Salty Stories: One Stroke Follows Another

by Rick Bernstein

hawaiiredux Salty Stories: One Stroke Follows Another

Rick Bernstein has been a yoga/ meditation teacher in Honolulu for thirty-eight years. Almost every day he swims down from Waikiki’s local beach, Kaimana, out and down to the church. Often is he accompanied by a pod of dolphins, or turtles. It was just his birthday!

Streams of bubbles pour back from my hands as they knife through the glassy ocean surface.  Extended arms pull flexed hands down across the middle of my body and out to the hips, only to emerge from the warm water to make another rotation.  This hypnotic propulsion continues for about 75 minutes as I swim the two plus mile ocean course from Kaimana Beach to Waikiki and back five to six times a week.  The Tibetan mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, rolls in the mind, an endless loop synchronizing my stroke.

(om mah-nay pay-may huum)
Beneath, undulating coral caverns pocked with sandy holes teem with small fish, turtles, eels, and rays. Waikiki’s blue green water changes hue constantly as clouds play with sunlight, the underwater seascape alive with visual contrasts.
Om Mani Padme Hum.

Three decades ago I took refuge in the Buddha with Kalu Rinpoche, an amazing Tibetan yogi/ lama who had spent thirty- three years in a Himalayan cave. He taught me the mantra Om Mane Padme Hum and gave me the name Paldin Trinlay (Victorious Action).  The name went the way of the white clouds, but its meaning and the mantra remain important parts of me. Swimming easily, On Mani Padme Hum fills my mind, one complete utterance per four rhythmic strokes. The depth increases from ten to twenty, then thirty to forty feet as I move further from shore and into the vastness of the Divine Mother in the guise of ocean.
Om Mani Padme Hum.

rick3 Salty Stories: One Stroke Follows Another
I have heard two definitions of “Om Mani Padme Hum”.  “Hail the jewel in the lotus” and “ God is the crystal river running through the lotus in my heart”.
The imagery I use while chanting: Light energy streaming into the crown of my head and flowing down and out through my heart. I think of it as an energy that unifies everyone and everything across time and space, a cosmic love in.
Om Mani Padme Hum.

A quarter mile swath of coral reef now lies behind and the open ocean beckons.  When I entered the water at Kaimana Beach, the sandy expanse and near shore waters were occupied by beachgoers enjoying the morning.  After swimming seaward for fifteen minutes, the beach appears deserted in the distance and glistens in the morning sun.  Framed by Coconut trees and Diamond Head Crater, it is a beautiful sight.
Om Mani Padme Hum.

Swimming diagonal to shoreline and beyond the reef, I angle seaward and mark my course aiming toward the last two buildings on the horizon of Downtown Honolulu.   Moving further out, Mamala Bay, Waikiki, my hostess, lies ahead.  Entering her sphere, I am caressed by an encompassing embrace.  Ahhh, the Hawaiian ocean.
Om Mani Padme Hum.

“Present moment only moment,” is the Zen adage and subtext for my swims. Sights before my eyes are the focus of the inner-dialogue.  Outer attention is paid to water conditions; surf, wind chop, current, tide, water clarity, temperature, sailboats, ocean creatures, and navigational markers.
Om Mani Padme Hum

When swimming with companions, position and space within the pack is important.  Like dolphins, an unspoken politic exists with swimmers in a group.  A leader sets the pace and navigates.  An energetic line exists between swimmers and getting too close to another’s energy field is avoided by paying attention.  It is a delicate thing.
Om Mani Padme Hum.

rick4 Salty Stories: One Stroke Follows Another

When alone and far from shore an opportunity exists to be “at one” with the light filled, buoyant, and yielding body of Mother ocean.  When I experience this aquatic “samadhi”, a sense of connection, oneness and peace sweep through me and I feel amazingly free and blissful.  This deep connection to great nature is hard to put into words.  My mind/body is flooded with happiness and a sense of wellbeing.  These “tantric darshans”, energetic glimpses into the transcendent nature of things, happen occasionally. The experience is one of the payoffs for my swimming meditation practice.
Om Mani Padme Hum.

Open ocean swimming lends itself to meditation. Primal thoughts of impermanence and death come up sometimes when I am alone and far from shore in the open ocean.  My sense of survival is intensified and sometimes I get edgy.  It feels like mild energetic disturbance running through my mind/ body.  This psycho-physiological “itch” acts as grist for my meditation mill.
Om Mani Padme Hum.

On one occasion, a friend I was swimming with got seasick and panicked.  She was beginning to drown. In that moment I realized that I couldn’t save her by dragging her back to shore.  I used a lot of energy getting her to a reef where she was able to rest a little before being nailed by waves again.  While she was on the reef, I was able to hail two surfers who came to us and supported her until the lifeguard made the rescue. During the ordeal, my mind contracted and my confidence turned to poi.  Fearful thoughts caused a separation from the comfortable “spiritual “ connection I normally enjoy with the ocean. Gripping rushes of adrenaline radiated in the gut as my body became tight and heavy in the water. Thoughts of a safe, warm, sandy beach were a fleeting desire.  In the blink of an eye, light gave way to shadowy doubt. The ocean became a wrathful deity, an adversarial guide into the realm of fear. The Divine Mother who embraced me just a moment earlier had suddenly become the motherfucker who was threatening my friend’s life.  I made sure to swim every day for the next week to deal with the residual mind stuff.  During that week of reflection, I realized that I will never be a victim of the ocean. The ocean doesn’t do it to us.  The ocean does what the ocean does. How I relate to that is the issue.  It comes down to “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen” (or ocean).  My friend no longer goes out in rough conditions.  I am very selective about who I swim with now that I know that I could not save them in an open ocean emergency.
Om Mani Padme Hum.

“The great way is not difficult for those who have no attachment to preferences.”

Hsin Hsin Ming
Sengstan, the Third Zen Patriarch

As a tiny speck in the ocean, I surrender to the enormous power of my hostess. When I impose any condition on my swimming experience, for instance, complaining about a strong current pushing against my tired body on the return portion of the swim, an attitude adjustment is close behind. “Oops, I forgot, “no attachment to preferences”. “Stay calm, keep swimming.”  I do my best to remember that, while in the ocean, it is my choice to be there and that I have the ability to adapt to the circumstances immediately and avoid unnecessary drama.  Drama creates panic and panic in the ocean can be lethal.
Om Mani Padme Hum

“Effortless effort” is a tool that I use while swimming in the ocean.  I swim as if I am doing the easiest task imaginable. I avoid thinking that I am doing something extra- ordinary. Instead, I image myself as an “energy body” involved in a natural function, without fanfare or evaluation.  I take care to move calmly and effortlessly, one smooth stroke after another.  “No big thing.”  “Steady as she goes, stay the course”
Om Mani Padme Hum.

Besides “effortless effort”, awareness of breath flow, strength, stamina, athleticism, self-confidence, imagery, thought forms, mantra, faith, worldview, fear/fearlessness, life/death, intention, and transcendence all come into play when I swim the two-mile course. Anything can happen in the ocean so it is helpful to be conscious of these tools in order to deal with the “what if” factors when they arise.
Om Mani Padme Hum.

Ten years ago while visiting Bhutan, I met the monk responsible for building the country’s stupas, or sacred shrines. We visited at his remote hillside cottage in Thimpu.  When he learned I was from Hawaii his interest piqued.  Having never been out of the Himalayas, he had many questions about swimming in the ocean.  At some point I explained that I use the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum while swimming in the ocean. He excitedly told me that my chanting the mantra while swimming was blessing all of the creatures in the sea. After describing to him what it was like in the ocean, he became quiet and closed his eyes.  For the next few minutes he was in Hawaii, swimming on the vibration of our shared mantra.  It was joyful moment. I got to experience the Buddhist teaching of  “interpenetration of being”.  That is, “everyone and everything being inextricably connected, eternally.”  For me, the ocean is a metaphor for that concept.
Om Mani Padme Hum

“Sharks” are always the question people raise when talking about swimming in the ocean.
It is humbling to think about encounters with alpha members of the oceanic family. Such run-ins are daunting, especially when alone and a mile from shore.  Part of my mojo is to frequently remind myself of what the Tibetan monk said about blessing all of the oceans inhabitants with the mantra that I chant continually while swimming. I always include “shark aumakua”, family protectors in Hawaiian spirituality, in that awareness.  Also, I believe that people are not part of the shark diet.  The vast majority of people bitten by sharks are surfers or boogie boarders.  Sharks view them from beneath and mistake them for turtles.  Attacks are almost always single bites to arms or legs.  When sharks realize that they have bitten a human and not a turtle, they take off leaving their wounded prey behind.  This is not the behavior of a creature looking for any protein available.  People are not on the shark menu.  Unlike surfers, as a swimmer, I have the advantage of seeing sharks approaching and through body movements, identify my self as a person and not a turtle.  I also have the option of going in the opposite direction or, if necessary, punching the shark in the snout to protect myself.  Fortunately, that has never happened but it is always good to have a plan B.  One of my teachers, Mataji Indra Devi once told me, “Ricky, fear no one or no thing”.  While deeply respectful of their deadly potential, I am not afraid of sharks when I am swimming.
Om Mane Padme Hum

I have given instructions that when I die my body will be cremated and that some of the ashes will be dropped into the ocean where I swim. While I sincerely believe that no harm will come to me from a shark, if I am wrong, oh well, it cuts out the middleman.  What could be hipper than a green burial.
Om Mani Padme Hum.

We regularly swim with pods of dolphins, monk seals, eagle rays, turtles, tropical fish, occasional barracuda and sharks. We also share the water with canoe paddlers, surfers, stand up surfers, powerboats, (scary), sailboats, and catamarans filled with waving tourists.
Om Mane Padme Hum.

After reaching the green roofed Catholic Church, a mile and some up the coast and a mile off shore, I rest and float easily, taking in the beautiful sights of mountains, ocean, and Diamond Head Crater.  After a few minutes, it is time to return to Kaimana Beach.  Sometimes a tinge of fatigue sweeps through my sixty six year old body.  There is nothing to be done or to even think about.  The fact is, there is another mile plus to swim in order to get back to the beach.  Indulgence in the limiting emotions of doubt and fear are not allowed in this exercise. The orders of the day are: “one stroke follows another, stay calm, no trips, keep swimming”.
Om Mani Padme Hum.

Emerging from the now shallow water, sandy beach yields beneath my feet.  Drying off after a cold shower and hydration, I lay the towel on the beach and stretch out. My chilled body absorbs the sands radiant warmth like a sponge.  As I luxuriate in the morning sun, spontaneous sighs sometimes issue from the hundred trillion cells that make up my body. This warmingCELLebration meditation goes on for ten or fifteen minutes.  Om Mani Padme Hum.

rick5 Salty Stories: One Stroke Follows Another
As an almost daily visitor to the ocean, I take nothing for granted. Being aware and respectful of it’s awesome power is essential for my survival. The same applies to the Hawaiian Islands where I have lived for forty-six years.  Because of close proximity, living on an island is instant karma.  Negative actions seem to kick you in the butt when you live on a big rock surrounded by water.  The intimacy of island living makes everyone more visible. There is a local pidgin saying, “No make ass brah”, which says it all.  It means, “be cool brother”.   I appreciate the local people here and am thankful to be a part of the community. I am also a fortunate visitor on this awesome planet and my mind/ body is an ephemeral, biodegradable time capsule, on loan from the universe. Life is filled with choices and opportunities. As a spiritual seeker, I am thankful that ocean swimming in Hawaii is part of my spiritual path towards the One.
Om Mani Padme Hum.