There is an analogy in Buddhist teachings (Buddhist teachings are almost all analogies, by the way) that Sogyal Rinpoche, the Tibetan Llama I followed for many years, often spoke about and that is ‘not confusing a rope for a snake’. Its meaning is to teach about discernment and to not allow every little thing to derail us from life or from our practice. An analogy better suited, of course, for a time in history when people, and specifically, monks, were walking everywhere they went, but an effective teaching nonetheless, as a fear of snakes is something everyone can relate to. The analogy actually works the other way too – don’t mistake a snake for a rope! This teaching ran through my head this past weekend when I was in this very dilemma – figuring out if I was being faced with a snake or a rope. Or a snake in ropes clothing….oh wait, that’s a different story.
As a treat for myself, I signed up for the Trek Women’s Triathlon this year in Austin. It’s a short race (750 m swimming (approx ½ mile), 12 mile bike, and 3.1 miles running), and all women, so it seemed the perfect event to sign up for as a goal, almost 1 year after Eliana’s birth. As part of my “training”, which is in quotes because I have not done much, I went to a small man-made lake, called Quarry Lake, here in Austin, to do an open water swim. It was created for, or is at least used exclusively by, a gym here. If you swim around it’s perimeter it is only ½ mile, if that gives you an idea of how small it is, and it is man-made. My point is that it’s probably the safest open-water swim a person can do. I stress this because I only learned to swim laps, properly, in the last 4 years or so (for triathlon), so I have always been more comfortable swimming in a pool where I can see directly to the bottom at all times, where I am in a lane and where I have edges every 25 meters to grab onto if I needed to stop for any reason at all, like, to adjust my goggles, stretch a muscle, or any other excuse I can come up with in order to take a break. I know my fear of open water is irrational because there are very few things that could actually harm me in most lakes, and even if there are things, they tend to stay away from thrashing humans. But I have had many a mental moment about these open-water swims.
During my first triathlon (also a sprint distance), my swim portion did not go so well. I was not as strong of a swimmer then, and with the anxiety of the race, etc. I clearly went out too fast. I had to tread water about ¼ the way into it and regain composure because I was absolutely certain I was going to drown. By the time I finished the swim, I was so exhausted (I was not the last out of the water, but pretty darn close), I could not even run to my bicycle, which is pretty standard in a triathlon to jog to transition. Mark was spectating and I remember him yelling to me, in as supportive of a way as he could, “run, honey, run”, in a tone that suggested that maybe I was not aware that I was supposed to jog, and not stumble, to the transition area. The swim went very well for me, however, in my 2nd triathlon (Olympic distance of 1 mile swim), so I am over that mental hurdle of thinking I might actually drown. However, just to be sure, I figured I better do at least one open water swim before my race this weekend, and so the Quarry Lake was it.
I confidently strode down to the lake, with my racer-looking bathing suit, swim cap and goggles – all items that make me feel like a legitimate swimmer. I am rather cat-like when it comes to water, even in a nice clean pool, so there is always a long mental talk that I have to have with myself while sitting on the edge of any body of water, coercing my body to submerge. I finally did so, and started my swim. I had planned to do two laps of this 750m perimeter course, knowing that the actual course is only one lap, so if I could do two, I would have the utmost of confidence in myself for the event. The first half of the first lap was awkward. All of my mental anguish about not seeing the bottom surfaced, and without my lanes/ropes and edges, I started to feel out of breath after less than 100 meters. I switched to the breast stroke to catch my breath and do some mental pep-talking. After I was sufficiently convinced that I am now a much stronger swimmer, that there were platforms every few hundred meters anyway, AND that there was nothing in that lake that was going to eat me, I started again. By the last few hundred meters, I had found my rhythm and I was LOVING the open water swim. I made my first lap and then decided that I would, in fact, go another round. I started in, catching the same groove. I was approximately 200 yards into my second lap when I was thinking to myself this exact thought – “I am loving this! I don’t even know WHAT it is about an open water swim that I was so freaked out about!”
As if the universe heard me ask the question, it answered back through a burly Hispanic looking man. He was calling loudly from the water’s edge (there is a running trail that goes around the lake) – “Maam! Maam!” With a customized ear plug in one ear, rendering me ½ deaf, being ½ submerged in water, AND being in my own endorphin filled zone, how I heard this man calling me “Maam”, I have no idea. But I did, so I stopped to hear what he had to say. “There is a snake in the water” is exactly what he had to say. I heard him clearly, but as I didn’t see a snake anywhere near, I wanted to buy myself time while I decided what I wanted to do.
“A what?” I yelled.
“A SNAKE! A Water snake! I almost stepped on him on the trail and he slithered down to the water right over there”, and he pointed to an opening in the bushes.
Strangely, my mind was going wild with the ‘proper’ reaction. Surely we all know that there are snakes in the water, or at least at the water’s edge. I had gone over this in my head dozens of time before even starting this swim. But now I was really faced with the reality – one had been spotted. I also wondered what this man expected from me. Did he expect me to scream and come running out immediately? Did he want me to turn directly around and swim in the opposite direction?
“Where, exactly?” was my yelled response to buy me more time, and because I did really want to know.
He explained where he entered. We both knew, however, that this was of little relevance, given that a water snake is pretty adept in the water, so he could be anywhere by now. This again raised the question to me as to WHY this man felt compelled to tell me. If I had seen a snake, would I alert the swimmers? I am still not sure. I knew this guy’s heart was SO in the right place, but as I swam away, after reporting that I would “avoid that area,” which really was my plan, I found myself a little angry at the messenger. My thoughts were going crazy…now I KNOW there is a snake in here with me…why did he have to tell me…of course we all know there are “probably” snakes in here. Aha – probably. Prior to this moment, I was comfortable with the fact that there were probably snakes in the lake. Now I really knew. And if I got bit by the snake after being warned, it would not only really hurt, but I was going to look like a total idiot on top of it. Interesting, I thought, that I was worried about his and other people’s reactions. But don’t we all dread, at least a little, the dying with egg on our face scenario? I didn’t want to end up in the annual Darwin awards e-mail, detailing out famed idiots demises. So, I did cut my lap slightly short and “avoided the area” where the snake had entered. Instead of just sighting in terms of going in the right direction, I was then surveying the surface of the water every time I turned my head for a breath, to ensure I wasn’t headed into any snake traps. All the while, I was wondering some of the things that, perhaps, you are wondering at this point – is there such thing as a ubiquitous “water snake”, and if so, is it poisonous, and if so, could this man really be able to identify it, and if so, is THAT why he felt compelled to stop me and let me know?
I found out later that afternoon, with a tiny bit of research, that cottonmouth snakes are the only poisonous ‘water snake’ variety, and while it’s possible that it was such a snake in this area, it is almost impossible that I would be bitten by one in the water. They, like all of their other lake dwelling friends, avoid thrashing humans at all lengths. And so you know for your own, “there’s a snake in the water” experiences, snakes don’t attack very well in the water b/c they don’t have much leverage. These were the things I had supposed and used to comfort myself through the end of the swim.
Though my snake or rope dilemma was slightly different from the scenario in the teaching, I thought it a great teaching, nonetheless. Indeed there was a real snake, but the danger was probably equivalent to that of the rope. The fear itself was the rope on the side of the road, and it was my choice to react to it as if it were a snake or a rope. Fears, themselves, are always ropes – they pose no real threat. And I felt a lesson had been learned. I thank the man because 1) his heart was absolutely in the right place to warn me of potential disaster, and 2) I not only got in a good 1 mile swim that day, but a great mental exercise as well. It turned out that I had a fear that I thought that I had conquered. I then conquered the fear that I thought I had conquered that it turned out I still had. And then peter piper picked a peck of peppers, and we both headed home, not spotting a thing along the side of the road.