We all know the rush of one certain kind of rhythm – the bliss that comes when you become so invested, so ‘lost,’ in an activity that you are no longer thinking, but simply doing.
It is the feeling that allows the marathoner to let her legs carry her body even through the muscle fatigue without the brain being involved; it impels the jazz guitarist to close his eyes and nod his head seemingly randomly as he listens to the licks and trills that his fingers have in mind; it enables the practiced gardener to automatically and unthinkingly find the weeds that must be pulled; it even lets the proactive college student swiftly fold through an entire stack of freshly laundered clothes as he foggily wonders why his head throbs so much on a Sunday morning, and allows the tax consultant to, well, hmm, do whatever a tax consultant finds rhythmic, I guess...
Anyway, some call it ‘tapping into the flow,’ and others say ‘becoming one with the task.’ The metronome of this rhythm, the thing that sets the pace, can be the sound of an evenly paced stride hitting the gravel, or the familiar *snap* as the last of the weed’s roots lets go of the ground. Intense breathing is crucial, as well, whether it comes from the muscles’ burning of oxygen, or from the nervousness and racing heartbeat that come with performing.
Most important to the pulse of these experiences in my mind, however, are the contractions and relaxations of the muscles themselves. The tempo one feels during any one of these in-the-zone moments can be set by sounds, tactile sensations, visual cues, or whatever, but the manner by which the body-brain unit records and remembers the rhythm of the experience is through the repeated and complex interactions between the brain and the muscles. The brain sends movement commands, and in return receives information about where the body is in space, and what it feels. This deep interplay is central to the establishment of memories and emotions around the experience itself.
Okay, let's pause a moment here…why am I discussing rhythm? I’m trying to discover and describe one of the ways our brains make meaning from the experiences of our bodies.
Why is this relevant to me, and why now?
In searching for the basic reasons that I don’t feel the same as I used to, I have slowly come to understand that rhythm, and the lack thereof, is a key element.
Before heading off to college, I had many chances each day and week to find that “flow,” where doing takes over from thinking – during swimming practices, once or twice each day; pumping away in the bike saddle or clinging to a rock wall; laying filo with friends for a spanakopita; at the wheel, driving my carpool mates; or, very simply, waking up 30 minutes later than expected and having the panic of being late guide me, without my having time to think, to grab whatever I needed for the day before dashing out the door. Those actions are automatic, they’re not over-thought or, really, even ‘thought’ at all.
I do things necessarily more slowly now, and always with intention. This is sometimes a great way to go, because we all know everyone rushes too much, but we also just explored, above, how valuable it can be to go on ‘automatic’ with an activity, to commit less conscious attention and allow the body to take over, doing what it knows how to do from practice and untold repetition. That, it seems, requires a strong connection to muscles so they can learn and execute the movement – that connection is what I am working on, all day, every day, but there has to be a way to find that rhythm with a bit less connection...
Enter here the sport, and pure movement, of swimming.
It’s nothing like it used to be for me, but that does not mean it is ‘nothing’ itself. It’s actually quite something: there’s the freedom of moving without the effect of gravity, the tactile stimulation of water, the weightlessness of not sitting, the fact that I can get an intense cardio-workout, which is difficult to attain given how many fewer muscles are demanding oxygen like they once did.
I cannot properly articulate how incredibly frustrating it still is for me to struggle through my strokes, to have the ecstasy of their movements still so hard to achieve. But, I have had to work quite consciously to get over that, because I recognize how beneficial being in the water still is, particularly when it may be the best way for me to find rhythm.
My recent adoption of open-water swimming has been terrific because I am able to swim, without interruption, for a half-mile or more before I need to turn around. I can just GO, without care for walls or lane-lines or cannon-balling little tykes. After some time, I settle into a rhythm where my arms continue the motion, but I am no longer required to tell them what to do. Just as one begins a meditation by focusing on the automatic, regular pacing of breathing, so too can I focus on the automatic, regular pacing of the movements of my arms – simultaneously exhausting and calming, a state to which I have not had access while doing anything else.
Combine that with the RACE environments over the last two weekends and I am beginning to retrace a path toward the rapture of rhythm once again.