Neutral Buoyancy: Mindful Weightlessness

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I have experienced one of the most incredible feelings imaginable to a human being: total weightlessness. I did this during a recent challenge I took on to learn scuba diving. Me, a few friends, and my two teenagers all went through a PADI Open Water Scuba class over the last 4 weeks. It was one of the scariest things I have tried to do and it taught me a lot about myself and true mindfulness. This is a class where to panic is to really put yourself into what could potentially be a catastrophic situation, has the potential to even be life threatening (not to mention the fact that both of my teenagers were watching my every move and I had my “cool mom” image to uphold).

For those of you who have done Scuba diving, you know how amazing it is. I have not had the opportunity to find a new hobby in many years, and am happy to report that this is no longer true. Scuba diving opens up an entirely new world of discovery that is not often available to the human eye in real time, up close and personal. I absolutely LOVE it. Going through certification was no piece of cake and in fact I had to really fight through a lot of my mental fears to pull it off.

To get certified in Monterey, CA (where our ocean dive location was) means you need to be covered from head to toe in two layers of 7 mil neoprene. Just to squeeze your body into what feels like a sausage casing is a calorie burning triumph in and of itself. This is especially fun when you are doing your in pool training (over 16 hours) in an indoor pool that feels like a steam room. Sweat is running down your exposed circle of a face as you do “buddy” checks with your classmates to check on all of your gear. Putting on the scuba gear (BCD, Gloves, Boots, Fins, Masks, Hoods, Weight Belts, etc.) is brutal. By the time you are totally geared up you weigh about 70 pounds more than you did before you got to class. Walking around, into the pool, down to the ocean shore, across the lawn, etc. is probably the hardest part of doing scuba at all. But don’t fret. If my daughter at 100 pounds can do it, so can you.

One of first skills you practice in the pool is achieving neutral buoyancy. This feeling is like having the ability to hover above the ground/ocean floor with absolutely no effort by being totally weightless. This feels like nothing else I have experienced. This is like space man walking on the moon kind of cool. You practice this in the pool with nothing to look at but your fellow classmates, but when you have the chance to get in the ocean, you feel like you have just achieved enlightenment. You hover above the ocean floor and are surrounded by the most beautiful sights you can imagine. Your mind clears and it is all you can do to hover, maintain constant breathing and totally relax. It is the epitome of mindful awareness.

The entire experience took about 50 hours of preparation before you even get to the ocean in classroom time, test taking, at home studying, video review, and in pool skills practice. You really have to be dedicated to want to go through the program to finish. The skills can be really hard and terrifying and at times cause you to want to go into a full blown panic. I found myself looking for the calming eyes of my instructors (thanks Ray and Bob!) many times and forcibly calming myself down with breathing that I teach my clients who are feeling a panic attack. It is unnatural to be breathing under water and the class forces you to go through every possible emergency experience that is a potentiality to prepare you in the unlikely event that one occurs.

The hardest skill that I had to master was fully removing my mask at the ocean floor at 25 feet below the surface. I had no problem doing this in the 10 foot swimming pool bottom, but at the 52 degree ocean floor, it was unnerving. The very idea that you cannot shoot to the surface if you panic, to get clear of the water, causes your heart rate to increase and your mind to yell at you to breathe in through your nose with your mask removed (which would of course cause you to drown). You have to pull it off, flood your face with freezing water (eyes closed), then replace your mask and snorkel and completely clear your mask before opening your eyes. Trying to get a mask on your face without catching your wetsuit hood on the edges and twisting up the straps with these giant bulky neoprene gloves on is ridiculously nerve racking…and of course then you need to override your brain and keep yourself from breathing in. Oh yeah, then clear out the water from your mask.

I blog a lot about how to pursue your own best authentic life. I write about following your passions and if you don’t know what those are, finding them by trying new things. What it’s like to challenge your body, mind and thoughts occupies my work in the therapy office and in my writing. I must admit that I feel like an entirely new door has opened up for me in a way I could not have even imagined by finding this brand new hobby. What a gift to have given myself and I had no idea it would be this good.

I did not want to learn how to scuba dive. I was perfectly fine snorkeling at the surface. I did it for my partner who was always asking around for a diving buddy and having no luck finding a reliable person to go with. I was terrified about clearing my ears as I descended, panicking at the bottom of the ocean, not being able to clear my mask, set up my equipment, or embarrass my 45 year old self by failing miserably and breaking down with the stress of it all.

I pushed through over the first few weeks not finding enjoyment at all to be honest. Then I was able to finally achieve neutral buoyancy at the bottom of the pool for the first time, and I realized what it felt like to feel none of the everyday weight we experience walking around as human beings on our earth, and I began to see the potential. I still had no idea what it would be like to get on to the ocean floor, and I must report it was beyond expectation. Taking a risk and trying something new can be overwhelming, but when it turns into a newly discovered passion, the resulting feeling is infectious. I want everyone I care about and know to go out and discover what I have learned. I’m probably going to get irritating to my friends by talking of nothing else. I want to share the joy of taking a risk and having it pay off so handsomely. This may not be your thing. Find something else and give it a shot. No regrets. It may not work out, but at least you have opened up your mind to new experiences. My only regret is that I waited this long to get going. I want to scuba the world!

Stacey Neil is a Licensed Psychotherapist and Personal Trainer in private practice in Los Gatos, California. She can be reached at 408.827.5139.

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