The ocean terrifies me. Not just in a minor way and not just on occasion: swimming in the ocean sends an electric shock of panic down my spine. However, this wasn’t always so.
One year on vacation, my fear of the ocean cemented itself into a tangible, concrete fear. I was vacationing in Florida with my family, balanced on a boogie board with my eyes closed in the warm sunshine unaware that I was floating gently out to sea.
I don’t know how much time passed, but suddenly my mother’s voice was calling out my name, distant and far away. I remember opening my eyes, looking down, and catching a glimpse of the very large shadow of a fish just beneath me. I panicked, fell off the board, and got another surge of panic when I could not feel the sand beneath me. I paddled in furiously riding my panicked adrenaline rush.
For the rest of that vacation, I would not enter the water past my knees. I felt gut-wrenching terror every time I pictured that shadow. I could not get over it. What if that shadow had been a shark? What if my mother had not been paying attention, and I drifted out too far? What sorts of other creatures lay beneath the murky blue surface, hungry, wild, dangerous?
I began to build the ocean up in my head as a terribly dangerous place with rip tides and creatures that eat you alive, an infinite stretch of blue water that would swallow me up if I went in. I did not understand how other people could just float lazily on its surface, heads turned up, eyes closed, unaware of the potential perils that lay beneath them.
Then, in Puerto Rico with my mother, we passed a booth advertising a snorkeling trip. In the spirit of change, experiences, and maturity, I decided to do it. Soon enough, I found myself unnervingly committed to my decision as I sat on a boat full of cheery people oblivious to my apprehension.
The boat anchored a few hundred feet away from an island, and suddenly everyone was jumping into the water as I sat adjusting and readjusting my mask, making conversation with the boat owner to stall.
“Wait, so how does it work again? And have you ever left anyone behind?” I made sure he was memorizing my face as we chatted.
“You’re ready! Jump in! Water’s warm!” He said laughing.
It was sort of like climbing to the top of the water slide, and the only way down was just to do it.
One flipper at a time, I slipped into the water with just so many things to fear. As my mask slid under the surface of the water, I began to hyperventilate at the sight of how alive the ocean was. A huge school of large dark, purple-black fish were swimming idly right beneath me, eyeing my awkward figure. Panic pushed me up above the surface at first, but in a moment I decided simply to accept my fate.
It was a strange thing, using my mind to get out of my mind. The constant feeling that a shark was going to come speeding out of the blue and attack me, the fear of being stung by something foreign and terrifying, the fear of drowning, of getting left behind, still entered my mind. Yet, for the first time, I found the ability to accept I had no fear and, by accepting it, make it real. Whenever I felt scared, I forced myself to focus on the beauty of the fish’s stripes, the inexplicable mystery of all the different colors, shapes, contours; the sheer amount of life that lay before me.
As soon as I discovered the trigger, the button to turn my thoughts off, I also became acutely aware of just how quiet the ocean was. It is serene under the water. Time and the rest of the world and all the people that I knew seemed to liquefy into my subconscious as I was carried by waves, floating slowly over the reefs, watching fish play and plants sway, feeling invisible.
It appears that, from time to time, it is an unavoidable characteristic of the mind to turn small fears into physical barriers.
Fear has an odd way of dictating our lives, an odd way of seeping into our minds, a way of holding us back from really living. But if the mind alone is so powerful, why can’t we use it to break down barriers?