Easwaran’s Talks & Writings

Learning to Swim

By Eknath Easwaran

My friends’ children have been learning to swim, and throughout the summer I received glowing reports about how well they were doing. At the beginning, I remember, the children themselves turned in a very different story. “Just looking at all that water makes me scared,” they told me. “I’ll never be able to swim!” They believed that, and they acted on it. When their parents drove them into town for lessons, there was wailing and gnashing of teeth all along the road. 

Now these same children have invited me to preside over their graduation from swimming school. They look forward to coming to the pool now; they swim back and forth, play games underwater, even dive in the deep end. This did not come about overnight. It came through hard work, under the guidance of a good swimming teacher who knows just how to demonstrate the strokes and skills she wants her pupils to develop.

The transformation starts in the “kiddie pool,” where drowning is difficult even if you have a talent for it. There the children learn to duck their heads under the water and hold their breath. They learn to blow bubbles. They hold on to the side and learn to kick.

Finally comes time for the big pool, of which they are scared stiff. This is only natural; after all, the water is over their heads. To their vivid imaginations, drowning is too distinct a possibility to ignore, lifeguard or no lifeguard. And it looks so far from one side to the other!

Partly they are persuaded into the water; partly, I suspect, they are pushed. They feel this is a monstrous unkindness. “We’re land creatures,” they want to argue. “Why should we learn to get along in an alien element?” That is a logical question. But after a while, through guidance and experience, they lose that fear of the water. Now they are at home in the pool.

We accept this as a natural part of a child’s education. Learning to do stunts in the water is part of growing up.

If we never get the opportunity to see somebody do such wonderful things in the mental world, it is mainly because our civilization offers no real facilities for training the mind. But with the right training, any of us can learn to be at home in the world of the mind, just as those children learned to be at home in the water.

 Classical Indian mysticism compares the mind to a lake, which for most of us is continually lashed into waves by the winds of emotional stimulus and response. The real storm winds are four: anger, fear, greed, and self-will. One or another is generally blowing; if it’s not the southerly, it’s a nor’wester. As a result, the water is in a constant state of agitation. Even when the surface appears calm, murky currents are stirring underneath.

Through meditation and the other powerful allied disciplines, however, the lake of the mind can be made absolutely clear. When not even a ripple disturbs the surface, you can look into the crystal waters of the mind and see the very bottom: the divine ground of existence which is the basis of our personality.

Christian mystics call this center of personality “the Christ within.” In Sanskrit it is called simply Atman, “Self.” But the Buddha did not even go that far. He made no attempt at all to tell us what we shall see there. Always practical, he leaves the labels to us; his job is to get us to make the discovery ourselves. “You don’t have to accept anybody’s word for this,” he would say. “Dive deep and see for yourself what you find.” Despite all the words that scholars have written on this subject, we can understand this supreme discovery only when we experience it ourselves. This is the great paradox of mysticism: until you enter nirvana, to use the Buddha’s term, you will not be able to understand what nirvana is.

We can get an intriguing clue, however, through this image of the lake of the mind, which fits well with the Buddha’s concept of consciousness. On the surface level of awareness, everyone seems separate. We look different, wear different clothes, have different speech patterns, different ambitions, different conditioning. This is the physical level of awareness, below which the vast majority of us cannot see because of the agitation of the mind.

Just below the surface is the level of personal, individual consciousness, a comparatively shallow region which is easily stirred by the winds of sense impressions and emotions. The more physically oriented we are – that is, the more we identify with our bodies and feelings – the more caught up we will be in this mind-world of constantly changing forms. In this state it can be quite a chore to get close to other people; all our awareness is caught in the things that make us seem separate from them and unique. Their differences seem to keep getting in our way.

Underlying this level, largely unsuspected, is what the Buddha calls alaya-vijnana: “storehouse consciousness,” the depths of the collective unconscious. There is only one alaya-vijnana; at bottom, everyone’s unconscious is one and the same. The deeper we get, the more clearly we shall see that our differences with others are superficial, and that ninety-nine percent of what we are is the same for all.

To the extent that we can turn our back on our petty, private mind-world and learn to dive into deeper consciousness, we can free ourselves from the influence of the storms that stir up those shallow waters at the surface. At the same time, as we get deeper, we move closer and closer to other people; we feel closer to life as a whole. This, in effect, is what learning to swim in the unconscious is all about.

I have read of people who can race along on a Harley Davidson and leap over a row of cars. This is an accomplishment, I agree. It requires daring, training, and resolution. But of what real use is it? By contrast, with that same kind of daring, you can learn to go deep-sea diving in the fathomless lake of the mind. In our contemporary world, when most people, I think, feel helplessly at sea, this is a vital gift. When you master it, your life becomes a beacon that others can follow.

The mind, of course, has been the subject of very serious study. But from the point of view of spiritual psychology, how can we expect to understand the mind by using the same methods we use to study the physical universe? The very concept of entering the unconscious while conscious is beyond the scope of our imagination. We identify ourselves with the mind, so how can we expect to study it objectively? As long as we believe we are the mind, we take for granted that we can find fulfillment by catering to its demands and living for its private satisfactions. And as long as we remain at the surface like this, we can never see through the mind clearly. We have little choice but to be tossed about like a toy boat in its fierce storms.

But we can learn a different perspective. In meditation we discover that we are not the mind. It is an inner world of its own, an environment we can learn to move through. Just as those children now go to the pool with eagerness on their faces, when I find tempests rising in the mind I have learned to swim with joy. I can dive to the bottom and bring up pearls, the infinite inner resources that are the legacy of us all. Instead of feeling threatened by adverse circumstances, I can remain calm and help to change those circumstances. Instead of moving away from difficult people I can actually enjoy their company, move closer to them, and win them over.

This vast treasury is within the reach of all. Sri Ramakrishna, one of the greatest mystics India has ever produced, sang ecstatically of what waits to be discovered at the seabed of consciousness:

Dive deep, O mind, dive deep
In the Ocean of God’s Beauty;
If you descend to the uttermost depths,
There you will find the gem of Love. . .  

Once we have learned to dive deep in meditation, there is no end to the resources we can bring to our daily life; there is no challenge we will be unable to meet. Each morning we can descend to the depths and gather armloads of precious jewels: breathtaking gems of love and wisdom, lustrous pearls of patience and compassion. We can distribute them freely, knowing we have an infinite inheritance from which to draw every day.


This article is an excerpt from Eknath Easwaran's book Conquest of Mind