Today I’m particularly thankful to be alive because yesterday I very nearly drowned.
The waves here in Mexico can come in pretty big with a fierce undertow and the beach where we are staying is known to be dangerous. We were swimming close to shore and the surf seemed sizeable but manageable. But then a huge wave came in – at least eight feet. I dived under it but the force of the water spun me around and held me down for a while and when I surfaced I was out of breath. Only to see another huge wave bearing down on me. The undertow dragged me further out and I had to dive under that wave as well. Then came another. Now it was getting difficult. Each time I came to the surface I felt more tired and I just had a couple of seconds to catch my breath before the next mountain of water fell on me. There was no way I could swim back towards the shore so long as these big waves kept coming. I was barely able to keep my head above water and I was tiring fast.
When I surfaced for the third time I saw that I was further from shore than I’d thought and I knew I was fighting for my life. I could see my friends and a surfer on the sand. I called and waved for help before going under again but the surf was so loud I didn’t know if they’d heard me. Then two more enormous waves rolled over me, leaving me gasping, more desperate after each one. I couldn’t see how I was going to survive this. I felt like a fool for ignoring the warnings about this place. More people drown off this beach than any other in the all the Americas. Now I was discovering why.
But had no time to think about that. I had to focus on surviving the next few seconds. Then another huge wave came. I was too weak to dive under it so it just crashed down on me and spun me around helpless under the water and I wondered whether I was going to come up this time. Now my strength was almost gone. I’d been hit by six huge waves in a row and this one tumbled me so that I didn’t know which way was up. With a last effort I made it to the surface again, dreading the next wave that would surely finish me.
But there was no wave in sight. I had a chance at life. Now that there was no undertow I struck out for shore with the little strength I had left, afraid that I would not make it before the next big wave. There came just one more small one. It may have even helped me. I swam till I could touch the sand and staggered up the beach as far from the water as possible before collapsing. All I could hear was myself gasping for air. I couldn’t stop that frantic gasping for about fifteen minutes. My heartbeat took more than an hour to normalize. I felt no gladness that I was still alive. No emotion at all save fear and the awful memory of churning grey water and dread.
My friends came to help and when I could stand again we went back to our hotel. For several hours afterwards I was haunted by that intense feeling of fear and desperation. I couldn’t believe I was alive yet I couldn’t believe I’d almost died. Everything seemed unreal. The whole evening I felt that I wasn’t getting enough air and kept trying to take deeper breaths. I think I drank at least a gallon of arnica homeopathic rescue remedy. Singing kiirtan and meditating with our group here really helped to restore my state of mind. Before I slept, I thought about that seventh wave, the small one that allowed me live..
With a days distance, I can reflect more calmly on my dramatic life lesson. Here are a few things I learned:
- If I must insist on doing stupid things, I should limit them to non life-threatening situations.
- Self-Confidence is wonderful in some circumstances but not all. Here was I, a reasonably good swimmer but no Michael Phelps. I’m nearly sixty years old, I’d been fasting for two days and the hotel manager had told me that the surf on this beach is extremely dangerous. Plus there were three red warning flags up that day. So naturally I thought I’d be fine because I’m invincible. I remember thinking, ‘all those people who drown at this dangerous beach are fools. That would never happen to me.’ Now at least I know who the fool is.
- I really like air. During those terrifying moments I did not think once about God or my mantra or anything remotely spiritual. I didn’t request any divine intervention –nothing. I was entirely focused on survival. Which brings to mind the famous Ramakrsna story where a disciple asked him when he would see God. Later that day when they were taking a bath in the river, Ramakrsna suddenly held his disciples head under the water and only when he was about to drown did he release him. He asked the disciple what he was thinking about when he was under the water, and he replied, “air, I was thinking about air.” And Ramakrsna told him, “When you are that desperate for God, you won’t have long to wait.” So I guess I have a while to wait. In his wonderful movie, Fierce Grace, Ram Das describes his experience during a stroke. After meditating and chanting and teaching about spirituality all his life, when he faced death, he didn’t think of God at all. He found it quite humbling. Perhaps my experience might be enough to humble even me. It has certainly inspired me to redouble my spiritual efforts. Next time I want to be ready.
- Perhaps the greatest lesson was this: Even though I forgot about God at the crucial moment, He didn’t forget about me.
Today I feel fine. Great in fact. I even jumped off a boat into the waves to swim with some dolphins this morning. It was wonderful watching them zoom along beneath me. They would have had no trouble at all with those nasty breaking waves. I was glad to discover that I still love the ocean. I sure love being alive.
And when I think about it, it could have been worse. I could have been eaten by a shark!