Practical Relaxation

Last summer, my dad and I finally did something we’d been talking about for something like twenty years and got our scuba diving certifications.

A friend of my father was also interested in learning to dive and had found a dive shop that was only an hour or two away from us. It turns out that the little dive shop is in fact the oldest PADI dive school in the country and is staffed by wonderful, extremely helpful people. The classroom portion was great, extremely informative, and the first pool dives went smoothly.

The real challenge was our first open water dive, in the Welland canal. From reading around and looking at typical scuba media, it seems like most first dives are undertaken at tropical resorts, where the water is crystal-clear with pristine white-sand bottoms. In our case, the visibility was about three feet, the muck-covered bottom far out of sight. That very first descent, going down a line into dark water, seeing nothing but bubbles rising up was extremely disconcerting, to say the least. One of the people in our class had a panic attack on that first descent and had to re-surface, unable to make it down. I can’t say I blamed them – I remember thinking that I was about to drown and had to just keep telling myself to take one more breath, wait one more second before panicking.

We made it through though and every subsequent descent got easier. Still, it’s very easy to get nervous and feel the faint stirrings of panic arise – in scuba diving as in life. One often hears of advice of “calm down, deep breaths”, but that’s usually easier said than done. When diving though, that is really a tangible, important, actionable thing to do.

In normal life, I can be a fairly anxious person and once I get worked up, it can be pretty hard to calm back down. Underwater though, being able to restore equanimity can mean the difference between ruining a dive or not – in the worst case, living or dying. It’s important not only in extremes of panic, but just for general performance as well: If one is breathing too heavily or too rapidly, one will deplete their gas supply much faster than they otherwise would. Since that’s obviously something to which one one pays close attention, it becomes a very good, objective metric for how calm one is able to stay. Forcing myself to stay calm, breathe deeply and steadily while being smacked by fish in the dark has, I think, carried over to being able to focus on my breathing to even things out in ordinary life as well.

I’ve tried doing traditional seated mindfulness meditation in the past, but was never really able to stick with it. For some reason, after doing it for a time, I would end up falling into fairly negative mental modes. Diving, on the other hand, provides me with a great sort of moving meditation. I need to stay calm, present, focused on my breathing and the sights in front of me. There are things about it that can be very scary, but practising the skill of responding to stress by calming down and facing the problem has tremendous carry-over to everything else in life.

In a week, I’m going to do my “advanced open water” training, where I’ll be going down to depths of a hundred feet or so and doing night dives off a boat. Both things are fairly intimidating prospects, but I know if I stay calm and remember what I need to do, it will be okay – and, if I can accomplish that, being able to stay calm in the face of the far more trivial day-to-day stressors will be a piece of cake.