I slip into the silky dark waters of the swimming pond on London’s Hampstead Heath, on a misty October morning. The water is bracingly cold and it takes me a few strokes to catch my breath. But I’m in and it’s like swimming in the earth itself, immersed, cradled, held by the planet that gave me birth and will one day take me back again.
In the inky water, in moments, the feeling of separateness I carry with me everywhere unravels and with it, I stop being afraid.
The strong and convincing feeling of separateness is, for many of us, one of the unquestioned givens of life. It’s rooted first in the way our bodies are separated from one another by the physical rupture of our birth, after which what seems to be ‘me’ ends where our skin meets air. It’s reinforced strongly in the culture of individualism and detachment in which we live. And although there is truth to it – we each follow a course through life that in many ways is ours alone – our sense of being separate fuels much of our fear, and our grasping, and our loneliness. Because as well as wanting autonomy we long to be held, and met and seen, in ways that our commitment to otherness from the world can’t address.
This is what I remember most fully, every time I enter the water. I am water, earth, air and sky. My earth-made body has already charted a course from infancy to adulthood that is shared by every human that ever lived long enough to do so, and will age and eventually die of its own accord. It is a body which was gifted to me by billions of ancestors without my say-so; a body which has contours, shapes, organs, possibilities and preferences I did not choose, that come from this giant endeavour which we call ‘being human’. I remember again that the separate self that seems so obvious to me is also an expression of something that dwarfs me, includes me, and brings me forth, vast in time and mystery and breadth. And that it is such a relief, and such a joy, to have found a reliable way to remember myself this way.