In my office is hung a framed T-shirt, with the saying emblazed upon it, “I Survived Panic in a Can.” I was awarded it after finally managing to get out of a submerged helicopter simulator, the first two times with eyes open, the final time wearing blackened goggles. I flunked the first time, managing to hit the ceiling rather than the exit, and the divers had to pull me out. Before they put me through it again, I got remedial training. For that, the instructor strapped me onto a chair just above the water, then lowered me in upside down. I was to not release the straps immediately, but pause to get my bearings first. Oddly, when I did that, I saw the exit, my heart rate went down, I did not start running out of breath, and I managed it easily. After three or four practices doing this, he had me put on the blackened goggles. Again, I paused while upside down, this time in total darkness. But in my mind I “saw” the exits. Again, calm came, I unhooked, then hand-over-hand pulled myself to the exit.

When I finally got to go through the submarine again, I made it! I was delighted, my instructor and the other students applauded.

Just before then, I had to demonstrate that I could swim a distance with overalls on, plus boots and helmet. These things definitely weigh you down. The fact that there was no speed minimum, that I could have essentially floated my way did not matter. I tried harder and harder to swim faster, to get to the end, but was not making it. Pounding the water with everything I had, I more or less managed to swim in place, with my boots pulling my legs down and my helmet blocking my sight Then I heard a commanding voice shouting in my ear, “Breathe! Breathe!” It was a rescue diver swimming alongside, who I had not noticed in my concentration to stay above water and move. I took the hint, slowed down my pummeling, and let myself get to the far side. I simply alternated slow side glides with some swimming.

I let myself get there, rather than forcing myself there by sheer strength of will and increased flailing. That is a standard axiom of swimming – treat the water as your enemy, pound it with your legs and arms to go faster and farther. It is a matter of muscle strength, conditioning, and practice.

So imagine my surprise when I read the obituary in the Nov. 18th issue of The Economist for Terry Laughlin, a record-breaking swimmer and renowned coach. It was him who coined the term “total immersion.” Rather than fight the water, immerse yourself in it. Flow, swim silently. “Worry less about the power of your engine, and more about the sleekness of your fuselage.” Reduce friction. “Aim to glide through the water, concentrating on balance, fluidity and relaxation, delaying exhaustion by using just the muscles you need, and only when you need them. Thread your hand through an imaginary slot in the water, treating it like the prow of a ship.”

Working on your mind in order to put this into practice is a lifetime’s work. Concentrate on “incremental improvement, through cleverness, patience and diligence.” The starting point is unconscious incompetence – when a swimmer does not even realize what is amiss. Next comes conscious incompetence, when you spot what is wrong and try to stop doing it. Then comes conscious competence, when you

do the right thing but only with effort, and finally unconscious competence: the mental equivalent of automatic pilot.

Reading the article, if I had substituted spiritual formation for swimming, I could have been reading an ancient, revered work by many spiritual masters. What would change in our view of good discipleship, if we applied his swimming principles to our faith walk ? As we begin Advent and face the start of a new year, it is worth considering, then trying them out. “Total Immersion for Christians”: that has potential, doesn’t it?!