Breathe in, breathe out
Exploding eardrums. Collapsed lungs. Leaky regulator. As the scuba diving instructor mentioned potential safety issues that may arise from poor scuba diving techniques, I couldn’t get my mind off of the ever-looming dread of death. The actual probability of a scuba diving disaster was very low, of course — the instructor wanted everyone to be safe. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the snorkeling debacle that happened the day before.
The previous day, I tried snorkeling in Maui. How snorkeling works is simple: instead of using your nose to breathe, you use your mouth. This should be easy — after all, everyone can breathe with their mouth, at least above water. I, however, struggled to let this fact reassure me that everything would be fine. The moment I plunged my head in the water, panic flooded my system. I can’t breathe. I can’t do this anymore. I am going to die.
A few seconds later, I ripped off the snorkel from my mouth and gasped for air, choking on the strong, salty seawater. I wanted to call it quits, but seeing my dad and brother snorkel with ease made me want to try again. And the same thing happened. Frustrated, I gave up and went back to shore. A day later, the idea of entering the ocean still felt like a death sentence to me.
“I’m scared,” I mumbled to my instructor. I didn’t want to pretend that everything was fine, yet at the same time, I didn’t want my personal problems to slow down the rest of the group.
“It’s okay. It’s all about the nerves. You can practice using the regulator like a snorkel before scuba diving.”
I put on the regulator and hesitated for a few seconds before submerging my head in the water. When I exhaled, I saw a plethora of bubbles emerge from the regulator, and the same paralyzing fear came back again. I am drowning, I am drowning. I went up to the surface right away and took many short, rapid breaths as if I was on the verge of dying.
I felt embarrassed and didn’t want to disappoint the instructor anymore. Breathing is one of the most primitive things a human can do, so what made scuba diving so hard for me? Sure, breathing through your mouth is different from through your nose, but in the end, it’s still breathing. It wasn’t the swimming factor — I learned how to swim at an early age. “Think of meditation. Breathe in … and breathe out,” the instructor said with a soothing voice. I kept repeating these words like a mantra in my head, slowing down my breathing and listening to my rhythmic breath before trying again.
Being a pessimist, I anticipated things to fail again, but this time I was surprised that I managed to stay submerged after exhaling. I was still unfamiliar with using the regulator, but after a couple of breaths, I gradually developed a natural breathing rhythm. Within a few minutes, I went from being frightened of scuba diving to loving the magic superpower of breathing underwater. I felt invincible.
The forty minutes I spent scuba diving was probably one of the few times in my life that I was solely focused on the present. I had never experienced true silence before. As I scuba dive, I listen to the deep breaths I take and don’t let other thoughts distract me. I feel the gentle rise of my chest as I inhale and the slow movement of my lungs as I breathe out. The usually omnipresent buzz of my never-ending thoughts comes to a pause. It is as if the ocean has this switch that turns off the busy part of my mind. I’ve tried guided meditation numerous times before, but scuba diving was so much more powerful.
The physical sensations I experience underwater while scuba diving are unparalleled. Even past experiences of swimming can’t compare to what I currently feel: a sense of weightlessness. I am not sinking or ascending, just floating above the reefs as if experiencing zero gravity. I am amazed by how close I am to being an astronaut. I love gliding effortlessly in the ocean, only needing the gentle kicking of my feet to propel me forward, unlike the frantic arm movements and constant head rotation in swimming.
Scuba diving is like going back to kindergarten: reviving the childlike quality of finding joy in the small things. Fish of all kinds swim past, creating a swirl of colors, stripes, and shapes that dazzle me. A surprise unfolds before me as I see a small eel slither through the coral reefs. Even the act of touching a red pencil urchin for the first time gives me delight. I expected the sea urchin to feel rough and coarse due to its spiky appearance, but it is smooth instead.
The best part of the scuba diving experience was seeing a sea turtle roam freely in the pristine waters of Maui, a sight no aquarium will ever match. When I am ten feet from the turtle, time slows down. What I experience doesn’t feel like reality, but rather some dream in which I’ve entered a National Geographic documentary about Earth’s precious oceans. The turtle’s graceful, peaceful movements in water stun me. Sunlight shines on the turtle as if it is a spotlight and the turquoise background of the water complements the scene. For a brief moment in time, I feel like I am a nature photographer. My emerging thoughts are like the beams of light from above, radiating in all directions. This is what a photographer feels when they get to see wildlife with their naked eye, the reward of getting a beautiful shot. A warm feeling of gratitude for having the opportunity to witness one of nature’s greatest beauties fills my body, something I hadn’t expected from just seeing a sea turtle.
When the sea turtle swims away and I begin ascending to the surface of the water, I think about how many firsts in my life happened in the past hour: feeling weightless, swimming with a sea turtle, etc. I also reflect upon how scuba diving made me grow a lot as a person as it forced me to confront one of my biggest fears. The only way to overcome a fear is by facing it; coming up with mental strategies beforehand can only do so much. Having the awareness that I can go against my expectations, I feel that more adventurous experiences are closer to my reach than before. Whether it is flying a hot-air balloon or parasailing, I am more open to trying these risk-seeking activities. I may be nervous, but I will try to quiet my thoughts.
Breathe in. Breathe out.