A friend of mine  — many years ago — told me about a scary experience she’d had as a novice whitewater kayaker.

She was caught in a whirlpool that dragged her underwater and held her there.  The only way to escape and not drown — she’d been instructed — was to keep reaching out to find the edge of the vortex. Once she made contact with its boundary, the hole spit her out.

She almost died of fright, and it took tremendous courage, faith and determination to remain calm enough to find the edge. But it worked.**

As an anxious, fearful person, I paid close attention to her tale. I decided I would never go river kayaking.* But the story stuck in my head — just in case I accidentally did end up in a kayak on a wild river.

Decades later, I began to think of the story as a metaphor for the practice of staying present in my life. I remember it whenever I find myself in a vortex of work or worry or sadness. If I sit down and get quiet and breathe, it’s never long before I find the edge and am propelled — almost effortlessly — into calmer water.

Lately I’ve begun swimming in cold, salty San Francisco bay.*** Every time I don my thermal cap and goggles and walk to the water’s edge at the Dolphin Club, my brain teems with a hundred reasons not to get in.

But I look at the experienced swimmers who are emerging as I stand shivering on the beach. They’re always smiling. They’re so alive. And if I ask them, they all will say, “The water is fine!”

They’re right. The water is fine. It’s simply a matter of consciously and calmly getting to its edge.

*I did finally try it, in my 40s and on a very mellow river.

**I have subsequently searched the internet for what to do when caught in a whirlpool. Instructions vary depending on where you are and what you’re doing, but all of them involve bringing some consciousness to the situation. If you’re planning to swim or kayak in turbulent water, best to read up in advance.

***Highly recommended.