIMMING. (I encourage you to google and watch some of the incredible videos out there – it’s hard to picture without images.) It’s a centuries-old tradition, and it values skill + stillness. In fact, at its best, Nihon Eiho is the opposite of a race: it challenges practitioners to take their time, and to develop the range of capacities required to, for example, tread water in full armour while keeping the upper body as still as possible. As much as traveling Tsui’s own trajectory back to swimming competition delighted me in this section, it’s this tradition – the framing of competition as a slowing down and a connecting with flow-as-stillness – that really resonates for me and will stay with me.

Here’s Diane:

I didn’t even know that swim clubs existed until I was in high school, because I lived in rural communities with no indoor pools. My first dreams of competition came with the 1976 Olympics and the outstanding performances of Kornelia Ender, who won four gold medals (the steroid scandals that followed were sparked, in part by her dominance in the pool). I spent the next few years in every pool I could get to, working on my backstroke and dreaming of being an Olympian. But I never entered a competition or even joined a club for decades, so I didn’t think I would relate to this section at all.

Indeed, when Tsui wrote about her anxiety and the stress of competition, my reaction was “why do it if you aren’t having fun?” But when she turned to a Master’s competition, I was right back into the book. I entered the Canadian nationals about a decade ago because it happened to be in my home city and some friends were doing it. I participated as part of their club, did a few extra practices, literally learned how to do a back stroke start the day of the competition, and had a blast. I also swam harder than I recall ever doing before. What I remember most (aside from my parents spending the day poolside to cheer on my 50 year-old self) was watching the swimmers in their 70s, 80s and 90s. Swimming is an endurance sport. If I swim long enough, I might eventually win a medal.

Like Kim, l loved the part about Japanese Samurai swimming: the Zen of swimming, aiming for a smooth stroke with minimal visible effort. That really describes my swimming (or at least my ambitions). I block out everything and just focus on the space a few inches ahead of my face, often slowing down because I am enjoying the grace and relaxation so much I forget to push forward.

Here’s Bettina:

This section resonated with me mostly through my own, very limited, experience with competitive swimming. I’ve swum a few competitions, though not very recently, and I was never much of a fan: the nerves, and also I’m not fast enough to win much of anything. But I know the feelings she describes when she talks about competitive swimming. And I love watching swimming competitions and admiring the athletes’ efficient and unbelievably fast strokes. I also enjoyed Bonnie Tsui’s telling of how US women’s competitive swimming evolved and the badass women who fought to be taken seriously.

And finally, in the section on Japanese Samurai swimming (I had no idea this existed), I was fascinated by the different concept of competition: “swimming as self-improvement”, as Bonnie Tsui calls it. “There is a Zen practice to be found here, in the motions, in the pool, in the Karate Kid ‘wax-on, wax-off’ repetition until it’s right”, she writes. This, for me, is true also of regular swimming as you work on improving your technique, on achieving an even and ever more efficient stroke. Which nicely leads us over into the next section of the book, “Flow” – to be discussed next week!

And now, me (Catherine):

Like Kim and Bettina, I’ve never been a fan of racing competitions where you have to be fast. This is because speed is not one of my athletic talents. But it’s fascinating to watch speedy athletes. I’m in awe of them, and even unconsciously move my body along with them when I’m spectating.

It was illuminating to read about Gertrude Ederley, a championship swimmer for all conditions and distances. She was clearly the Serena Williams of her time, one of the great athletes of that time (alongside Babe Ruth, notes Tsui), and one of the great swimmers of all time.

Tsui is in awe of these titans of swimming– Ederle, Dara Torres, Katy Ledecky, and Michael Phelps, among others– but is clear to note the pressures, hardships and intensity involved in world-class competitive swimming. They are not gods; they are gifted athletes who pay a big price to do what they do.

Like the other commenters, I enjoyed the Samurai swimming section. Here’s a youtube video if you’d like a peek. But my favorite section was about Tsui and her son’s parallel swim practices with their respective teams. Like mother, like son. We can love something, fear it, know it well, and discover new dimensions to it every time. That’s the big win I see here.

Readers, have you been reading the book? We’d love to hear what you think.

Book Club · swimming

FIFI Book Club: Why We Swim, by Bonnie Tsui. This week: Community

Hi readers– we’ve been reading a new book for this installment of the FIFI book club. It’s called Why We Swim, by Bonnie Tsui. We’ll be reading and commenting on the various sections of the book over the next several Fridays. We’d love to have you join us and add your comments to the mix.

Three weeks ago, we introduced ourselves in terms of our past, present and aspirational relationships with moving around in water.

Two weeks ago, we reported on the section of the book titled Survival.

Last week, the topic shifted to Well-Being.

This week, we’re focusing on the notion of Community swimming. Here’s what we have to say. First up, Kim:

This section of Tsui’s book means a lot to me, because it thinks about swimming and inclusivity. Who gets to swim? Who gets to decide who gets to swim? It’s a huge topic, and we’ve talked about it on the blog before too. Tsui’s not especially political in this text, but her status as a person of colour / an Asian woman in the US means that the issue of BIPOC access to shared public spaces arises for her naturally in the course of the narratives she weaves. It’s been interesting for me to note throughout the book, for example, that in certain cultures swimming is simply privileged, in large measure out of a need to survive: if you live in Iceland or Japan, you’re going to need to know how to stay afloat just in case. Tsui comes from a swimming family and has made her own family a swimming one too (and we learn more about that in the next section of the book, FYI). She identifies with the water, as a person of the water – and she well knows that barriers to the water for others (for example, lots of Black folks in the states) arise when those folks are not permitted, because of structural exclusions based on race or class or gender, to identify in the same way.

I find it really moving that Tsui’s narrative in this section is anchored by stories of military service-people from all over the world learning to swim while stationed in Baghdad; it’s a simple and warming story, but also and utterly brilliant reminder that the community in which you find yourself (in this case, one united by mission and circumstances, not racial or national characteristics) can have an enormous impact on the way you are permitted to envision yourself in the world. Shifting the terms by which we structure our communities can, in turn, have a large effect on how members of our communities see themselves in relationship not just to others, but to a whole host of public spaces.

Here’s me, Catherine:

This section was my favorite of the book. Why? Because swimming pools have always struck me as happy centers for communities to gather. Because the community pool can be a microcosm of society, revealing diverse activities, generations, families, teams, friendship pods and ad hoc groupings that comprise civic life. Swimming in a public pool or lake with other people makes me feel almost patriotic—proud to be part of a collective, united under the (beach) umbrella of recreation and good clean fun.

But here we see collective swimming and (more importantly) swimming lessons conducted under the worst circumstances: war and foreign occupation, run by governments and military organizations with rigid hierarchies. And yet. Jay Taylor does what he can and what he knows for everyone who comes to the lavishly decorated palace pool in Baghdad, in search of respite from the dangerous and dry outside.

Swimming is a form of recreation and a sport, but it is also a crucial life skill. Being able to swim means increased survival odds for everyone. In the US, there are huge racial disparities in swimming instruction. The rates of accidental deaths due to drowning are on average at least 3 times higher for black children than for white children.

Reading this section reminded me of just important it is to create, as a community, public spaces and programs for everyone to have access to swimming instruction and swimming recreation. I believe that it advances justice, health, civic identity, and community building.

Next is Diane:

This section triggered so many memories of people I have gotten to know through swimming. And though it was beautifully crafted, I wished there had been more stories of community. Just one chapter was not enough for me.

For example, the history of English swimming barely touches on the huge community there, swimming at Lidos, in many rivers and lakes, or in the sea – all year round. They were my inspiration for open water and cold water swimming. One of those swimmers even met up with me at a public pool in London when I was there on business.

The whole idea of access to swimming really interests me too: there’s my friend from Victoria who works leads open water swimming with a group of adults with Downs Syndrome; my local pool was built in 1924 in what was then a slum area, complete with segregated entrances, just like the pools described in the book; the LGBTQ-friendly swim club I hang out with; my years of working with women from very conservative societies and their limited access to a pool (or any sports or even education). And just last year I learned about Mamie Nell Ford – a photo of her at a “swim in” in St Augustine Florida, as the the owner of the segregated hotel pool poured acid into the water, helped spur the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I would happily have read far more about this topic.

Most of all, this chapter filled me with love for Jay and his gift for teaching and bringing people together. The anecdote about buying goggles and caps for students really struck a chord. The Canadian Embassy in Kabul has a pool too, though nothing like where Jay’s multinational swim team trained in Baghdad. It is a tiny above-ground pool, and the last time I was there, I was deeply grateful for the tether a former employee had left behind for other swimmers, because it allowed me to work out for an hour in a space not much bigger than a hot tub. It was an oasis of peace in a place where I was always on alert.

And here’s Sam:

I often think about access to swimming. My mother doesn’t swim. She didn’t learn as a child, then almost drowned going over waterfalls, and hasn’t been in the water much since. She made sure I did learn to swim. It was important given that me and my siblings were raised on the east coast of Canada, near the ocean, and holidays were often spent near lakes or ocean beaches. The real success story was the next generation. My daughter Mallory is an excellent swimmer, a diver, and a lifeguard.

I wanted more from the chapter on race and access to swimming. Each year I feel like I’m struck anew by racial disparities in drowning deaths. Here in Ontario a black teenager recently drowned in a school canoe trip and teachers claimed not to know the student couldn’t swim even though it clearly said that on his permission form for the trip. I also wanted to hear more about swimming communities and what we can do to make those communities more inclusive. Short review: glad this section was here, wish it were longer. It seems to me that swimming, access and inclusion is a topic worth a whole book!

Readers, have you been reading the book? We’d love to hear what you think.

Book Club · fitness

FIFI Book Club: Why We Swim, by Bonnie Tsui. This week: Well-Being

Hi readers– we’ve been reading a new book for this installment of the FIFI book club. It’s called Why We Swim, by Bonnie Tsui. We’ll be reading and commenting on the various sections of the book over the next several Fridays. We’d love to have you join us and add your comments to the mix.

Two weeks ago, we introduced ourselves in terms of our past, present and aspirational relationships with moving around in water.

Last week, we reported on the section of the book titled Survival.

This week, the topic shifts to Well-Being. Wanna hear about it? Good. Here are some thoughts from our bloggers.

First up, Kim:

I am an okay swimmer. Not great, but not bad. I can freestyle well but it’s a bit of a struggle, a lot of the time, to keep my body parallel to the water (or what Tsui calls here, in reference to one epically well-designed swimmer’s body, “neutrally buoyant”). I’m a sinker: heavier on bottom than top, lots of lower body muscle so dense. I’m also terrified of open water, tbh: the bottom is… (where is the bottom???), there is STUFF in there with me (ugh seaweed ugh jellyfish UGH), and currents + waves = I’m not in control. If given all the options in the world, I would swim for miles and miles – in a swimming pool, with my pull buoy between my thighs.

What’s utterly brilliant about this section of Tsui’s book, for me, is that NONE. OF. THIS. MATTERS. None. The second section of Why We Swim is a love letter to water, framed by the story of a talented open-water swimmer called Kim (#namesake!!) who took to San Francisco Bay at 30, while recovering from a disastrous, traumatizing leg break. Kim is a world record holder multiple times over, but that’s not Tsui’s focus as she gets to know Kim and explores her world in the waters near the Dolphin Club (and between the DC and Alcatraz… a swim I am NEVER doing see above). Instead, what stays with me from this section is Kim’s WHOOPS! every time she hits the water, Tsui’s chronicles of her laughter, her celebration of the act of getting in and moving around, treating her body to the pleasures and the therapies only buoyancy can bring. Peppered in among her tales of learning the Bay’s waterways with Kim, Tsui explores the evidence we have (and some we don’t, yet) for cold water’s therapeutic powers, as well as reams of anecdotal evidence of how immersion makes us feel. The tl;dr – VIBRANTLY ALIVE.

I’ll never swim the waters around Alcatraz, though I may yet swim up and down Lake Ontario, in fits and starts, because cold water immersion is joint-friendly and metabolically supportive, and I want some of that. But as I finish this bit of the book I remember the feeling I feel every time I hit the water – any water. I feel held; I feel lighter than air; I feel able to tumble and turn and twist and dip and dive and come back up, shake it off, take in new air. Damn I miss that feeling!

Here’s Samantha:

Oh, oh, oh. I loved this section of Tsui’s book. It’s just what I came for. I’m interested in exercise we can keep doing a lot of as we age without always trying to juggle exercise and recovery. Note for younger readers: That gets harder as we age and the price of insufficient recovery gets steeper in terms of injury. I love that swimming is a thing you can so a lot of with much less worrying. I also love the section where she talks about the very positive effects of swimming on blood pressure and arthritis. It looks like it’s even better than cycling.

So while I loved the agelessness of swimming and I’m very comfortable swimming outside, even in the ocean, these chapters also made me realize where I might have work to do (or not)–waves and sharks. Also, jellyfish. While I get in the ocean waves usually keep me from doing much actual swimming and I stay away from beaches with sharks. (Or in Australia, away from beaches with ‘triple threat’ signs–sharks, box jelly fish and salt water crocodiles.) The discussion of swimmers’ itch and sea lice was about as unappealing as the health benefits discussion appealed.

A sign for a shark warning bell, with clarificatory image of shark below.

On to Bettina:

Unlike Bonnie Tsui and the people she writes about in the section on “Wellbeing”, I’m not a cold or even an open water swimmer. But this section still strongly resonated with me. I, too, swim for my wellbeing. A large part of this section is dedicated to the story of Kim, the open water swimmer who started after a horrible accident. I would never compare what she went through to my own little tribulations, but definitely, like her, swimming makes me feel better not just physically but mentally.

Swimming is like therapy for me, which is why the last months with all the pools closed in the midst of a global pandemic and after having my entire life change by becoming a mother have been hard. In part, I swim to process. I’ve had some of my best ideas after (not during – while I’m swimming, I’m not focusing on anything else) a good long swim. I don’t think there’s been a time I’ve felt worse after swimming than before, and I’ve been swimming on and off since primary school.

I loved this part of Why We Swim. It was so nice to read the stories of all these people who feel about swimming like I do. I’m a little bit further along in the book now and it’s still my favourite bit so far.

Here’s Diane:

Much of this section resonated for me, as a cold water swimmer with some heart issues (cold water has both benefit and risks), and who has used water as a therapy to heal from injury. Over the years, I have learned about many of the physiological effects of swimming so I could be safe as I got into cold water, but it was great to read the interviews with experts.

Here are some of the phrases that particularly stood out, because they are so true for me:

  • – Smelling the water (the water here smells different depending on the season, and lake water smells different than either the river or the pond near my house);
  • – moving meditation (I don’t swim with music, but I count all my breaths, think about stroke accuracy and body position, gaze at the clouds if I’m on my back, and sometimes hum waltzes inside my head because they are perfect for bilateral breathing);
  • – Being on the edge, the breathlessness and moment of fear as you adapt to the cold water;
  • – Ram Barkai, founder of the International Ice Swimming Association describing the feeling of being intensely, vigorously alive: “The cold and the swim gives one such a rush and sense of health and vigor which is hard to explain unless you have done it.”
  • – Hirofumi Tanaka, a longevity researcher: “I will tell you the one thing that distinguishes swimming from all other forms of exercise. People enjoy it a lot more.” For me, that is key.

I confess I skimmed quickly over the parts about extreme activities, danger, and dealing with sharks or jellyfish. I am comfortable with the odds of being attacked by a shark, have had a run-in or two with little jellyfish and survived, but in general I’m not into doing something so risky that my life is in danger. I’ll push outside my comfort zone within reason, but I never want swimming to stop being fun.

And here’s me, Catherine:

Buoyancy, floating, weightlessness. Freedom. This section, called Well-Being, features stories of swimmers who brave open water, salty water, and cold and icy water, in search of a feeling of oneness, of wholeness. I am in awe of these folks and their feats of athleticism and bravery. At the same time, their swimming goals aren’t my swimming goals.

I enjoy inhabiting the water, moving, floating, enjoying the natural buoyancy of my body. Since I was a child, I’ve been the best floater I know. I love floating, looking up at the sky, hearing nothing but the swish of water. It’s the most peaceful position I know of. Playing in water is the most purely fun thing I know of—kicking and splashing, going under water, diving, emerging, gliding—all of these movements are only possible in and around water, and I love them.

The idea of moving through water for long distances, in cold temperatures, enduring physical difficulties, is not one I immediately relate to. But it’s intriguing enough that I may stretch myself (literally) to see how more swimming and stroking and alternate-side breathing feels over time.

So readers, what do you think? Are you reading or have you read the book? We’d love to hear any comments you have. Feel free to take a dip into the book if you’re interested.

Book Club · fitness

FIFI Book Club: Why We Swim, by Bonnie Tsui This week: Survival

Hi readers– we’ve been reading a new book for this installment of the FIFI book club. It’s called Why We Swim, by Bonnie Tsui. We’ll be reading and commenting on the various sections of the book over the next several Fridays. We’d love to have you join us and add your comments to the mix.

Last week, we introduced ourselves in terms of our past, present and aspirational relationships with moving around in water.

This week, we report on the section of the book titled Survival.

First up, Kim:

At first, casual glance, “Survival” (section one of Why We Swim) looked to me like a basic history of some kinds of swimming (officially, as the title suggests, swimming to save your ass), and I confess I was a bit disappointed at the thought of putting down my other current bedtime read (I Am I Am I Am by Maggie O’Farrell) for it. I’m not sure what I wanted or expected; in hindsight I think I just wanted to be soothed, lulled, by words about water the way a good mid-day swim soothes and lulls me. Maybe I was asking too much of Tsui too early, I thought as I turned page one over to page two. Maybe this book is not going to be the substitute for my longed-for, desperately missed swims at the tail end of this terrible terrible pool-less time.

QUICKLY, though, I knew I was wrong. Tsui bookends “Survival” with the story of The Human Seal, Guðlaugur Friðþórsson – an Icelandic man who survived six hours in near-freezing water after his fishing trawler capsized, making it to shore only to have to swim out and around the cliffs of volcanic rock where he first landed to get safely home. The story is gripping: it is a brush with death like no other, a reminder of the power of water to harm us, batter us, but also to hold us, to secure us, and it’s ultimately, in the section’s final telling, a story about the power of community to hold story, to remember its shared history in and through the water. Tsui travels to Iceland; she meets and forms a bond with Guðlaugur; finally, she participates in the annual swim that the community holds to remember his extraordinary encounter with the water, swimming 6km in his village’s swimming hall (240 lengths of a 25m pool FYI).

I put the book down and made a mental note: I know what I’m doing as soon as I’m allowed to be in a pool for longer than an hour again. I’ve never swum more than 2km without properly stopping; this will be a chance for me to show the water what I’m made of, and for the water to challenge but also to buoy me.

Here’s Samantha:

I loved the story of Guðlaugur Friðþórsson and the author’s tale of swimming in Iceland but others have talked about that. I was also intrigued that other animals instinctively know how to swim and that humans have to learn. Of course, I remember learning to swim and that knowledge giving me a little bit more freedom near water as a child. I also remember teaching my own children to swim and feeling relieved when they got the hang of it.

I was fascinated too by Tsui’s stories of people who swim to the bottom of the ocean and stay there for a long time. The physiological adaptions the body makes after diving for a long time make me realize how flexible biology is. Not all parts of being human are fixed. Stories of people who dive and swim without supplemental oxygen always makes me realize that while I know how to swim and I’m confident in the water, I’m confident near the water’s surface. My head and face can be under but I’m not very good at staying beneath the water or even swimming to the bottom of pools. My swimming is utilitarian, it keeps me from drowning, but I wouldn’t be able to contribute to a family’s survival by diving for pearls. Of course my swimming is also for pleasure, and I gather that’s the subject of the next section.

Next up, Diane:

My normal choice for non-fiction is history and anthropology, so I was pleasantly surprised to dive into this book and read about the Neolithic images of swimmers found in Egypt at a time when the Sahara was green, and the Bajau nomads and Moken (free-diving fishers from southeast Asia). Those swimmers felt like kin, or at least kindred spirits.

I have always felt a deep, primal connection to water. In my family, we all learned to swim for safety, but I was the only one who loved swimming at every possible opportunity. Even my medieval research involves swimming and fishing. My favourite myths are those of the selkies and Sedna.

As a cold water swimmer, the story of Guðlaugur Friðþórsson was interesting, but I couldn’t help going into ice swimmer mode: did he strip off his clothes so he could swim faster? How could he have walked so far without getting into warm, dry clothes first? What was his stroke rate? When I am training properly, I know I can do a km in sub-5C water, but not much more. I can barely imagine surviving as long as he did. I have swum 6 km in open water, but unlike Kim I have no desire to do it in an enclosed pool. I would happily join Bettina for an outdoor 6 km swim in Iceland though, especially if I also get to visit some of the geothermally heated lagoons, pools or beaches to warm up afterwards.

And now, Bettina:

Like others, I was absolutely fascinated with the story of Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, and with the community he inspires in Iceland. It made me want to go there and do the swim they hold every year in memory of his feat. (I’ve always toyed with the idea of doing a long swim somewhere interesting. Like swimming the Bosporus or something like that – or swimming 6k in Iceland. One day it’ll happen, hopefully…)

The other parts of the “Survival” section were interesting too, like the bit about swimming in the Stone Age, and the section about “sea nomads” – people living in traditionally aquatic societies – but they didn’t grip me quite as much as Guðlaugur’s story. I’m even more excited to talk about the next section of the book in our upcoming post though!

Here’s me, Catherine:

Others are talking about Guðlaugur Friðþórsson’s astounding feat of survival, of which I am also in awe. It’s also one of many reminders in this book that we are all animals, managing our relationship with water. For me, reading about the author’s childhood, swimming at Jones Beach with her brother and parents, also reminded me of ways water helps us survive. For Tsui, swimming helped her survive difficult relationships, uncomfortable situations, and upheavals within her family.

I can relate. When my sister gave birth to her third child, I went down to South Carolina for 2.5 weeks (17 days, but who’s counting) to help out with her two other kids, ages 5 and almost 3. I love these children fiercely, but was overwhelmed by the details of tending to them for (luckily only) 14 hours a day.

However, we all experienced instant respite once we got to the local pool, which we rushed to every day. There might be screaming or crying in the car, pitched battles over some toy or sippy cup, but once we got out of the car and spied that blue water, everyone calmed down (myself included). It’s still true. My sister, her kids and l feel most at peace with ourselves, each other and the universe when we’re near or in water. In this way, water conveys the necessary feeling that life is good, life is doable.

Like Tsui, I wish we were amphibious. Remembering that we’re not is important for maintaining a respectful relationship with water. I love its power to envelop me and hold me, but I also know that it is bigger and more powerful than me, too.

So readers, what do you think? Are you reading or have you read the book? We’d love to hear any comments you have. Feel free to take a dip into the book if you’re interested.

Book Club · fitness

FIFI Book Club: Why We Swim, by Bonnie Tsui

Hi readers– we’re reading a new book for this installment of the FIFI book club. It’s called Why We Swim, by Bonnie Tsui. Some of the bloggers are long-time and even year-round swimmers, inside and outside. Others of us have dipped a toe in from time to time, but are newly intrigued by wild swimming, lake swimming, open-water swimming. We’ve written about it recently.

We’ll be reading and commenting on the various sections of the book over the next five Fridays. We’d love to have you join us and add your comments to the mix.

To start, we’d like to introduce ourselves in terms of our past, present and aspirational relationships with moving around in water.

First up, Bettina:

I’ve been a swimmer for most of my life. My mum signed me up for a course when I was five and for the local swim club when I was in primary school. Later, I became a lifeguard. When I was 17, I moved to Wales and qualified as a beach lifeguard too. That was the only time in my life I’ve been anywhere close to an open or cold water swimmer though. Back then, we were in the ocean even in the winter, admittedly with very thick wetsuits.

Unfortunately nowadays, I don’t live close enough to a body of water large enough not to give me the heebie-jeebies. Small, murky lakes and rivers creep me out for some reason. I prefer the pool. I love the flow I can get into while doing laps. Swimming is my favourite way to get away from things and clear my head. Nothing quite compares!

Here’s Diane:

I’m a water baby. My earliest memories involve playing in the water at a lake. My hair would turn greenish in the summer from spending so many hours in the chlorinated public pools. I was even a lifeguard and swim instructor for a while. Masters club swimming, and the friends I have made there, have been central to my life for the past 15 years. I love the drills focusing on making every stroke streamlined and efficient. I swim outdoors with friends year-round. My goal is to do a 10 km swim this summer.

Next up, Sam:

Try as I might, I am not a fitness swimmer. I wish I were a fitness swimmer. I try and I try but it never seems to take the way that running did and cycling has. I know it’s great exercise and it’s easier on my joints than other forms of exercise, but still. My last attempt was just a couple of years ago, when my knee was really bothering me, and I paid for small group swim coaching/stroke improvement at the university pool. It worked for a few months but then didn’t.

The only time I’ve been successful as an indoor pool swimmer was when training for triathlon on campus with the university triathlon club. I was the anchor person for the slow lane. People came, got faster, and moved on. But I stayed. I really liked the team drills and having a coach suggest what I should try next. Apart from the team environment I’ve never been able to make it work on my own.

My struggle with indoor swimming is in contrast to my love of the water outside. I grew up on the east coast of Canada, in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and lots of my childhood summer memories are of days at the beach playing in very cold waves. Now living in Ontario I love swimming in the great lakes. What do I love about it? It makes me feel like a kid again. I feel very relaxed and comfortable in the water. I never feel like I’m at risk for drowning. It’s fun and playful. I’m drawn to the water. And I still hold out hope that eventually I’ll be a lane swimmer. Someday!

Here’s Kim:

I love swimming and miss it so much right now. I’m a lengths in the pool kind of woman; I really enjoy the smell of chlorine, the light through the windows on the water in the winter, the clear view to the bottom of the pool and the lines marking the lanes. I love indoor and outdoor pools, and I really really love cooling off in outdoor pools, stretching after other kinds of fitness activities (for example: long summer cycle tours).

I lived in the UK for several years and became quite attached to winter swimming in the outdoor lidos – generally the heated ones, as I do not own a wetsuit. That said, I am now very cold-water, wild-swimming curious: I have a chronic inflammatory condition and have heard cold water immersion is a source of terrific therapy. I’ve started standing in my shower under a flood of cold water once a day to begin getting used to the concept. I cannot wait for my local pool – Victoria Park Outdoor Pool!! – to reopen in July, and I’m very keen to read Why We Swim and share my thoughts with my fellow flutterers.

And now, me, Catherine:

I’ve always loved swimming for fun. I learned at age 4 in this creek near my grandparent’s house:


Black Creek, near Darlington, South Carolina.

I spent summers at the local pool and loved playing games with other kids, practicing dives, and swimming underwater when I wanted some solitude. In high school we lived in Myrtle Beach, SC, and I went to the beach and swam often. The beach and the warm waters of the Atlantic are my happy place. My sister and her kids and I go as often as possible.

Like Sam, I’ve never been a fitness swimmer. I’ve tried, but going to the pool and doing laps has never become a habit. Honestly, I don’t like it a lot. I always feel slow and my stroke techniques feel awkward. It’s recently occurred to me to get some swim instruction, which I think I’ll do.

But, the main thing I love about swimming is the ability to go outside my lane– to paddle around to the middle of a lake, float on my back and look at the sky, to use my own body to power through and on top of water to get places. In the ocean, to jump up or dive through waves, to swim out past the breakers, tread water and look at the scene– I love it all.

Then there’s the experience of being in water: the weightlessness, the hydrodynamics of movement, the quiet world of underwater swimming (I’ve scuba dived a bit and loved it). I’ve not pursued swimming for pure pleasure since adulthood. I think it’s high time now.

Well, readers, that’s us. What about you? What’s your currently relationship with swimming? Do you want to change it? Are you looking for inspiration, community, warmer weather, a cute swim cap? Let us know, and join us next week as we talk about section one of the book: survival.

Susie the Swimmer says, we can swim!

Book Club · meditation

40 days later: FIFI book club meditation update

Hi readers– a lot has happened since we finished reading and blogging about Sharon Salzberg’s 28-day guide to meditation practice, called Real Happiness. In short, it’s been mayhem within and without.

I found this on a coaching website. Dunno if screaming is the malady or the cure. Feel free to pick either, or both.
I found this on a coaching website. Dunno if screaming is the malady or the cure. Feel free to pick either, or both.

Just to insert a moment of levity here: when I googled “mayhem” and checked out images, it displayed this, which I adore. It has forever rehabilitated the word “mayhem” for me, and I hope it does the same for you:

High street in Hanoi, Vietnam, with little kids driving little motorized vehicles every which way.

In the midst of mayhem, can we find a little peace and quiet? Maybe we can. Sharon Salzberg thinks so, and provides some tools through her explanations, stories and exercises. Some of us have been meditating off and on (some mainly on) for years, and others are newer to meditation. Yet others were curious about how using some meditation techniques would enhance their own contemplative or therapeutic regimens.

If you’re curious about what we had to say about the Real Happiness book, you can check it out. Here’s the most recent one, and there you’ll find links to all previous posts.

If you’ve read the book, or read some of our posts, or been meditating in the past 40 days, how are things going? What is your relationship with meditation these days? Let us know in the comments.

And now, 40 days later, here are our reflections on where we are. Let’s start with Tracy:

My main goal in doing the Real Happiness Book Club with the bloggers in September was to get back on track with my meditation. I can honestly say that I have managed to stick to a daily practice consistently ever since.

Most days I use the Insight Timer meditation app, for either a guided or timed silent meditation, depending on what I feel like. After my session, the app tells me how many days in a row. Yesterday it said I’d hit 50 consecutive days of meditating with the app.

Since September when we started I have missed one day of meditation and I’m feeling grounded. It’s partly because meditation itself is grounding. But also because, for me, routine is grounding. Even the kittens have a routine around my meditation and usually, by the end, they are sitting quietly nearby (sometimes one will end up on my lap). Amidst the uncertainty of COVID and the seemingly endless amount of time spent in front of the computer these days, meditation has become a cherished part of my daily life again.

Here’s me (Catherine):

It’s not an overstatement to say that meditation has been a lifeline for me these past few months. I’m honing my new-found tool of neutral identification of emotions, sensations and thoughts that arrive around the clock, sometimes blamming into me with intensity.

What does this tool do? It allows me to feel, and be aware that I’m feeling. That last part always strikes me as miraculous, every single time it happens. It’s not a knee-jerk denial or rejection of feelings or thoughts. No, it’s a method for seeing them without their stories and associations and self-judgment PR campaigns attached. And what a relief this is– to feel what I feel, and let the feelings do what they do, which is come and go.

There’s another tool I’m learning how to use, courtesy of meditation: viewing the world (including and especially me) with full-on compassion. What do I mean here? Sometimes (I’m working on increasing the frequency…) when I encounter something or someone that provokes judgment– oh, that’s stupid! what was I thinking? argh, there they/I go again!– I take a beat. Then I think, oh, poor them/poor me. That’s hard. Just a little sympathy– for myself or others– enlarges my capacity to love and understand the world and myself.

Even though I’ve been developing and working on these tools for a while now (for many years, in fact), I’ve felt a pressing need to sit daily, sometimes twice daily, in the last 40 days, for obvious reasons. And doing so has made these last 40 days more meaningful. Have I gotten more work done? No. More exercise? No. More sleep? Maybe. More peace? Yes– in moments. And moments of peace are good.

Here’s Martha:

I am not good at meditating. I read the book and enjoyed much of it. I even took away a number of good tips. Did I implement a daily practice? No.

I realized I’m someone who likes to “do and be mindful” and I’m not someone who likes to “sit and meditate.” I do have a routine where I gather my thoughts at the end of the day and also at its start. Is this meditation? I don’t know.

What I do know is that I am aware of how my body feels at different times of the day. I am more mindful about what I am doing and that has slowed me down, and that is good. I’m more reflective, but in a productive way and not in “let’s go spiraling and overthink all the things” way.

I’m glad I read the book. I will likely read it again and try to implement if not a daily practice, perhaps a weekly one to get started. I would also recommend the book because I did change my approach and I grew my understanding of what a meditative practice would look like.

Here’s Christine:

Despite my best intentions, I have not added meditation to my days.

I enjoy the process, I see the benefits, and I *want* to do it but I don’t.I know that my challenges arise from some combination of my uneven schedule and the task initiation issues that plague people with ADHD. It’s really hard to switch off what I am doing and choose to be still.

Yet, I feel like a solution to when and how to fit meditation into my life is only just outside my reach at the moment.

So I’m going to keep switching tactics and keep trying to fit it in.It may work, it may not, but I won’t be too hard on myself about it either way.

Meanwhile, if you can, read Salzberg’s book. It’s an encouraging, helpful read, whether or not you end up with a meditation practice.

And Mina wraps it up for us:

This morning I meditated for 10 minutes, because I felt the weight of all I had to do in the day crowding around my meditation time. Really though, there should be no because in that sentence. That’s my usual amount of time anyhow.

During the period we were reading Real Happiness together, I was inspired and upped my minimum daily sit from 10 to 20 minutes. But as soon as the book was done, so was I. I didn’t gradually reduce my meditation time. I cut back from one day to the next. Whether or not the day’s agenda feels pressing, I only sit for more than 10 minutes once a week. Initially, I was disappointed with myself for not sticking with the longer sits. Then I reassessed. Did I feel like I’d gotten more benefit from the 20-minute sits? No. For me, the benefit is the daily-ness, more than the length.

And there’s this—one of my personal takeaways from Sharon Salzberg’s book was that meditation is not the one and only source of the benefits she talks about in her book. She didn’t write that. This is my personal, anecdotal observation in my own life.

I’d go further. Meditation and mindfulness are just one of the three central sources of the benefits Salzberg describes—benefits such as emotional and psychological resilience, ease and peace of mind, focus etc… Other sources of introspection and growth are important for me.

For example, I’ve recently been doing a lot of training in Non-Violent Communication techniques. My new skills support my meditation practice and my meditation practice supports my learning the new skills.

Another important source of the benefits Salzberg talks about is movement. In addition to all the shared stressors we face in this moment, I’m also in the midst of moving from my home of 27 years. The change is my own free choice. But it comes with heartbreak, grief and a whole wasp’s nest of logistics. While my meditation practice is one part of sustaining my balance and flow through this period, movement is as (or more) important. I need to literally sweat the stress away some days, not just OM it away.

So, in a paradoxical way, reading Salzberg’s book gave me permission to accept these particularities about what feeds my soul and to use that knowledge to support myself. Instead of being disappointed by my 10-minute meditations, I’m happy to have the resource of meditation and to have the extra time when I’m not meditating anymore to devote to another mode of support. I didn’t fall off the wagon when I cut back my meditation time after the book club. I recognized that the wagon had more wheels than just meditation and I am taking time to keep them all rolling smoothly.

Book Club · fitness

FIFI Book Club: Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg– Keeping the Practice Going

Hi readers, and welcome to the seventh installment of FIFI book club’s reading of Sharon Salzberg’s book Real Happiness: a 28-Day Program to Realize the Power of Meditation. Each week we’ll offer some reflections as we move through the chapters, and maybe do some of the exercises, too. You are invited to join us, and we’d love to read and respond to any comments you’d like to share.

Last week we blogged here about week four. We blogged here about week three. we blogged here about week two. We blogged here about week one, Concentration. We blogged about Chapter 2: Why Meditate, here. You can read the first entry 1 here.

Today’s group post is about keeping the practice going, so it will be our last one. For 30 days. We’ll be back in a month to update you on where each of us is in terms of meditation. If you are meditating, or have been reading this book or doing a course on meditation, we’d love to hear from you about how that process is going for you.

NOTE: we will all be checking back in a month from now to report on ways the book and the meditation exercises have affected our own meditation practices and also how mindfulness has inserted itself into our everyday lives. Stay tuned!

And now, without further ado, is Mina:

I have thoroughly enjoyed re-reading this book and re-immersing myself in Sharon Salzberg’s gentle, yet firm voice. I love her straightforward insights. I love that she is very clear that meditation is about daily-ness—doing it regularly and showing up with more patience and kindness in our daily lives, in regular situations.

In a section of this Keep Going chapter titled, Make Sure Your Life Reflects Your Practice, I was struck by a quote she attributes to a teacher from India: “It seems to me that some people here want to meditate in order to have great transcendent experiences or amazing alternate states of consciousness. They may not be too interested in how they speak to their children or treat their neighbour.” Yes! Though I would also add that it’s not just about how we treat our children or community, but also how we treat our own selves, too. This is the biggest promise of meditation. Not fireworks and transforming into a cone of white light rising up into the sky to join the lucky enlightened ones, but more kindness, patience, ease and love.

Early in this chapter, there’s a multi-paragraph long list of all the benefits of meditation, including: help us drop painful habits, be calmer, be kinder to ourself and others etc… All of which brings me back to the first chapter of the book and a question I posed in an earlier book club post—is meditation alone enough to accomplish all this? I don’t think so. I have had a daily meditation practice for almost two years now. While I find it a powerful tool as I work toward that list of great outcomes, I need more resources to support the practice and access its benefits.

I think of meditation in terms of food pairing or food synergy—that’s the science of combining foods to access more of the nutrients. Meditation is the same. To access its nutrients, we have to combine our sitting practice with dharma talks and other sources of insight (therapy, retreats, or other self-refinement modalities). So that before we even take our seat on the cushion, we have begun to understand ourselves better. Combining multiple sources of wisdom, with what we are learning in our meditation, is a surer way to access the nourishment of our sitting practice.

That’s where books like this one come in. Meditation can definitely help us feel happier. Not instantly. Not without commitment. And not without the scaffolding of books like this, to give us the guidance we need to access the energy and aliveness that meditation offers. I feel revitalized after spending time in the company of Sharon Salzberg’s words.

Here’s Christine:

Reading Sharon Salzberg’s ‘Real Happiness’ has been a terrific investment in self-care.

Even though I didn’t put the work in to develop a consistent meditation practice*, I still got a lot out of the meditation that I did do, AND I got a lot out of reflecting on the content of the book itself – and the feelings that arose as a result.

This final section felt very good to read. I especially appreciated this commentary on the point of meditation:“This is why we practice meditation – so that we can treat ourselves more compassionately; improve our relationships with friends, family, and community; live lives of greater connection; and, even in the face of challenges, stay in touch with what we really care about so we can act in ways that are consistent with our values.”

Like most of us, that list encompasses my most important goals in life and even the little bit of meditation I have done during this process has helped me move closer to those ideals. And, I really love the idea that meditation is about giving ourselves internal space to respond differently – it’s not about changing ourselves or others, it’s about expanding the capacity we already have.

I also appreciated Salzberg’s advice about being willing to start over (which happens to be a specialty of mine) and about just showing up for practice. In her discussion of that latter point, she quotes the advice of her teacher, Munindra-Ji, who says “Just put your body there. Your mind will do different things all of the time, but you just put your body there. Because that’s the expression of commitment, and the rest will follow from that.”

I wish I had read that at the beginning.

I essentially give that same advice for developing a writing practice (short version – practice being in your writing spot, if you can’t write, just sit. Next time, sit and write a complaint about how hard it is to be there. Eventually, the regular writing will come.) and I hadn’t thought to apply it to meditation. I think I need to make a more conscious list of my procedures so I have it available for transferable skills moments like this.

Anyway, I love having that permission to just sit. And her further discussion in that section expands on that helpful beginning. She reminds us not to evaluate our progress over and over during a session and to use the right criteria for evaluation. In this case, the criteria she suggests is about how life is different and how well we are able to go with the flow rather than any sort of metric about minutes meditated or distractions therein.As I consult my notes, I realize that I could write essay after essay about the insights in this book in general and this section in particular so I think I will just finish here by saying that this book was worth every second I spent with it so far and I plan to spend even more.If you want to have a little more mental space in your day to day, you, too, may be able to find it by creating space in your schedule for reading this book and for doing the practices within. I made the space for reading but didn’t make quite enough space for the practices. In October, I’m going to create that extra space in my schedule so I can create even more space in my brain. I’ll let you know how it goes.*To be clear, the issue is not her program or meditation itself. Despite my initial intent, I was not able to prioritize meditation for a variety of reasons during the time frame of these review posts. And I’m ok with that. Now that I have read the whole thing, I suspect I will have more success with consistency. I always forget that I need the big picture when I am learning something new. In TKD, for example, I need to see someone perform the whole pattern slowly before I can start learning it. This meditation practice isn’t exactly building on the step before in the same way but I think I still needed the context of the whole to fully commit to practicing the pieces.

Here’s Tracy:

I am so grateful that Catherine invited me to this book club for Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness. As I’ve mentioned in previous weeks, it really kick-started my fading meditation practice back into action. I have diligently managed to commit to 20 minutes a day almost every day for the past 5 weeks, with very few exceptions and it feels good.

I had a couple of insights when reading the final chapter, “Keeping the Practice Going.” The first was in response to when she says, “With a strong foundation in how to practice meditation, we can begin to live in a way that enables us to respect ourselves, to be calm rather than anxious, and to offer caring attention to others instead of being held back by notions of separation.” I love this idea of living more calmly and I have found over the years that I have attained the ability to do this at least some of the time. When I am practicing regular meditation I have a better chance of carrying a calm countenance into my day. I also like the notion of “caring attention.” I contrast this with a different kind of attention that I can give others when I am not grounded: annoyed attention; judgmental attention; frustrated attention; fix-it attention.

My favourite recommendation from this chapter for when the practice is waning is “start over.” Somewhere along the way a laminated bookmark fell into my hands. It says “Remember you can still start over every morning.” I taped it to my bathroom mirror alongside the quote that got me through my divorce: “Beware for I am fearless and therefore powerful,” from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I like to remind myself that I can actually start over at any moment of any day. If I didn’t meditate in the morning, I can meditate now. If I don’t meditate now, I can meditate before bed. Indeed, I can even do a bedtime / sleeping meditation, which I do in a pinch, when the day has gotten away from me and I know that I will not stay awake long enough to sit. I open the Insight Timer app and play one of Jennifer Percy’s Yoga Nidra for Sleep meditations. But mostly, I will do my 20 minutes of silent sitting in the morning. And if I miss a day entirely I will pick it up the next day. Meditation has helped me let go of all-or-nothing thinking where it has to be perfect. I love the idea of starting over, fresh page, new day!

I also appreciated the point about using ordinary moments. It’s fine to sit in silence, but I can also close my eyes and breath at a stop light while driving, or pay attention to my breath when I’m sitting in a meeting at work, or pause for a moment to be more mindful and attentive when I sit down to a meal.

And I had an insight when reading the section about life reflecting my practice. I used to think (recently, in fact) that in order to get my meditation habit kickstarted I would need to go away to the meditation centre for a ten-day course. That only ten days of ten hours a day of meditation would reinforce my habit. But I no longer think this. If I weave meditation throughout my day and into my life, then every thing I do can be a meditation of sorts. As Salzberg says, “Are we living according to our deepest values, seeking the sources of real happiness, applying the skills of mindfulness, concentration, and lovingkindness throughout all areas of our lives?” I don’t need to be at a meditation centre for that. Actually, as wonderful as the meditation centre is, it’s an artificial environment sheltered from my actual life. A stronger practice can emerge when I am incorporating meditation into my daily life and letting its effects flow into all areas. That’s a new way of thinking about it for me — quite dramatically different from my thought that I had to “get away” in order to “get it.”

That is the one new way of looking at it that I hope sticks when I am longing for the opportunity, lost this summer due to covid-19, to spend a month in the cloistered space of the Ontario Vipassana Centre.

Here’s Martha:

In some ways, I wish I had read this chapter first. It spoke to me so clearly. I loved the practical, focused tone – especially the part about perfection. However, I also recognize that if I had I wouldn’t have identified all the way I do practice a form of meditation. The issue is that I have no regular practice but I have an intermittent one. And Truth be told, I joined this read-a-long so I could form a regular practice. (I am just a bundle of contradictions today!).

The timing couldn’t be better though. I embark on my 60th year tomorrow and what better way to kick off such a momentous adventure than by committing to practicing what I have learned. I usually end my day with a quick think about what I did that day and I set out a plan for the next. Salzberg’s book is about taking on a lengthier process to ground one’s self and to be. She quotes a teacher who says “just put the body there.” I’m reading that as make the space, take yourself there and the rest will follow.

I’ve watched as slow food, slow fashion, slow teaching have emerged and influence how we approach our everyday lives. Why not with meditation? Salzberg’s focus on making ordinary moments meditative ones highlights the mindfulness even as she encourages the longer focus. My approach to meditation has been fast; I flit from a moment to a moment but never go deeper. I’ll use my morning and evening resets as a place to start from and see where this new approach takes me. I like the idea of the meditation journal as a place to collect insights, howsoever random they may appear at first blush. The only thing I am sure of is that the next 30 days are going to be interesting …

And me, Catherine:

Daily meditation practice has been a lifeline for me these past few months. That’s not an exaggeration. When I haven’t been able to move my body– my usual go-to for anxiety, stress, and trouble focusing– I have been able to sit and listen to a guided meditation. Even 5 minutes helps. Even 3 minutes. Even 10 deep breaths. They all help.

How do they help? Meditation, over time, helps create a neutral space for observing, noticing what I’m doing and what I’m feeling. I cannot convey to you all how important that space is for me. Being able to occupy it sometimes, for a moment or two, offers a little perspective from which to see self-judgment, self-blame, other negative thoughts and emotions, as what they are– just some thoughts and emotions. They come. They go. That’s the way of them.

This morning is day two of ouchy-crick-in-neck time. I slept oddly, and it’s been bothering me. In addition to some gentle stretching and occasionally anti-inflammatories, I sat this morning and meditated on bodily sensations. My ouchy neck was the initial focus, but over time the feeling kind of dissolved, and I got sort of bored with it. I returned to the breath, and then noticed tingling in my right foot. So I focused there. At the end of 15 minutes, I felt more balanced– by that I mean more aware of my body as a collection of changing sensations over time. It was a relief to let go of focus on one thing and judgment of it as bad.

This doesn’t always happen in meditation; sometimes I’m thinking about lunch, or work, or imagining going to the beach, etc. At some point I’ll notice this and head back to the breath. This is what mindfulness is, says Sharon Salzberg: heading back to the breath when you notice you’ve moved away from it. Yeah, I can do that.

We’ll check back in a month from now. Until then, keep breathing…

Book Club · fitness

FIFI Book Club: Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg, week four–Lovingkindness

Hi readers, and welcome to the sixth installment of FIFI book club’s reading of Sharon Salzberg’s book Real Happiness: a 28-Day Program to Realize the Power of Meditation. Each week we’ll offer some reflections as we move through the chapters, and maybe do some of the exercises, too. You are invited to join us, and we’d love to read and respond to any comments you’d like to share.

Last week we blogged here about week three. we blogged here about week two. We blogged here about week one, Concentration. We blogged about Chapter 2: Why Meditate, here. You can read about the intro and chapter 1 here.

This week is week four of meditation practice techniques and exercises, called Lovingkindness: Cultivating Compassion and True Happiness. Here are our reflections.

First up is Mina:

I love the encouragement the lovingkindness meditation gives me to be my best self. And by that I don’t mean some perfectly, implausibly love-everybody, angelic version, but as Sharon Salzberg writes in this Week 4 chapter, “extending friendship to ourselves and others—not in the sense of liking everyone, or dispensing universal approval, but more as an inner knowing that our lives are all inextricably connected.” A couple paragraphs later she writes, “to look at ourselves and others with kindness instead of reflexive criticism.”

The lovingkindness she describes is gritty and takes a lot of presence. But since, as she points out in her description, the first person to whom we are extending our kindness is ourselves. When I screw up and get my kindness toward someone else wrong, I need to be kind to myself, instead of taking that easy refuge in reflexive self-criticism. Berating myself that I’m not a nice person is a lot less likely to improve my behavior than paying attention to where I went awry and reminding myself of our inextricable connectedness.

In the Ten Ways to Deepen Your Practice section, number 9 suggests we refrain from speaking ill of others. So … that is a practice that I’ve been wrestling with for a few years. Unsurprisingly, it’s a work in progress. I’ve gotten better than I used to be, but boy is it hard. All those moments of gossip, righteousness and schadenfreude that slip into conversations. Can you believe she …? I wouldn’t have done … What did she expect … ?

In my efforts, I’ve discovered that it’s easier to bring my attention to the moments I’m about to write, in an email or text, something not-so-nice about someone else. As soon as I notice, I stop. I think about how I’d feel if the person saw what I’d written. I stop writing or delete. I have noticed that some friends are frustrated if I don’t want to participate in these kinds of conversations. But they’re so fun, a friend once said to me. Are they? After paying some attention to how I feel after such exchanges, I’ve noticed that my ego might feel temporarily better (as in—I’m doing better than that person). But I’ve also noticed, when I take the time, that I feel some level of nausea, too. As if the person actually heard what I said and was hurt by it.

Of course, I only notice these responses, if I’m paying attention. Thank you, Sharon Salzberg, for reminding me how to use the lovingkindness meditation for just that!

Next up is Christine:

I enjoyed the process of reading and reflecting on this section.

I am still not doing the practices as often as I had hoped to be but I am being patient with myself as I figure out how to make meditation a regular part of my life. And, by doing that, I guess I have been practicing one part of lovingkindness.

I find lovingkindness meditations a little bit of a struggle. I don’t object to them in a philosophical way, I don’t argue with the ideas involved. I just find it hard to focus because I have trouble letting go of the idea of a list of people to think about. So that makes me aware of the possibility of forgetting someone. And I also have trouble holding the image of someone in my mind. Well, I’m sure you can see the spiral I end up falling into from all of that.

But that being said, I love the idea of changing how we pay attention to the people around us. Lovingkindness is not about learning to let people walk all over you and it’s not about learning to adore them, it’s about learning to see them and yourself differently – with more compassion.

This change in approach doesn’t necessarily affect the other person, you aren’t doing it ´for’ them, per se. It can, however, change how you see and interact with them. That definitely makes your interactions a little smoother and creates some ease for you. (That may or may not create changes in your dynamic but that’s not the point.)

So, as she has mentioned throughout the book, changing the way we pay attention affects our experiences and this one seems to have a more tangible result than some of the other practices. Meanwhile, I love how she keeps emphasizing that it doesn’t make us like difficult people and that we don’t have to try to like them, we just have to learn to understand that they too are struggling and that we can be compassionate about that.

I am very intrigued to continue my practice with meditation for quieting the inner critic. The inner critic of people with ADHD can be particularly chatty and I like to have many tools for managing that chatter. My ADHD meds have already helped a lot with that particular issue and they give me the space to make good use use of tools like the meditation she shares here.

Even though this whole chapter was interesting to me, I found the final section ´Ten Ways To Deepen Your Practice’ especially useful. Even just the first two recommendations ‘Think of kindness as a strength, not as a weakness,’ ‘Look for the good in yourself,’ bring me a kind of restful feeling, and that’s pretty good for a few lines of text.

Side note: The personal timing of this topic is interesting to me considering that I had a revelation this weekend that one of the reasons I feel tired when I open FB is that I feel like I am trying to maintain too many friendships at once – like there are extra things to remember all the time. I wonder how exploring and practicing lovingkindness meditation might help me address that feeling?

Here’s Martha:

So far this has been the hardest week for me. I’m not sure why. I think I have looked upon meditation as a way of emptying my brain or jumping off the hamster wheel. I don’t object to the concept of loving kindness. However, I don’t much enjoy focusing on people in my meditation. Perhaps it is because I already spend some time each week connecting with people purposefully in loving kindness through chats, messages, or online.

That said, I took this book as an opportunity to learn new things about meditation and I have. I’ve enjoyed exploring mindful attention not just in everyday life but as a form of practice. I realized I need to look at meditation practice as a form of kindness to self, and as such it should become one of my big rocks if I want to keep at it. I like lists so “Ten Ways to Deepen Your Practice” spoke to me in ways other parts of the chapter did not.

Here’s Tracy:

This week I fell back into doing what I know, using the weekly theme more as a guide than following the chapter in all of its detail. I know and love the loving kindness, or metta, practice. It can have a dramatic effect on my feelings towards myself and others, especially when I imagine extending my metta towards people with whom I experience difficulty.

My favourite guided version of this practice is the Metta Bhavana practice by the Buddhist teacher Bodhipaksa, which I first discovered on a CD of his that I bought about 15 years ago. That was my first encounter with the four stages of lovingkindess, where you direct it first towards yourself, then to someone you feel good about, then to someone you feel neutral about, and then to someone you have difficulty with. When coupled with the mindfulness we have been practicing over the past few weeks, I was able have keen awareness of how resistant I was to extending lovingkindess towards someone I have difficulty with. But I did it anyway. As outlined in Real Happiness, we extend loving kindness in meditation by wishing someone well with a few positive phrases. My phrases, taken from Bodhipaksa, are “May [I/you/we/they] be well; may [I/you/we/they] be happy; may I/you/we/they be free from suffering.” But you can insert “peaceful” or “safe” or “healthy” or “live with ease” or whatever resonates as well-wishing from your heart.

What this practice done consistently does for me is make me more compassionate towards myself and others. I confess that a couple of times this week I focused on myself because, what with getting back to work after a long absence and all, I found myself being hard on myself for having some difficulty staying on top of things. Introducing this loving kindness into my meditation every morning, I was able to accept that there’s nothing wrong with a slow start. Not only that, I was even able to recognize that I am feeling energized and happy to be back at my regular role.

But it also made me more able to extend a quick olive branch after I acted poorly towards a server at a restaurant that I frequent. I was snippy because our reservation for an outdoor table had not been noted, so we had to wait quite awhile. It hadn’t been noted because they hadn’t checked their voicemail. So I said, “does your voicemail say we don’t take reservations by voicemail; you have to speak to a person?” in a not-nice tone of voice. Maybe not the worst thing but the interaction left me feeling like I had been unfair and mean. So I approached her later and apologized, expressed that she didn’t deserve to be spoken to like that, and admitted that my behaviour was uncalled for and that she always does a great job (it is the only restaurant patio I go to on a regular basis since COVID). I don’t know if I can attribute my entire ability to do that to this week’s meditation theme, but part of what motivated me was a quick awareness that she must not have enjoyed that interaction any more than I did.

Next week I will continue with the loving kindness meditation, maybe doing a few more of the suggested practices from the Week Four Chapter. Since we started, I have consistently managed to meditate for at least 20 minutes every day and I feel as if this book club was just the kickstart I needed to get back on track. 

And here’s me (Catherine):

For me, this past week has been more difficult for focusing on daily meditation. My semester is in the middle of its third week, and I’m running on all cylinders all the time. I haven’t been doing meditation first thing in the morning, instead using that time for class prep and assignment grading. This is not good for me. When meditation gets pushed into some other TBA slot, I feel like it diminishes the specialness of the time spent. Meditation isn’t like throwing that last load of laundry in the dryer; I need some dedicated space around sitting for contemplation or just peace.

Enter Sharon Salzerg and lovingkindess meditation. I’ve done this meditation before, and (like Tracy), use different phrasing depending on what I’m focusing on. Like Christine, my inner critic needs a lot of attention, and offering up gentle awareness and open-heartedness toward those feelings and thoughts is always welcome in my mental universe.

One of the Ten Ways to Deepen Your Practice suggestions I really like is “include those who may feel left out”. Salzberg suggests trying this in conversation, asking quieter people what they think. Here’s a story of how suggestion played out in my life this week.

My department puts together a student curriculum committee to work with us to review and offer feedback on new and revised courses, and suggest changes for existing offerings. We were talking about who should be on the committee, and I suggested K (one of my students). In describing K, I said that they were in need of a little polishing in terms of student-faculty interactions. In a talk with K recently, they said that they thought they needed to be aggressive as they wanted “to be a lawyer, and I hear that lawyers are aggressive”. K has acted on this by being a bit annoying, I admit.

After telling my colleagues about this, they said, “well, then, why would we want K to be on this committee?” I said, “because K needs to learn how to act around faculty, and they will definitely learn from us.” My colleagues agreed, somewhat reluctantly.

I talked with K today to encourage them to join this committee. K is pleased, and I think it’s an opportunity for growth for them. It’s not going to be easy, navigating this relationship. But, I know it will give all of us (K, me, the rest of the students and faculty on the committee) a chance to practice forms of lovingkindness toward each other and ourselves. Thank you, Sharon Salzberg for putting this practice front and center at a good time!