I have never been able to meditate, although I'd be enjoying my retirement in Bali if I had a dime for every friend who has encouraged me to learn. I've tried, believe me, I've tried.
Sit comfortably, cross-legged on the wooden floor, one well-meaning instructor told me. What? Cross-legged and comfortable, in the same sentence?
Concentrate on your breathing, another suggested. That lasted about three seconds. For the next hour, mundane thoughts (Have I gathered enough firewood to heat the house this winter?) and exotic dreams (Let's buy elephants and ride across Burma!) swirled through my mind. Where was this miraculous yet elusive state my friends raved about?
A few weeks ago, as I clambered back aboard a Caribbean dive boat, sliding off my heavy tank and basking in the peace and contentment that follow a dive, it registered: This is it! The calm, the gentleness of motion, the sense that I could handle anything the world threw at me without raising a finger – a standard post-dive sensation that I had previously passed off as being “affected by the deep” – was none other than the state meditators sought through their practice.
My underwater journey started 20 years earlier in the turquoise waters of Belize, where I unwittingly stumbled upon the principle of negative buoyancy while snorkelling. Everyone floats in the ocean; although rarely face up, as they teach in swimming lessons. But begin descending, and there comes a moment about five metres below the surface (different for every body) when the lungs compress to a point that gravity outweighs buoyancy and a swimmer starts to sink.
Beyond this invisible threshold, I could spread my arms and soar downward like a giant bird, past coral heads and curious fish that surrounded the reef. That is, until a thumping in my chest and head insisted I turn back, clawing upward, bursting to the surface with a gigantic gasp.
The oceanic abyss holds a powerful allure, and I was pulled toward the big blue again and again. Each return to the surface brought a sense of peace that lasted for hours, even though my interludes below were measured in seconds.
Years later, I learned to scuba dive; a chance to stay under even longer. For those who haven't taken a lesson, the activity is largely focused on buoyancy control. Lead weights are worn to overcome the flotation of neoprene wetsuits. Buoyancy Control Devices – essentially a balloon, contained in a vest, that can be inflated or deflated with the click of a button – allow divers, once they have reached the desired depth, to achieve a state of balance in which they drift effortlessly along.
But that is just the beginning, because a diver's buoyancy is constantly being altered, ever so slightly, with every breath. As you inhale, you start to rise. With an expulsion of bubbles, you gently begin to drop. Match the duration of both and you will bob up and down in place beneath the ocean's surface. Hold your inhalations longer to move above something, and do the opposite to descend. This is how a diver navigates the subtle rise and fall of a reef – with their lungs.
At the same time, ever present in a diver's mind, is the desire to conserve the precious oxygen in the tank, and extend the time below. Flail around, or gulp air rapidly, and your reserves might last only 20 minutes. But if you breathe slowly and move stealthily, the same canister could last an hour. With experience, every diver learns to use their gas at an ever slower pace.
All this – the buoyancy control and gas conservation – requires a constant awareness. Just like meditation. Naturally, your focus on breathing comes and goes.
You see a clown fish, wave your arms in joy, chase it around the reef, then suddenly realize you're heaving like a sprinter. Instinctively, you return to your breathing. Just like meditation.
For some, fears of claustrophobia and drowning must be overcome, and attention on breathing provides distraction and shelter. Just like meditation.
Other forces, of course, are at play in the underwater world. There is a wondrous sense of weightlessness, even though your body is being compressed by unfelt but enormous pressures. More important, for a fleeting moment, you feel part of something bigger. Colourful reef fish flit inquisitively by your mask and mysterious shadows drift in the distance. Nothing races off and hides. Your presence is accepted.
And then there is the silence.
To be fair, divers hear plenty of sounds – primarily their own breathing, along with the steady snap and crackle of creatures nibbling on coral. But you can't speak, and the effect of this personal muting can be more powerful than pure silence itself.
Words such as “peaceful, calm and beautiful” commonly describe the scuba experience, but how or why such spiritual connotations arise can be hard to explain. Especially from an activity that, at first blush, appears to be a purely physical. The answer: Divers, unwittingly, are like meditators, their world one of breath control, focus and stillness.
If you dive, you already know all this. If you're like me, seeking the rewards of meditation but lacking the patience to clear your mind, rest assured there are other ways to find that extraordinary inner peace. Diving is one.
Special to The Globe and Mail