This week’s post is offered by Carolyn West, senior teacher and trainer for the Stress Reduction Clinic and Oasis Training Institute.
gratitude to Anne Twohig for the photo
I had the good fortune recently to visit this shoreline along the Irish Sea in Greystones, County Wicklow. After teaching with Anne and on the morning of my departure, we walked along the sea, partly on the beach itself, and partly on the walkway above as daylight broke. It was mid-October and autumn-brisk, and the sun hadn’t yet risen to offer its measure of warmth.
All my senses were stimulated by the incredible beauty of the place and time, and there was a moment in the faintest light of dawn when we could just barely make out the figure of a woman in swimming garb as she emerged from the sea. She had stowed her gear next to a rocky outcropping and in the opaqueness of the hour, she discreetly and with a practiced skill, dressed for work. She tried to swim every morning she answered later to my inquiry. “You inspire me,” I heard myself tell her.
That scene—all of it—has lived inside me since, stirring something that has not surrendered easily to words. Yet, I have found myself, as autumn has shifted to winter in Massachusetts, being less reticent to meet the elements on days I might previously have judged too cold to go for a walk, or too windy, or too threatening with imminent rain or snow. And to my ongoing surprise, it isn’t something I’ve needed to talk myself into or will myself to do.
And what I’ve discovered is how this increased contact with the elements has brought me unanticipated joy. I’ve experienced an unexpected delight in sensing the bite of cold on my face even as the sun’s warmth on my back penetrates layers of clothing. I’ve been enlivened by mist or fat droplets of rain without yielding to the reflexive habit of drawing up my hood or shrinking my head and neck, turtle-like, into my shoulders. I’ve sensed an upwelling of strength and a companion happiness as my torso has leaned into strong gusts of wind. My body is making increased contact with the elements and it is mysteriously satisfying.
And I see how this, too, is practice—how the practice of mindfulness asks of us a willingness to turn toward even those experiences we deem unpleasant or unwanted, challenging our engrained notions of comfort and predictability, asking us to stay with and fully know moments as they arise rather than reverting to old habits of turning away, playing it safe, hiding behind layers of well honed protection. In return, this practice offers not the guarantee of some mental notion of pleasant, but the most intimate experience of being human and alive.
I’ll likely never be ready to brave the Irish Sea in October, but I’m grateful to the woman who did and does, and for my chance encounter with her that brisk, fall morning.