The Third Something

119 / Aquanimity

The power of radical acceptance; or - what I talk about when I talk about swimming

A panel from Aquanimity, a comic by Adam Westbrook

Sorry Murakami, I hate running. It makes my knees ache, fills my lungs with smog and, at the end of a run (largely spent dodging traffic), my chest hurts so much I want to die.

On the other hand, I love swimming. I love the sound of the lapping water, the sensation of cold and bubbles as I plunge into the deep end; and, at the end of a swim, as I pull myself out of the pool, my muscles are buzzing, my heart beats joyously; and (being in cool water) I feel warm, but not hot.

I swim three times a week in a victorian bath house rescued from demolition. I don’t count laps or anything like that; I note the time as I jump in and then keep going for 30 minutes.

Physically, my lung capacity has improved (at least recovered to pre-Covid levels), I’m a bit more hench (or so C says) and it has almost completely eradicated my back pain.

But the real benefits are in my head.

A panel from Aquanimity, a comic by Adam Westbrook

I’ve found swimming to be a great teacher of equanimity.

This is a calm and balanced state of mind that comes from a kind of radical acceptance of the world around you. Rather than challenging your circumstances, you allow them; rather than judging them you accept they are neither good, nor bad — they simply are; and rather than wishing they be over (or indeed, never end), you appreciate that nothing lasts forever.

If you meditate or use any of the apps, phrases like this might sound familiar — equanimity is the state of mind the voices on Calm and Headspace encourage us to find.

But I don’t think you find equanimity by thinking about it; you must be stubbornly challenged into this radical acceptance.

And that’s where swimming comes in.

Because as much as I love being in the pool, like all activities, it is ruined by that great nemesis of tranquility: Other People.

And of all the Other People, Other Swimmers are the worst.

Protected by the anonymity of their goggles, Other Swimmers act as if they are the only person using the lane: they swim insistently at their own pace — either too fast or too slow — oblivious of the people around them, showing no apparent interest in maintaining a gap between others; worst of all, they’ll linger at the end of a lane until you’re right behind them before they push off, forcing you to interrupt your swim to keep a distance.

You can’t help but think “they did that on purpose!”

A panel from Aquanimity, a comic by Adam Westbrook

And like this, swimming forces you to accept your circumstances. For raging at a random swimmer is like screaming at the clouds: it won’t change anything and will send you mad.

Running teaches you equanimity too, to be sure, as do many other activities; but unless you’re a millionaire, swimming forces you to share a space with other people like no other.

Three days a week, I hope the pool is empty and find it’s full; I hope the other swimmers will keep a pace and find they don’t; I hope no-one will do backstroke, but they do.

And I am reminded again:

It is neither good nor bad, it simply is…

...allow it...


(By the way, the illustrations above are still-unfinished panels from a short story I have been drawing this summer, also titled Aquanimity. It’s a dramatised version of these ideas. Readers of my pop-up newsletter have been receiving weekly updates as I have been drawing it. You’ll get to read it in my forthcoming collection later in the year!)

Until another Sunday soon,

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