Off the coast of Kona, Hawaii, I stand at the bow of a dive boat and watch the sky turn from blue to amaranth purple. We’re cruising at a brisk 25 knots and I don’t mind the cool shower of seawater soaking me as we slice through the waves. I’m in my bathing suit, anyway, and we’ll be in the water soon.
A few minutes later, we reach the dive site. Another diver on the tour helps me into my vest, and I help him into his. We complete the five-point safety check:
BCD, weights, releases, air, and a final head-to-toe check.
I’m wearing a “shorty” wetsuit that leaves my arms and legs exposed. I learned to dive in the chilly waters of the Pacific Northwest using a thick, 7-millimeter wetsuit that covered every inch of skin except my face. In these Hawaiian waters, I feel naked in the thin suit.
The sun has dipped beneath the horizon, and dusk will give way to night soon. One by one, the nine other divers in the tour group and I fall backward off the stern of the boat. We swim out and form a circle. The divemaster offers a few safety reminders and then says, “Nice and slow now. Here we go!”
The ten of us lift our inflator hoses above our heads, release the air from our vests, and descend. This is the moment I’m supposed to relax my body and let the weight belt do its job. It’s the moment to let go.
As a new diver who also struggles with worry, this is when I panic.
Babies are born with two fears: a fear of loud sounds and a fear of falling. An aversion to falling is coded deep into the oldest parts of our brain.
As I start to sink, my body feels out of control and my mind whirls. I’m afraid I’ll flip upside down and descend headfirst. I start to wobble. I try to correct with my hands, and I’m thrown more off-balance. My heart feels like a bird beating its wings inside my chest.
I breathe and try to remember my training: When I let more air out of my lungs, I sink faster. When I breathe deep, I slow down.
I let go of my resistance and begin to exhale slowly. I stop flailing my arms. The wobbling stops. I relax my entire body and let the weight pull me down.
We reach the seafloor, each diver landing softly like an astronaut on the moon. We swim around a bit, exploring the site and stretching our legs. Twenty or so more divers from other tour groups drop gently to the seafloor.
After a few minutes, a familiar euphoria surrounds me like a weighted blanket. A layer of calm and presence wraps my body from toes to scalp. The ever-present hum of worry-chatter in my mind fades, like someone turning a dial down in my brain.
More than 40 million adults in the United States suffer from anxiety, making it the most common mental condition in the U.S.
I am one of the 40 million.
I’ve struggled with cyclical worries throughout my adult life. A fear story will worm its way into my brain and turn and turn and shred my nerves like leaves. It’s exhausting and debilitating.
When I’m anxious, I flake on social situations or spend days in bed reclaiming lost energy. If I do get to a gathering with people I don’t know, I’ll cling to a familiar friend or find a quiet corner where I can nurse a drink out of sight.
As a writer, anxiety looks like holding back from sharing stories or ideas that push the status quo. Will they misunderstand me? Will they tear me to ribbons on social media? As an entrepreneur, anxiety looks like avoiding sending newsletter emails or pitching my coaching programs. Who am I to teach anyone anything?
Anxiety also makes me a shallow breather. At twelve, I unknowingly held my breath on a roller coaster and lost consciousness right before the eighty-four-foot drop. I woke up in the middle of the ride taking frantic gulps of air.
The only place my worries seem to ease is in the water. I grew up on the ocean in New Jersey—a childhood full of snorkeling, kayaking, and surfing. I’m a confident swimmer, and it was this passion for water that pushed me to get scuba certified. But scuba comes with risks. Big ones.
Anxiety does not want me to take risks. Or take up space. Or take big, deep belly breaths.
This was my biggest obstacle in getting certified. The number one rule of scuba diving is never hold your breath.
My first attempt at certification began in my senior year of college in a bright and breezy classroom in Palm Beach. When the divemaster explained the risks of holding your breath (lung overexpansion and rupture), my mind leap-frogged to the worst-case scenario.
I saw myself unconscious and in full diving gear, lying motionless at the deep end of the training pool, blood flowing from my nose. In the distance, sirens.
My foray into scuba ended with me racing to the registrar’s office to drop the course after the first class.
Four years later, in the frosty waters of the Pacific Northwest, I tried again. I craved the fulfilment of mastering something that scared me so deeply. I wanted to prove to myself I could master a hard thing.
I made it through the classroom lessons, pool training, and was certified after an open water weekend in Hood Canal, Washington. Once I learned the basics of diving, it rewarded me with a priceless gift: breath.
You’d be challenged to find a religion or faith-based culture that doesn’t revere the breath.
In Judeo-Christian tradition, God breathed life into the first man: “[He] breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
The Holy Spirit is often referred to as “the breath of God.” In the second sentence of Genesis, it reads, “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” In other words, God inspired and created all things through breath.
In Buddhism, mindful breathing is a core practice on the path to enlightenment. The Buddha is said to have told his son that when you practice consistent mindfulness of breath, “then your last breath will be in knowing, not in unknowing.”
Breath is inspiration. Breath is animation. It is proof of life.
Worry thoughts focus on pain in the past and uncertainty in the future. With the breath, there’s only the now. Only knowing, not unknowing.
After a few minutes of swimming in the dark Hawaiian waters, the divemaster signals us to gather. The show is about to start.
I sink to my knees on the sandy seabed in a ring of 30 divers. We circle around the “campfire:” a pile of high-powered underwater lights that point toward the surface. The light attracts plankton and other microorganisms. The other divers and I also point our flashlights toward the heavens, adding more radiance to the light show.
For a few minutes, there’s only us––a circle of scuba divers. Some are kneeling, some are cross-legged. Our bubbles and light rise to the surface in a ring. We could be praying or worshipping.
Then, a shadow.
A thick black line appears in the distance, stretching six feet across. As the shadow grows bigger, it starts to undulate. It has wings.
The first manta ray enters our circle. It flies down and through the campfire light, its huge mouth catching as many plankton as it can.
Another ray appears. Then another. In minutes, an underwater ballet has exploded above the campfire. The mantas dip and soar through the light. I try to count them, but there are too many. Some are bigger than SUVs, with wingspans up to twenty-five feet. I remind myself to breathe––in and out.
Before the descent, the divemasters told us to hold our flashlights as far away from our bodies as possible. The mantas will swim through the light to catch the plankton. If you hold it too close, a 3,000-pound ray may collide with you. I try to be conscious of my light, but I'm mesmerized by the spectacle before me.
A manta draws close. I thrust my light away from my chest. We were told not to touch them. “Let them swim on by,” the divemaster said.
The manta swims through my light and buzzes the top of my head, fluttering my hair. I let out a wild giggle.
Over and over, the mantas fly through my light, their oily white bellies grazing the crown of my head. It’s a blessing, a holy anointing. Tears flow behind my mask.
In this moment, I’m not worrying. I’m not counting my breaths. I’m here.
I kneel and cry and watch the dance. Breathing in, breathing out.
American Standard Bible (ASV). Genesis 1-3.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “Facts & Statistics.” https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics
Abbot George Burke (Swami Nirmalananda Giri). “The Buddhist Tradition of Breath Meditation.” https://breathmeditation.org/the-buddhist-tradition-of-breath-meditation
Renee Long is a writer, teacher, and novice scuba diver in San Diego, California. She is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and was a finalist for the Cossack Review 2017 October Poetry Prize. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida Atlantic University. Her work can be found in Crazyhorse, Rock and Sling, Tiger’s Eye: A Journal of Poetry, The Ruminate Blog, and elsewhere. Renee's blog, LitHabits for Life, explores the connections between writing routine, wellness, and lifestyle habits. Connect with @hayreneenay on Twitter and Instagram or on her website, reneelongwrites.com.
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