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Finding our inner ebb and flow

Written by Dr. Easkey Britton, marine social scientist, surfer, writer, and blue health advisor to Liquid Therapy.


Something remarkable happens when we come into direct physical contact with saltwater.


Immersion in the sea is to feel transported to elsewhere, as if moving through a portal to another world — not only moving from the solidness of land to the fluidness of water but also moving from the ‘head’ into the body. It’s this, I believe, that offers such healing potential — restoring lost connections, bringing us back home to ourselves, to inhabit not only our bodies more fully but the world. It’s the importance of this embodied connection with the Earth’s waters for our wellbeing and for the health of the planet that I explore in-depth in my new book, Ebb and Flow: Connect with the patterns and power of water.


Anthropologist Tim Ingold [1] has written that our skin is porous. It’s this porosity that I feel when I go into the sea. Preparing to immerse myself requires a listening and understanding of place built up over time, acquired from countless hours of observation and direct encounter with sea conditions and weather patterns. This creates an intimacy with place.


“Water entangles our bodies,”


writes feminist scholar Astrida Neimanis [2], so that we become more “oceanic eddy” than isolated entity. To be immersed in the Atlantic waters off the west coast of Ireland is to be held in the mix of sweet rust coloured bog water and the golden-green iodine of kelp forests. It is to enter into the territory of the wild Atlantic salmon. Or at least it used to be, before the salmon stopped returning to their spawning rivers.


© Alice Ward

As a surfer, there are so many different dimensions to my encounter with the sea influenced by temporal cycles of change - tidal, lunar, weather, seasons, life cycle, motherhood. Irish poet-philosopher John O’Donohue’s words come to mind, to be a surfer is to be in“silent conversation” with the personal elements of a place, of a wave creating its own narrative. Sometimes when surfing or swimming there is a reluctance in me to return to shore, my selkie mind awakened. A selkie is a sea creature from Gaelic mythology, often depicted as a shape-shifting “seal woman”, a seal with the ability to take human form on land. Her belonging, like mine, is between worlds. Yet, for all her freedom and wild abandon the selkie tightly grips her seal skin when she comes ashore, refusing to let it go even for a moment. I wrote in my book, Saltwater in the Blood, that,


“A selkie’s skin holds her power – her ability to return to sea. If it is stolen she is trapped on land and without it can never return to her sea kin. It represents her identity and her freedom, her intimate connection to the more-than-human world, where the ocean becomes the realm of the unseen, the darker edges of the unconscious. Without her seal skin she would be lost and would forget her calling, slowly dying inside.” [3]


Surfing is to actively participate with the more-than-human, living world — the ocean that breathes us all into existence. The sea shapes our experiences and feelings through its own powerful, non-human agency. This shaping effect is what creates a sense of becoming. To surf is at once to be both fully engaged and to let go. We surrender our sense of groundedness and solidness to floating free and being at the mercy of untameable, changeable currents, flows and more-than-human environments. When experiencing disconnect or event disassociation, a powerful way to reset is through immersion. The movement and touch of water and waves ignite something in the body, in fact it triggers a whole cascade of changes in our emotions, feelings and how we sense the world around us. It’s why water can be such a potent way to reconnect and come back home to our bodies after a traumatising experience.


Then, off the west coast of Ireland, there’s the cold. Immersion in cold water stimulates our entire nervous system and awakens our lungs and hearts in new ways. The chill adds to the sense of immersion, igniting thousands of cold water thermo-receptors on our skin. Immersion in cold water creates ‘thermal stress’ that triggers a freeze-fight-flight response in the body. This releases a flood of adrenaline and norepinephrine, the neurochemicals that energise and sharpen focus, along with the mood-boosting neurotransmitter, dopamine. The cold water triggers a whole physiological cascade of changes in the body, including an anti-inflammatory response. This reduced inflammation is linked to an array of physical and mental health benefits including the reduction of depression and anxiety, improved mobility and pain relief, and better sleep [4].


It’s never easy or comfortable getting ready to get into a cold ocean in the middle of winter, with sideways wind and rain, or gale-force south-westerlies blowing. But being comfortable with being uncomfortable is what creates a powerful sense of self-actualisation and achievement. Take the wipeout when surfing, for example. To wipeout well requires a letting go of control after getting tossed off the wave and held under in an environment we can’t freely breathe in, our instincts screaming, ‘escape’. The moment I fall two things happen — at first I bring my awareness into the softness of my animal body without any analysis, simply staying with the physical sensations of how the water is moving me. The mental chatter of panic quietens and I’m lost in the feeling of being swayed like kelp. Second, a shift in consciousness happens, an almost out-of-body experience, where I am able to witness all that is happening. When a hold-down gets really intense I take my mind elsewhere into a blue mind state through a practice of visualisation, calming the body, conserving oxygen. Blue mind, first coined by marine biologist and author Wallace J Nichols in his 2014 book of the same name, acts as the antidote to ‘red mind’, our stress response. Blue mind is experienced as an inner state of calm. Proximity or connection to water can heighten this state by engaging all of our senses; the mind is both openly aware and fully and effortlessly absorbed in the moment.


I wrote in Saltwater in the Blood how these ‘wipeout’ moments are an invitation to soften into the force of the wave rather than resisting it, allowing ourselves to be reshaped and revealed. Perhaps even more than wave-riding, wipeouts can offer a feeling of the aliveness and intelligence of the water as it mixes with our own flesh and blood. This intimate and visceral connection with water reminds me of the simplicity and power of these moments of encounter in nature, even if they are fleeting. It’s this quality of immersion that I tapped into for the birth of my twins.


We begin life immersed in the amnion, in the saltwater of the womb. The water protecting us, absorbing shocks, helping us grow, shaping our movement, supporting everything we will become. I learned from water protector and Mi’kmaq elder Dorene Bernard of women’s particular connection to water as water keepers, with the ability to bring forth new life from the water inside us. I craved contact with saltwater throughout my pregnancy and yet I never realized how much my relationship with water would change when I became pregnant.


As a lifelong surfer my body is my ocean-going vessel, but during my pregnancy I lost that. When I went into the sea, I felt sea sick for the first time in my life if the water was too rough or choppy. I couldn’t trust my breath or my lungs when held under a wave as my cardiovascular system worked in overdrive, circulating over twice as much blood to support new life growing inside me.


© Crossing The Line Productions

During pregnancy, when I was no longer physically able to surf, I discovered the profound benefits of going for regular sea dips in nothing but my bare skin. Cold water immersion can carry some risks – sudden immersion without first acclimatizing the body can trigger a cold water shock response, causing the heart rate to go up at first. However, I greatly minimized any risks with a gentle and gradual buildup of regular immersion, combined with deeper, slower breaths and a growing familiarity and understanding of both my body and the body of water I was entering.


I marvelled at the sensation of lightness and the connection with new life growing in my watery womb.


A recent medical study suggests that regular cold water immersion could lead to a reduction in difficulties during labour and negative birth outcomes [5]. The cold water, combined with the novelty associated with environmental stimuli of the sea (breaking waves, moving currents, changing weather fronts), created a low-dose stress response in my body that helped build resilience and adaptive capacity during a very challenging birth and recovery from emergency surgery. Even in the moment of crisis, I was able to access a profound experience of trust in my body and the birth process. I activated memories of myself and my twin babies in the ocean together, in the womb of the world, visualising the silky touch of swaying kelp, the dazzling, dappled light of sun through sea water as I lost consciousness.


© Crossing The Line Productions

Returning to the sea has allowed me to begin to welcome and inhabit my forever-changed bodymind in a new way — seeking joy, presence, play and connection over challenge, risk-taking and fear as I navigate the postnatal shift from ‘me’ to ‘we’. The distinction between the body and the mind is, in reality, a false one. They are one and the same, completely interdependent ways and mediums of how we experience our sense of self in the world. Immersion is never a one-way act. Water is the greatest solvent, dissolving and holding the memory of all that it comes into contact with. When a body is immersed in water, the water knows. It responds and is forever changed. So much of Ebb and Flow is about how we might learn to simply be, fully inhabiting our own watery bodies so that we are better able to listen to the world around us and receive the message water has for us.


Immersion can ultimately awaken a deeper understanding of the vulnerable nature of the ocean, what Ronan Foley and other health geographers refer to as a “blue attunement” [6] – becoming aware and responsive to the body of water we are interacting with, enabling a deep form of listening. And immersion can awaken a wish that a more beautiful ocean is possible for all our children to immerse themselves in. Becoming a mother has reinforced for me the need to dig deep, to offer blood, sweat and tears to encourage the restoration of water and to honour and celebrate its rare and precious life-giving force. My hope is that we will come to understand our interdependence with watery places and beings, and to sense and feel the aliveness of these connections. To feel that we too are water.


References

[1] Ingold, T. (2011). Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. Routledge, Abingdon. [2] Neimanis, A. (2012). Hydrofeminism: Or, on becoming a body of water. Undutiful daughters: Mobilizing future concepts, bodies and subjectivities in feminist thought and practice, Gunkel,H., Nigianni, C. and Söderbäck F. (eds.) pp. 96-115. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. [3] Britton E. (2021). Saltwater in the Blood. Watkins, London. [4] Harper, M. (2022). Chill: The Cold Water Swim Cure― A Transformative Guide to Renew Your Body and Mind. Chronicle Books [5] Gundle, L., & Atkinson, A. (2020). Pregnancy, cold water swimming and cortisol: The effect of cold water swimming on obstetric outcomes. Medical Hypotheses, 144, 109977 [6] Foley, R., Kearns, R., Kistemann, T., & Wheeler, B. (2019). Blue space, health and wellbeing. Hydrophilia Unbounded, Routledge, London. https://doi. org/10.4324/9780815359159.





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