Open water swimming offers a luxury that few other activities provide: the ability to focus. Out of the water, we are constantly falling into the trap of over connectedness. The media and society tells us that the more connected we are, the better it is. Being connected brings some incredible benefits to society in general, and also to the open water swimming community, as Owen O’Keefe so perfectly summed up in his guest post “The close-knit global open water swimming scene“:
Open water swimming has an incredible global network of connections. This makes it possible for swimmers from all over the world to discuss their goals and their experiences, sharing their own piece of knowledge that might help someone else and improving the overall level of participation in our beautiful sport.
This connectedness has indeed allowed me to digitally meet brilliant and interesting swimmers all around the world from whom I learn how to better endure cold water swimming, better train for long distance swimming, and discover new swimming spots to add to my bucket list.
However, one of the perverse consequences of our digital connectedness is that we can become easily prey to our screens to the expense of our minds. William Powers, the author of Hamlet’s Blackberry points out that “screens undermine the serial focus that’s the essence of true productivity. Digital busyness is the enemy of depth”. This busyness takes our mind to jump from topic to topic without ever focusing in any one direction. There is even a new condition called nomophobia which refers to the fear of being out of mobile phone contact. Everywhere you look around, people stare at screens to find out what is going on with their own lives. In the subway, in the dentist, in the treadmill, in the car, at a cross walk waiting for the light to change, in the stationary bike, walking the dog. Pretty much everywhere, except swimming in open water.
In his book “Where Good Ideas Come From. The Natural History of Innovation”, Steven Johnson highlights the important role of serendipity in innovation. He writes about how the serendipitous collisions of ideas that lead to innovation are very often triggered during dreams, walks, long showers These are times when our brains are given the freedom to go to places without being constantly interrupted. Unfortunately it seems like instead of trying to maximize these high brain-productivity moments, we are more concerned about reducing them to the strictly minimum level. Here again, swimming provides one of the last refuges of freedom for the brain.
I would venture to say that open water swimmers, and particularly those that swim long distances, are among the collective groups that are most aware of the benefits of not subjecting your brain to self-imposed traffic jams. As Donal Buckley (aka Loneswimmer) states in a great recent post Swimming and Creativity:
I have my own personal evidence that it is only with the integration of swimming into my life that the creative aspects of my life have started to develop more fully from whatever limited ability I had previously. This creativity is expressed to whatever minor extent it has been in writing about swimming, and more recently and to a lesser extent, also in photography. I’ve even dabbled every so-lightly in swim poetry!
One of the questions in our recent survey X-Ray of Open Water Swimmers was “what do you think about when you swim in open water?”. 39% of swimmers said that they think about friends and family and 33% about work issues. This might be not that different from what we think outside of the water but I would bet that the level of depth and focus on these topics is greater when we are in the water than when we are on land. One of the most popular answers shared by half of the swimmers was that they think about “projects and dreams”. And a large number of swimmers wrote in the free field that what they think most about when they are swimming was “nothing”, “meditation”, “zoning out”. I would think that this is the swimming equivalent of slow-wave sleep.
Thinking clearly, focusing, and letting our minds freely roam is a luxury, and I believe that most swimmers are part of this privileged class. That is, until Google comes up with connected goggles, but I think that we are still a few years until Google Goggles hit the shelves.