Ocean swimming as meditation

I am in Hawaii, working and exploring and writing—and, for the first time in my life, swimming in the ocean. Not just playing in the water, but I mean, really swimming. Laps along the shoreline at gentle beaches like Lanikai, and yesterday for the first time in my life, swimming out a little further to deeper waters off Waikiki, beyond what seemed possible before I arrived here just two weeks ago.

Boing Boing pal Brian Lam (a periodic guest contributor to our blog) lives on the island of Oahu, and invited me to come out here after my cancer treatment ended for restoration and a reboot. I took him up on his kind offer, and the experience has been deeply transformative in so many ways.

Brian has been my swim mentor, and has taught me a lot about the ocean during this visit. Last night, we visited a longtime ocean-lover and Hawaii yoga teacher, Rick Bernstein. That's him in the photo above. He has studied yoga and meditation in India, Bhutan, and elsewhere, and has taught those practices here in Honolulu for 38 years. For years, his daily routine has included a deep water swim of more than two miles along the shore of Waikiki, often accompanied by a pod of dolphins, turtles, beautiful schools of fish, or manta. For him, swimming is a form of meditation, a devotional act.

Last night, Rick read this essay aloud to us. It was so beautiful. And so meaningful, just a few hours after a literally deep experience: my first deeper-water ocean swim. Here is a snip, as it was published on Scuttlefish:

Swimming easily, On Mani Padme Hum fills my mind, one complete utterance per four rhythmic strokes. The depth increases from ten to twenty, then thirty to forty feet as I move further from shore and into the vastness of the Divine Mother in the guise of ocean. Om Mani Padme Hum. I have heard two definitions of “Om Mani Padme Hum”. “Hail the jewel in the lotus” and “ God is the crystal river running through the lotus in my heart”.

The imagery I use while chanting: Light energy streaming into the crown of my head and flowing down and out through my heart. I think of it as an energy that unifies everyone and everything across time and space, a cosmic love in. Om Mani Padme Hum.

A quarter mile swath of coral reef now lies behind and the open ocean beckons. When I entered the water at Kaimana Beach, the sandy expanse and near shore waters were occupied by beachgoers enjoying the morning. After swimming seaward for fifteen minutes, the beach appears deserted in the distance and glistens in the morning sun. Framed by Coconut trees and Diamond Head Crater, it is a beautiful sight. Om Mani Padme Hum.

Salty Stories: One Stroke Follows Another (Rick Bernstein, thescuttlefish.com)

Follow @scuttlefish on Twitter.


  1. How the hell can you meditate swimming in Hawaii? The whole time I was in the ocean in Hawaii all I kept thinking was tiger shark, tiger shark, TIGER SHARK!

        1. I see what you did there.

          [edit: weirdly, your Amity comment vanished and orphaned mine to the top of the list. I didn’t like the contrasts of apparent snark of my comment without context vs Xeni’s wonderful piece. Fixed now. It’s safe to go back in the water.]

      1. Same for the beaches here on Maui where I’ve been swimming almost daily, but once I go beyond 100 yards from the shore the question, “Is today the day?” emerges.

        It comes as a quick fright, especially when you move from the horrible scenarios that could happen in the ocean to worrying about those you leave behind.

        However, what is makes the whole process worthwhile is the acceptance and the appreciation of what we have in the now.  You come out of the sea as a better person; both physically and mentally.

        I don’t want to die, but I do want to enjoy my life and swimming deep in the ocean in Hawaii is a deeply intimate and personal experience.

        …the wind has been nuts recently, making deeper swims even more interesting…

    1.  From Wikipedia – The tiger shark is considered to be sacred na ʻaumakua (ancestor spirits) by some native Hawaiians

      Some people love ’em.  I surf, and get sharky feelings all the time.  I’ve had schools of hammerheads swim under me, and been informed by the locals ‘just don’t step on one’.

      The sea is lovely.

      1. Fair enough.  Good article.  I feel similarly about dogs.  THey have all these sharp teeth, and lots of people are scared of them, but I’ll just walk up to them and look them in the eye and if they’re being annoying, I’ll grab their snout or stick my hand in their mouth.  Sure they could bite me, but they know I’m not going to stand for any shit.  So, the shark ethos is similar.  Identify yourself, go the other way, and if they get curious bop them on the nose.  Ocean swimming is wonderful, especially in calm waters.  I do it a lot when I’m down in VI.  So peaceful and quiet.

          1. Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherfucking sharks on this motherfucking underwater research staaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh!

    1. As my brother always said about abalone diving in Tomales Bay (A breeding area for great whites. It’s the northern point of the red triangle.):
      You’re in FAR greater danger on the drive to the beach. Those automobile thingies and insane drivers are DANGEROUS.

      1. it’s true. Sharks don’t like eating humans. We’re not their intended prey. It’s my understanding that surfers and SUPers are at greater risk than swimmers in part because the sharks can mistake them for turtles; swimmers may be able to see them coming a bit better.

  2. I grew up living in a peninsula in Venezuela. Surrounded by beaches i understand the tranquility not just of the ocean, but of the act of immersing yourself in the water. Even if your thoughts are elsewhere, you’ll eventually find yourself enjoying the peacefulness. I spent almost every day of my youth in the ocean or in a pool, and i miss it terribly as i’m stuck mainland in Texas.

    There are different methods of relaxation, and meditation but my advice is to just enjoy the water and the feeling of being in something incomprehensibly vast like the ocean. Though works just as great in a pool.. take the time to enjoy the moment.

  3. Not sure why this popped into my head but I’m reminded of the only episode of Magnum PI that has really stuck with me through the years.

    Season 4 “Home from the Sea” has Magnum treading water for hours in the ocean after he’s knocked off his surf ski.  Throughout his ordeal he flashes back to his childhood and reminisces on his relationship with his father.  Powerful stuff for cheesy early 80’s TV drama.

    Found it on Netflix streaming: http://movies.netflix.com/Movie/Magnum_P.I._Season_4_Home_from_the_Sea/70234974

  4. I can fully understand the meditative qualities of swimming in Hawaii,  The high salt content of the water makes floating and swimming almost effortless.

  5. I love ocean swimming.  I started doing triathlons in my 30s and I was a poor swimmer when I started.  I was swallowing water and getting anxious at first, causing my swims to be exhausting as I expended myself trying to stay afloat by treading and kicking.  As I practiced more, I began to trust the ocean – trust the water – or rather the physics behind buyoancy… i allowed my neck to relax and bring my head down into the water. This lifted my feet up and positioned my body into an efficient horizontal profile.  The swim became relaxed and pleasant as my breathing slowed and I trusted the water to keep me afloat without having to kick or fight against it. I never got very fast but I really came to appreciate the experience of swimming in the sea.

  6. You may want to think about carrying a small inflatable float with you, such as a Scuba SMB.   Makes it easier for the boats to avoid you :)

  7. I surf here in the San Francisco area, which is obviously lots colder than Hawaii, but it has definitely taught me lots about that open ocean feeling you’re describing. You might enjoy the thing I’ve been exploring lately: sea kayaking. Its amazing how far you can go, especially as you build paddle strength, and its an absolutely amazing way to explore the shoreline.

    There’s lots of different kayak designs out there, and beware the beginner friendly models… If you rent something, ask for something that “tracks”, meaning keeps a straight line as you paddle. That means it can handle wind and wind waves much better. Start by going short distances, and after a week you’ll be ready for much longer rides. And of course you can dive off for a swim/snorkel wherever you’d like.

  8. Lovely essay, thank you.
    Hawaii may be one of our 50 states, but it’s quite often a different state of mind for sure.
    I love it.

  9. thank you for writing this… swimming in the ocean has always been meditative for me and I used to think I’m an odd ball for feeling that way. Being one one with the ocean feels like I am back in the womb again, safe and loved. Thanks.

  10. We swim at the cove every day here in San Diego at 9:30, join us sometime.  The water is a brisk 56 recently.  Got to see some gray whales breaching right off the coast a few weeks ago.  I also saw a Mola Mola last fall.

  11. Thanks Xeni. This is just what I needed to read at 5am in Santa Cruz. I grew up in Cocoa Beach where the water is always warm, but never clear. From what I keep noticing, there are a lot of wise souls in Hawaii.

    (:Wish you an ocean of healing.

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