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A Balanced Way; Daoist Tips for 21st Century Living: The Trick Is To Keep Swimming

by Vicki McKenna(more info)

listed in chinese oriental medicine, originally published in issue 156 - March 2009

This summer I went swimming,
This summer I might have drowned
But I held my breath and I kicked my feet
And I moved my arms around,
I moved my arms around.
  – Loudon Wainwright 111 Swimming Song

Greatness in Small Things

After contracting polio as a baby it was deemed, thankfully, that swimming would be good therapy for me. So I learnt to swim, and by the time I was 18 months-old I was splashing freely in pools, rivers and in the sea. It was and is a wonderful thing to feel fully mobile and free of gravity. It feels good to be able to let go of my cumbersome calliper and move swiftly and easily through the water. Ever since childhood I have swum regularly, and now at the ripe old age of 58 I swim three times a week. I taught all four of my daughters to swim, and I realize now that through swimming we have all learned a great deal about life from the art of keeping afloat in the water.

As I make my way through the water I remain very focused on simply moving my limbs and breathing. The trick is to keep swimming. What a helpful metaphor for handling life's challenges! Lao Tzu the Daoist sage suggests that to "achieve greatness in little great things while they are still small" (63rd verse of the Dao De Ching). If you concentrate on the end result by focusing on the future, or worrying about past performance, you will feel overwhelmed. Instead Lao Tzu tells us to stay in the present moment, small stages of your project – in this way you can effortlessly handle whatever comes up. Too often we obsess with the 'bigger picture', analyzing past performance and agitating about future outcomes. Instead, we need to take life a stroke at a time – we need to just keep swimming, keep breathing, staying effortlessly afloat!

I have recognized that if, before I get in the water, I visualize the lengths I am about to swim I can feel discouraged – there suddenly seems to be an awful lot of work in front of me. If, on the other hand, I just start to swim freely, in the moment, letting go of the discouraging chatterbox mind and instead feel the water enfolding me, then I soon find I am in the flow – at one with swimming.  By becoming aware of nothing else save the movement my limbs make in the water, and of my breathing, there is no swimmer and water – just swimming.

When faced with life's challenges the trick really is to keep, metaphorically, swimming.  At the time of writing this we are all facing the so called 'credit crunch' and a time of contraction in the economy. Many people are worrying about losing their jobs and having their homes repossessed. We may not be able to control the economy as a whole, but we do have control over our attitude towards the situation we find ourselves in. We can choose not to drain our energy by focusing on the worries of our inner chatterbox – that voice of doom and gloom – but instead choose to focus on the present moment. In this way energy can be protected so that we are strong to meet whatever challenges come our way.

If whilst reading this you are feeling unwell, frustrated, sad, worried, fearful and generally discouraged, remember to stop trying to hang onto how things were or how you feel things should be. Dropping the past and letting go of future expectations puts you slap bang into this one moment – the only time there is. As Lao Tzu said, "do great things while they are still small". To resolve challenging times in your life, start with the little things that are available to you in the present; breathe, relax your shoulders, affirm 'Right here, right now, all is well'.

Floating Exercise

Floating, like swimming, is a great way of learning to let go of the chatterbox mind that is always thinking and planning. Whilst floating, you are simply being in the water – breathing and letting yourself go with the flow. Try floating next time you are in a pool, allowing yourself to totally surrender, let go and trust the water to buoy you up. Feel the serenity that comes from accepting and disregarding the incessant chatter of your mind whilst relaxing into your own watery space.  Release everything that causes you stress and simply be in the water.


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About Vicki McKenna

Vicki McKenna BA Lic Ac trained at The College of Traditional Chinese Acupuncture in Leamington Spa with Professor Worsley from 1981 gaining her Lic Ac. in 1984 and has been practising acupuncture in Scotland since then. Her book A Balanced Way Of Living; Practical and Holistic Strategies for Coping with Post Polio Syndrome is available from 


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