Written by Matthew Smeal
Few people would disagree that connecting with the outdoors is essential for our mental health. Fresh air, nature, the environment, and being away from the usual four walls and nine-to-five monotony can only be good for us.
But the trick is finding something that you like, something that won’t become a burden or ironically, create feelings of guilt if you miss a session. It needs to be something that you look forward to, that you want to do. And it’s even better when it’s free.
For me it is ocean swimming – something I do obscenely early most mornings. Like most ocean swimmers, my reasons are a combination of the above-mentioned solitude, lifestyle, camaraderie and simply being in the ocean – a place I love and am very comfortable in.
But there is something much deeper going on. There is a vulnerability and risk to ocean swimming. You are in the elements. You are in a wild marine environment with everything that entails. Sharks, dolphins, various stingers, turtles, fish, stingrays…are all visible and close, and I regularly see them all. There is cold water (and it’s getting colder!), swell, rips, waves. All have to be understood and negotiated.
My wild man swims beside me. I feel him, I sense him. I can touch him.
That vulnerability and complete immersion in a natural environment speaks to what author and psychologist Steve Biddulph referred to in his bestselling book Manhood as being in touch with your ‘wild man’ (for us blokes anyway – but I’ve met a few wild women too!).
To quote Biddulph, “Abandoning yourself to wildness turns out to be the most harmonious and generative thing you can do. When we are good, we are okay, but when we are ‘wild’ we are geniuses. Any man who makes or builds things, who creates a garden, who plays a jazz instrument, who has ever been a lover, knows that you are better when you ‘let go’ and follow your impulses. Natural rhythms within us take over and bring out our real talents.
“Our love of trees, the outback, waves and water, animals, growing things, music, children and women, all stem from our wild nature. The most creative men are close to the Wild Man and borrow his power.”
According to poet, essayist, activist and Men’s Movement leader, Robert Bly, “The aim is not to be the wild man, but to be in touch with the wild man.”
the ocean is alive with an electric pulse of wildness; a school of men and women, each swimming alone but moving as one in the pre-dawn darkness
My wild man swims beside me. I feel him, I sense him. I can touch him. But all around me I also sense a pack of wild men and wild women – the ocean is alive with an electric pulse of wildness; a school of men and women, each swimming alone but moving as one in the pre-dawn darkness, their wild person almost visible beside them as an ethereal phosphorescence. There is something very profound, very natural, very primeval happening in that moment.
There is a lot that could be said here about ritual, initiation, tribal community, acceptance. It is certainly worth exploring but moves beyond the realm of this piece. Suffice to say that these are critical elements of humankind that if ignored or misunderstood, can play out in harmful ways. I am reminded of Thoreau who said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
…by embracing our inner wildness we tap into something that is hard-wired into each of us.
The modern life has killed that wildness within us. Life today can be sterile and very contained as we move from a comfortable home to a comfortable office and back again – via comfortable transport. Our ability to confront and mitigate risk in the ways of our ancestors is a dwindling enterprise; hunting and gathering food is a trip to ‘Colesworths’; staying warm or cooling down is only a remote control away.
Entertainment is on the couch watching Netflix. Even a Covid-19 lockdown can be little more than an inconvenience requiring only a few work and lifestyle changes. Our need or desire to ‘live deliberately’, to quote Thoreau again, has become a desire to ‘live conveniently’ or perhaps, to ‘live comfortably’.
Yet, by embracing our inner wildness we tap into something that is hard-wired into each of us. In modern city life, it can be too easily lost, ignored, forgotten or covered up. Yet uncovering that primeval wildness is invigorating. It is life-affirming. It is natural. Like staring into a log fire, it is just ‘right’, and has been for millennia.
Inside each of us is a wild man or wild woman yearning to get out. An inner desire to connect with the earth and be tested: to feel the ground under our feet, not office carpet; to feel the wind and the waves and the salt spray against our bodies, not air conditioning; to know vulnerability and fear, yet self-reliance and the ability to overcome.
The ocean is how I stay healthy in body and mind. I have mentioned before that I have what marine biologist and author Wallace J. Nichols calls a ‘blue mind’ – the understanding that being in, near or on the water makes you happier and more relaxed. And I am not alone.
The ocean is a good place to get to know – and protect.
Since embracing ocean swimming in a more spiritual sense—I am a Christian and the ocean is a very sacred place for me—I have met people who have an equal spiritual connection to the water and their inner selves. In all them, I have noticed a peacefulness, an inner calm and confidence that only comes from being closely connected to nature (in our case the ocean) – and from being intimately in touch with their wild man or wild woman within.
There is a reason Earth is called the ‘Blue Planet’ – it is mainly ocean. And without the ocean, there would be no life on Earth. The ocean produces more than half of the world’s oxygen and regulates our climate and weather patterns. It also stores 50 times more carbon dioxide than the atmosphere.
The ocean is a good place to get to know – and protect. It is a good place to find your inner wildness.
Matthew Smeal is a photographer, writer and videographer who specialises in humanitarian issues. He has swum with Bold and Beautiful Swim Squad, Manly, since January 2020. www.matthewsmeal.com.au. Photos © Matthew Smeal