My arms pull at the water, followed quickly by a frog-kick, legs pushing the water. Lifting my head and seeing the pool wall distantly ahead of me, I will my limbs to get me there faster. 

I had recently taken up diving with a friend — not the high-dive, jumping kind, but the deep-breath, going-under kind. He had trained over break to swim a shocking seventy-two meters without any breathing apparatus. Back at school, he agreed to bring me along for his pool training. He practiced fifty yard dives and coached me on my form as I tried to reach twenty-five.

Not that I couldn’t swim twenty-five yards underwater. I had done it before and even did it on my first dive with my friend — but hardly efficiently. Underwater, the most important thing is conserving breath. You take a big breath of oxygen before you go under, and then every movement you make spends a percentage of that O2. So you economize movement, making the most of each pull and kick. Economy is elegance: waiting for each motion’s full conclusion before the next, gliding.

But the longer you wait, the more CO2 builds up in your lungs. Hold your breath for thirty seconds. That warm pressure is the feeling of CO2. Hold your breath a little longer, and it turns into a hot burn. Longer, an explosive force, fighting to open your mouth and escape. All of a sudden, you are not elegant; you are desperate.

And so am I. I need to be at that wall. So I forget about elegance and economy and wheel my limbs like a cartoon character. Surfacing at the wall, I gasp for air.

My friend looks at me, knits his brow, and says: “Slow down. Let the wall come to you.”

Let the wall come to you. Maybe my oxygen-deprived brain made up a metaphor where there was none, but the words seemed like a mantra. Monk-like, I repeated the mantra to myself throughout the day, trying to unfold its meaning. 

The first meaning: the harder you strive, the shorter you go. Sure, I made it to the wall — but I had expended so much effort I could not have gone any farther, much less do it again.

The second meaning: the more you focus on where you are going, the more you lose your way. Proper form keeps your head neutral and streamlined, meaning you look at the pool floor directly beneath you. That is, every moment, you focus on exactly where you are. When I lifted my head to look for the wall, I lost the streamline, making it harder to get there.

The mantra, I think, extends to dry land — although here we might translate it “how much more will hasty feet miss the way!” (Proverbs 19:2, NIV). To the first meaning, hasty feet might miss the way because they get tired; forgetting that our deepest goals are marathons, they instead spend themselves in sprints. These deepest goals, I think, are also about being something or someone. To the second meaning, focusing too much on the something or someone can take us from the present, the only place where we are being.

Being is stillness in motion, filling each moment with presence and attention.

My friend gave me a trick to enter this being underwater: simply count each stroke. Pull, glide, kick — one… So, in the pool and out, I am counting moments, focusing on the who, what, where of the present. You and I are going somewhere, but we can slow down. There’s no rush. It will come.

Joseph McDonough is a senior in Kirkland studying Philosophy and Russian