Swimmer in space

Change is an axiom of life. The Buddha extends this concept to say the “I” doesn’t exist because the self is constantly changing and doesn’t have any inherent characteristics of its own. This is what the Buddhist concept of emptiness refers to. I thought I understood nonself until my swimming career, something I was passionate about and proud of, ended due to the pandemic.

I shouldn’t have liked swimming as much as I did. When I dove in for my first race, my goggles fell off and I got dead last in my heat. But the electricity of competition and the fire to improve kept me in the sport. As my swimming times got faster and the years went by, three times a week practices became six times a week and one hour practices became three. Before I knew it, swimming took over my life. And it was hard not to have life revolve around it. From the people I met to the opportunities I got to the lessons I learned, the sport shaped me into who I am today.

The greatest privilege from my talent and hard work has been swimming in college. If “who you are is what you do” is true, I was a swimmer. Everything I did revolved around training and meets. I fit classes around my practice schedule. I forwent late night suite hangouts because of morning practice. There wasn’t much to my extracurricular life because swimming dominated so much of it. That was until the pandemic.

Quarantine was a weird time for everyone, but I was still training out of the pool hopeful for some semblance of an athletic season. Then, in November 2020, news headlines flashed: Winter Sports Canceled due to Coronavirus Pandemic. My athletic career was done. At first, not being a swimmer anymore was fine – I still had my fitness. And I could maintain and improve it by running and going to the gym.

More than two years later, due to travel, work, and now a grad student schedule, even my fitness is slowly going away. My arms aren’t as muscular, running is harder, and my fitness isn’t as infallible as it used to be. As my name in the swimming world fades to a memory and my body loses its tone, the “proof” I was a swimmer is disappearing. It’s at this time that I’m reminded of the Buddha’s teachings about impermanence and non-self. Just as starting swimming was a turning point in my life, the end of it has marked another one.

In my meditations, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I cling so much to swimming and fitness. As a Buddhist and minimalist, I never thought of material attachment as all that hard to let go of. But in a world where your achievements and the answer to “what do you do?” come to define you, I’ve found it’s been much harder to shake attachment to the self. Slowly, I’ve been learning not to cling to someone I once was, or something I once did. I may not be a swimmer anymore, but nowadays I swim on occasion and it doesn’t frustrate me that I’ll never be as fast as I used to be. Ideally, I wouldn’t need to attribute anything to my identity, but I haven’t gotten to the point where I can completely accept nonself. For now, my weekend swims in the pool serve as a reminder of the impermanence of all things and an admonition to practice nonattachment.