Our underwater worlds consist of some of the most remarkable natural landscapes on earth.
Have you ever watched the brilliant Planet Earth series? The episodes on freshwater and oceans really opened my eyes to the astounding universe found beneath the vast, malleable, sparkling surfaces that comprise so much of our planet. Another world really does exist here on earth, in both shallow streams and deep oceans. Unless you live in the desert, it’s fairly easy to find a nearby stream to fix your gaze upon… but what if we want to get up-close and personal with the deep blue sea?
Answer: enter into the wild world of diving!
Before we go deep, a brief overview of diving for the uninitiated
SCUBA is an acronym for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, the contraption we see divers hauling around on their backs. There are many different types of specialized scuba diving that we can participate in. From night diving to cave diving, these activities require special training beyond the usual Open Water certification offered by international diving organization PADI.
Not feeling enthused at the prospect of strapping on a tank of air to your back and popping a regulator into your mouth? Consider free-diving, where divers hold their breath using special techniques they learn in training that let them dive deeper and longer than the average person. Free-divers still wear special wet-suits and face masks with snorkels, but they leave the air tank and other serious equipment to the scuba divers.
Each type of underwater exploration offers new ways of experiencing the awe-inspiring world that waits peacefully beneath its wet ceiling of hypnotizing ripples and waves.
No matter what type of diving we choose, we also need to talk about fear.
Think for just a moment about swimming underwater with merely a regulator and an air tank to prevent drowning or life-threatening decompression sickness. A bit scary, no? Given the precarious nature of diving, issues of anxiety, panic, and stress can arise frequently. And yet these are also universal experiences in life with which most of us must contend, regardless of whether we ever take the plunge into unknown waters while sporting a wet-suit.
Reading any scuba diving book will swiftly introduce you to multiple tips on panic control. (Or, letting go of panic, as I prefer to phrase it.) Coping successfully with stress underwater through practices such as meditation, steady breathing, and positive visualization can go a long way in increasing our chances for a safe and enjoyable dive. What I’m equally interested in, though, is how these safe diving strategies can also apply to life above sea level.
Diving underwater allows us to personally test ourselves in many ways. It provides opportunities to conquer our fears and dispel misconceptions about our own strength; to discover our personal limits and how to work within them; and to learn how to be a worthwhile partner. Finally, diving lets us explore a completely new world without the need to board a rocket ship and head to outer space.
I can only think of one experience which might exceed in interest a few hours spent under water, and that would be a journey to Mars.
Scuba diving is similar to other outdoor adrenaline-filled activities in which human beings enjoy indulging, such as surfing and motorcycling: they all come with a built-in set of conceptual philosophies that can serve as metaphors for our everyday lives. They are more than a sport; they’re a lifestyle.
What makes people so attracted to pulling on a too-tight wet-suit, getting up at the crack of dawn to catch good light and calm water, fiddling with tricky equipment, and spending money to do all of this?
The answer is simple: the experience of being underwater, in a brand new world, makes us feel ALIVE.
It gives us something that we cannot find elsewhere – a sense of magic and wonder, of pure beauty and rhythm. The cadence of the ocean is so different from the throb of dry land; the former pulsates with flowing freedom, its life intuitively glimmering in tandem, while the latter pounds with heavy, deliberate direction and blunt autonomy.
Because diving is new for everyone at some point, we feel fear when we first begin. Being pushed outside our comfort zones is scary no matter how many times we’ve already gone to our outer limits. However, if we have common sense and prepare adequately, there’s really no need for diving to be significantly risky. After all, disease can strike us at any time. Freak accidents occur out of nowhere. Risk is everywhere. Shall we hide under our soft, warm covers and push away the truth of it all, or tear ourselves off the bed in a burst of energy, jumping into the chaotic commotion of life, while resolving to find our inner stillness in the midst of all this madness?
The choice is, as always, ours.
Much as life is suffering, life is also risk. In order to choose life, we must choose risk, each day. This takes courage.
This truth can become overwhelming if we don’t yet have the proper tools for coping. When we do, perspective and our personal vision will steer us into positive places. For example, someone who is deep underwater, experiencing difficulties breathing through their regulator, might still manage to handle this stressful situation effectively. On the other hand, someone sitting in a nice office, with a steady salary and stable home life, might nonetheless be suffering from major anxiety attacks.
I’ve certainly experienced my fair share of panic attacks in the past. From freaking out over minor issues like spilling coffee to not being able to board an airplane due to anxiety, I understand feelings of irrational panic well. Happily, when we heal the real issues that underlie these incredibly uncomfortable symptoms, we can move past them and start diving into uncharted territory with renewed vigor and a sense of calm.
Mental and physical freedom through underwater photography
When I was in Dahab, Egypt this past February, I met an incredibly talented and beautiful person named Nanna Kreutzmann. A photojournalist from Denmark who’d previously been in Cairo covering the first riots of the Egyptian Revolution, she’d left the pandemonium of the chaotic city for the calmer turquoise seas of Dahab in South Sinai. As I jogged along the beach, casually scanning the sand in search of connection, I found her ambling along peacefully. We hit it off due to our mutual interests (photography, yoga, travel), and she brought me into her current fascinating world of underwater photography.
At the time I met her, Nanna was working on a photo-story about the destruction of the coral reefs. In order to make her images, she was free-diving frequently and using a giant, special camera to document life below the surface. She talked with me about her diving experience, and what it brings to her, aside from beautiful subject matter:
“When I first started, I was really fascinated by the aspect of ‘human being meets another element’. When you’re underwater, you’re physically able to move in new ways and in new dimensions. And there’s also the fear factor. Sometimes I’m down there and I can’t get deeper because fear blocks me. I’m not aware that I’m scared, but I just can’t get deeper.
This is what fascinated me about diving in the first place. When we do it without oxygen and without tanks, it gives a sense of real freedom. Being underwater is a way for me to shut out the rest of the world. When I go underwater, I don’t bring anything with me; it’s only me and my buddy. My mind doesn’t have to think about the person I’m in love with, or what I’m going to eat tomorrow. Whether my issues above water are big or small, everything underneath is quiet. My mind can completely slow down.
That mental freedom, in combination with the beauty of the underwater world, is what keeps me coming back here. I feel comfortable underwater. It’s a healthy experience for me, being fully present in the moment, being at peace with where I am.”
Thanks, Nanna, for your thoughtful words!
Exploring the underwater universe enables us to shift our perspectives and expand our minds. Cultivating a personal relationship with the depths of our oceans can also help us to understand the importance of caring for them. Before I leave you to ponder all of this, I want to briefly mention that I’m saving a discussion on the environmental impact of diving for a future post, since this critical subject deserves significant attention in its own right.
The bigger picture
As humans, we sometimes like to play it safe because it gives us a comforting illusion of security and safety. Until we learn to meet our needs in ways that are naturally life-enhancing, we will continue to stay at the job that we hate, or buy the house that’s too much money, or eat a full bag of potato chips when we’re not even hungry.
We can always choose to meet our needs for security through cultivating healthy relationships with ourselves and others, and especially with our natural worlds of forests, mountains, and seas. When we do, our need for the illusion of security begins to slowly float away, setting us free in the process. We can now easily gravitate towards living in the reality of life’s constant flow and movement; splashing around in the glorious expanse of thunderous waves and rolling surf; and diving deep into the glistening waters of change.
And that’s when the real living truly begins.
Between the air and the water a steel wave quivers. What people call the surface is also a ceiling. A looking glass above, watered silk below. Nothing is torn on the way through. Only a few bubbles mark the diver’s channel and behind him the frontier soon closes. But once the threshold is crossed you can turn back slowly and look up: that dazzling screen is the border between two worlds, as clear to the one as to the other. Behind the looking glass the sky is made of water.
- Philippe Diole, The Undersea Adventure, 1951