A Compassionate Dive into Wellbeing

Exploring the healing waters of wild swimming

Sue Black, Associate, Balanced Minds


I took up wild swimming as a challenge to myself. 

I have never been a confident swimmer, but I have always loved being alongside bodies of water – rivers, lakes, the sea. 

I had a group of friends who went wild swimming together regularly, and I live in the Lake District where we have beautiful natural places to swim – I just needed to harness my courage and dip my toe in the water!

compassion focused therapy

How did compassion - and ideas from Compassion Focused Therapy - help with this?

Tapping into my drive system I made arrangements to meet with my friends for my very first lake swim, gathering my kit together to be able to do this safely (compassionate wisdom!)

My threat system started to pull my attention. Alongside my excitement I was anxious – I’m not a strong swimmer; I won’t be able to go very far; what if I get into difficulties, what if the others think I’m a burden.

My own compassionate mind practice helped me to engage the soothing system, to notice and validate these fears, and enable me to be able to tolerate the difficult feelings.

Reminding myself of my commitment and using my courage, I showed up for that first swim.

How does compassion appear during swimming?

What I discovered was the sense of connection to others and to nature. The three flows of compassion are so evident within the wild swimming group.

We look out for each other from a safety point of view. We help others get into the water, and we allow ourselves to be helped.

A friend swam alongside me the first time I went out of my depth and showed me how even if I didn’t move my arms and legs I would still float.

We show compassion to ourselves. It is common for one of us to say that we hadn’t felt like coming that morning but had reminded ourselves how much better we would feel if we did.

During our time together some of the group members have experienced great difficulties in their lives, and have felt able to lean on others in the group for care and support.

In these moments of connection, we find strength in solidarity, drawing support from each other. Moreover, the act of swimming alongside others reinforces our interconnectedness, reminding us that we are never truly alone in our struggles and triumphs.

Being Present

compassion focused therapy swimming

When entering the cold water you can be nothing but present in that moment. 

You have to regulate and slow your breathing, listen to your body and tune into when it is ready for full immersion.

Then that glorious moment when you start to swim – all of your senses are engaged
– The feel of the water as your body glides through it – the wind or the rain – or even occasionally the sun on your face
– The smell of the water and the countryside around you
– The sight of the ancient magnificent fells often shrouded in mist, or basking beneath a blue sky
– The sound of the geese on ‘their’ island – warning you to keep your distance if you get too close!


Reflections in the Water

Interestingly I don’t remember the details of that first swim, but it must have been a powerful experience as I have continued to swim every week since – through all of the seasons.

Wild swimming is more than just a recreational activity, it’s a communion with nature. This nourishes and replenishes my soothe system like nothing else can.

In a world fraught with uncertainty and upheaval, wild swimming offers a beacon of hope and resilience. It beckons us to embrace the unknown, to surrender to the ebb and flow of life with grace and courage. In its gentle embrace, we find healing, connection, and compassion—not only for ourselves but for the world around us.

A Poem for Swimmers - Harry Baker

I’ve never regretted going for a swim.

Even on the days when I have almost talked myself out of it.
When the warm duvet clings to me like seaweed,
when on the way the wind whispers:
it’s not too late to turn back,
when I am stood on the edge
and shivering before I’ve even begun.

Deep breath
Feet clench

And yet the second I am in it is all worth it.
okay, 5 seconds after I am in it is all worth it.
Somehow every single time it still surprises me how cold it is.

My technique is less Wim Hoff,
more Grunt Like Warthog,
flailing limbs underwater
until things begin to warm up.

When the cold hits you,
it becomes impossible to think about anything else
and this year of all years, that is not nothing.

It could be wetsuit-with-the-hands-and-feet,
or swimsuit-with-a-beanie-hat
a full on lap, or there and back,
often not even that.

Whether grimacing or grinning
you can see it in our eyes
our skin is pink and we are thinking
what a time to be alive.

I love how much I do not need to be the best at this.
Each day the fact that I am in at all is an achievement –
and this year of all years that is not nothing.

A dog walker on the way home
chuckles ‘rather you than me’
I can’t help smiling to myself
I think I rather do agree.

As the feeling
teases back into my fingers
I am already looking forward to tomorrow
And this year, of all years, that is not nothing.

Reproduced with kind permission

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