Lamentations of a Eighth Grade Tuna Fish

I got the official news on a Wednesday after the first week of swimming during eighth grade gym class:  I was a tuna fish.  My gym teacher — a small man who observed us from outside the pool in his blue sweatpants — gave me the news.  For those who were not in Mr. Brigham’s fourth hour PE class at Vikan Jr. High in 1983, the tuna fish was the lowest rung on the swimming ladder.

As one of the better athletes in my class, I was accustomed to being a first or second round pick for every sport.  I was disappointed by the news that my swimming skills were likened to those of the little fish that you bought in a round tin can.  I wanted to be in the top swimming group.  I wanted to be a shark.  I longed to prowl the olympic-sized pool with my razor-teeth bared, patrolling the top of the food chain.

I would have settled for membership in the dolphin group which held the middle third of the class.  From watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and reading National Geographic Magazine, I knew that dolphins were the smartest fish in the sea.

Dolphins not only had big brains, they talked to each other with a language humans didn’t understand and they did tricks at Seaworld.  Being a dolphin wasn’t like being a shark, but it was pretty cool.  I knew that there were no cans in grocery store filled with dolphin meat; the thought seemed somehow violent.  Tuna cans, though, were “dolphin-free” as if dolphins were prized while tuna fish were expendable.

I remember begging and pleading with my mother for an after-school snack and being told to make myself a tuna fish sandwich.  I’d slog to the pantry and find a can of tuna, open the top with a can-opener, and squeeze it into the meat to reveal the toxic tuna juice which I poured into a plastic bag marked “hazardous”.  Then I’d remove the soggy tuna with a fork and spread it on bread slathered with mayonnaise.  Then I’d chow down.  This was me.  I was a tuna fish.

I survived my six weeks as a chicken of the sea earning a “B” for the term and developing a visceral reaction to the smell of chlorine that remains with me to this day.

Learning to Breathe

I stayed away from swimming pools until my Sophomore Year in College when I had a two hour space in my weekly schedule on Tuesdays and Thursdays between my Abnormal Psychology and Western Civilization classes.  I decided to take that time to visit the campus recreation center to lift weights, play basketball, and swim.

I remember venturing into the pool after lifting weights during my first visit.  I walked past swimmers gliding through the clear water like the sharks and dolphins I resented in Junior High.  Trying to drown my memories in excitement, I found an empty lane and slipped into the water.  I was pleased that I had an entire lane to myself so it was less likely that I’d run into or be passed by another swimmer.  I didn’t want to be distracted from my goal.  I was going to teach myself to swim.

I must have been in the water for 30 minutes.  I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I had an epiphany.  I determined that breathing out under water made swimming much easier.  I discovered that as a tuna fish I held my breath while underwater and then emerged to exhale and inhale before going under again.  By the end of this session, I had learned to breathe.  I continued swimming for the rest of the semester and put my tuna days behind me.

Other Applications of Breathing

Moving out into the ocean of life has given me more opportunities to experience the value of breathing.  I’d like to share three contexts where I have learned that my breathing helps me communicate:

  1. Getting centered – Before I go into a training or coaching session, I like to take a series of deep breaths to slow myself down while reminding myself of my intention.  This process helps me focus my energy on the task at hand.
  2. Defusing anger — Anger is described as an “alarm clock” that tell us we are out of our “hearts” and into our “heads”.  When I’m not aware of my anger I tend to behave in ways that guarantee my needs won’t be met.  To reconnect with my “heart”, I stop and take several deep breaths.  As I breath I ask myself what I am feeling and needing.  By breathing deeply I move out of “fight or flight” to a calm eddy in the river of my being.  Once I am reconnected, I look for ways to meet my unmet needs.
  3. Shifting the “energy” in conversation — When people are “triggered” or feel frustrated and hurt they tend to speak more quickly and breath less.  This urgency often stimulates anxiety in the listener and may motivate them to “up” their energy.  I find that when I can slow myself down with deep breathing rather than immediately sharing my response, I am better able to clarify my needs and express myself more effectively.  I find that when I slow down, the other party tends to follow suite.

When we breathe deeply, we slow our bodies down and give ourselves space to Communicate with Heart.