God Is In The Water: How Wild Swimming Could Save Your Life

God is dead… How shall we comfort ourselves…? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives; who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? 
— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Joyful Pursuit of Knowledge and Understanding

What if Nietzsche was right? What if the biggest, baddest boss of all has been thwarted by the incisive scalpels of our science and our reason? What if the inverted crater of space is now nothing but a bottomless and misleading rabbit-hole? What if it doesn’t lead anywhere? No eyes. No friendly hands beyond the ether… 

Nothing.

Lovely thought, isn’t it?

So, let’s assume that all this jargon is correct and the Gods of old, once propped-up by the rhetoric of desert mystics and big, heavy doctrines, are now just boulders lodged in the streams of our imaginations. What would that mean for us? Where could we turn for guidance and comfort? 

Maybe you could turn to the Church of Scientology or revert back to roaming free like a druid. Maybe you could put stock in the modernist Christian message, which posits the idea that God is Love (I rather like that one). Or, maybe you could look somewhere more specific - somewhere that has provided solace, consolation and quietude for humans throughout the millennia - an element that never fails to subdue anxieties and provide clarity... that's right - water.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the use of water in therapy was very popular. They called it hydrotherapy. This was usually a method of immersion and cold water healing that circulated amongst European intellectuals, as well as reaching across China, Japan and India. European resorts and luxury health spas often tended to their patients using isolation chambers, pristine pools and spas. Then a number of eccentric Victorian practitioners came to the fore. Dr James Manby Gully, for one. He founded a clinic in Malvern that was frequented by none other than Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Florence Nightingale and Alfred Tennyson... all the best known cats, basically. 

Reflecting on his time spent at the clinic in Malvern, Tennyson remarked that the springs of Malvern Hills had: half-cured, half-destroyed [him]. In fact, the experience had a profound impact on his mental state and temporarily rescued him for a nervous breakdown. 

Funnily enough, there have also been numerous prisons and asylums over the years that practiced the use of water in the process of rehabilitation for inmates and patients alike. In Damascus, Syria, Robbie visited one of the oldest mental institutions in the world. Inside the walled compound there were several rooms with partition walls, surrounding an open courtyard. In the middle of this yard there was a fountain murmuring with the sound of perpetually running water. This fountain sent streams of water down stone channels that snaked into and through each of the rooms. Supposedly the sound of the water was used to soothe and relax visiting patients. This coincides with the idea that flowing water is considered to be purifying in Arabic and Islamic cultures. 

Of course, we know that water played an essential role in the refinement of ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian civilisations. Not only was the life-blood of these civilisations supplied by great rivers, but aqueducts and canal systems were also often used to deliver fresh water to different urban areas, including steam-clothed baths and spas. Throughout history there have been everyday accounts of peasants bathing in ponds, bards travelling down rivers and explorers seeking fantastical waters, like Ponce de Leone and is Fountain of Youth - a source of enternal vitality. More recently, we’ve also heard the recollections of poets like Lord Byron and Rupert Brooke, who were both partial to a spot of skinny-dipping in the water meadows of Grantchester. 

Hydrotherapy;_eight_vignettes_of_different_cures_at_Wellcome_V0016690.jpg

Needless to say, there must be something in this water if it is so intrinsically bound to our development as a species. But that doesn’t mean that something is God, does it? Examples of how this elixir has benefited the human condition abound. Across the millenia, from our hairy hominid ancestors hauling catfish from prehistoric lakes, to hairless, speedo-clad swimmers plunging into open water as part of endurance events. Yet there is nothing to suggest anything Godlike in the properties of this element and its effect upon us.

Well, maybe that isn't at all true - if God is the force that breathed us all into being and who looks out for our survival, then It would surely be something that we couldn’t do without. That is to say, if God is really dead, surely we couldn’t continue to exist alone, right? Just ranks of neatly carved chess-pieces running amock on an unattended, chequered board? 

Maybe evidence of God still lives in us then, and, indeed, in all living things. 

When a baby leaves the womb, where it has been suspended and submerged in amniotic fluid as it gestates, its body is composed of seventy-five percent water. Water is used in the human body for a variety of functions. It helps us to salivate, enables our cells to develop, multiply and survive, lubricates our joints, helps deliver oxygen to our organs and even acts as a shock absorber shielding our brain and spinal cord. When you start to do a little research you begin to realise the extent to which water is essential to us. If you’ve ever wondered why our bodies change so much as we grow older, it’s because the amount of water in our system reduces. When we reach adulthood our body is 60% water and thus the process of aging could perhaps be better described as drying-up. If you eat a lot of junk food you’re likely to speed up this process. This is because fat tissue contains less water than lean tissue. Conversely, routine swimming allows you to build-up a broader, more muscular physique, commonly called the swimmer’s body. This allows you to produce more water, which, in turn, is used for all those vital processes being carried out inside you. Therefore swimming allows the body and mind to run more smoothly. It essentially lubricates your autonomic nervous system. Just as long as you remember to drink between four to six pints of water a day and spend a good amount of time swimming. 

I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the question at hand. I know that, for me, being in the water brings me closer to a feeling of relaxed oneness though. At times my mind empties and my body seems to go on independently. In those moments I feel as though I am in the right place - in touch with God, I daresay, or at least in touch with whatever God has survived the modern day winds of digital reason. I also know that swimming can lessen the laden pressures of modern anxieties and depression. It isn’t just some trendy, arbitrary band-aid for deep psychological bullet-wounds. Swimming outdoors is a form of meditation. There are surprising similarities between the steps involved in endurance swimming and those that lead you into the practice of yoga. Both disciplines utilise a combination of physical strain, rythmic breathing and deep concentration, allowing you to escape your surface thoughts and practice mindfulness. Swimming has even been proven to strengthen the hippocampus and improve your powers of learning and memory. Indeed, over time this cross-patterning, bilateral action increases the amount of information being passed along the band of nerve fibres connecting the right and left hemispheres of your brain. This facilitates greater communication between the two, activating both hemispheres of the brain simultaneously.

If you’d like to begin your own study, why not head for a swim and spend some time afterwards thinking about how you feel? Lots of swimmers find that they leave the water with an intense high - an endorphin hit that rushes through your entire body. I often get it when I’m walking home from a long swim. Suddenly my whole body becomes more bouyant and my mind relaxes. You feel like you’ve accomplished something - that the air is a little fresher and the world is a little more open than it was before. 

I wonder what you would find if you engaged in this same empirical study? Would it change your perspective on how important water really is? Would you start worshiping jugs of water and dancing in the rain?

Who knows… God could be nothing but a fish that’s too big and slippery for us to fry, you know? Maybe It isn’t water and maybe swimming isn’t an ancient form of pilgrimage. Maybe swimming is just fun - maybe fun is G… oh, here we go again!

Jack Hudson