“Notice where you feel the rising and falling sensation of the breath most strongly.” I summon the voice of Andy Puddicombe, founder of the blockbuster meditation app Headspace, as the air from my oxygen tank fills my lungs and slowly floats my body toward the water’s surface. When I breathe out, I watch as the air bubbles escape from my regulator and I hover closer to the bottom of the reef, where I spot a yellow boxfish hiding behind a patch of swaying purple coral. Fifteen metres underwater, I have to surrender to my breath – it’s now in charge of my every move. Inhale, rise; exhale, descend. Repeat.
This is my first time scuba diving in more than a year, and I’m nervous: We’re at the Watamula dive site in northern Curaçao, and the current on our first descent is strong. But I trust Loys Leso, an unflappable instructor from local outfitter Go West Diving, who guides our group of five. Sitting outside the hurricane belt, Curaçao is home to one of the most beautiful fringing reefs in the Caribbean – though like much of the region, it has been affected by coral bleaching. There are nearly 70 dive sites, and the island’s underwater landscape teems with marine life, ranging from ferocious barracudas to languid manta rays to dushi angelfish (that’s “sweet” in Papiamentu, the local creole language).
I first fell in love with scuba diving while travelling solo across Southeast Asia, where I jumped off tiny boats to swim among Mola mola fish and hammerhead sharks twice my size. Years later, the sport took on a deeper meaning after a bad breakup forced me to move back in with my mother in the twilight of my twenties (deep breath). Suddenly home in my childhood bedroom, I began dabbling in meditation: Every morning, I practised observing my thoughts with curiosity instead of my typical judgment. As I felt the calm of my slow breaths, worlds away from the social-media circus and distractions of my life, the similarities between meditation and diving jumped out at me. And I longed to go back to my happy place under the sea.
As I descend into Paradise – the name of my second dive site in Curaçao – I feel the pressure from the water like a cocoon. Outside noises soften until my focus lands on the amplified sound of my breath. Inhale. I can’t help but giggle, thinking I sound just like Darth Vader. Exhale. Isn’t it wild that Luke Skywalker used meditation in The Last Jedi to save everyone’s life? Inhale. Maybe I sound less like Darth Vader and more like my ex’s sleep apnea machine? Exhale.
I catch myself before my thoughts spiral down the vortex of past relationships and bring my attention back to the present moment, toward a floating sea turtle. My new friend makes a right turn around a staghorn coral formation, and I sync my breath to the slow movement of its flippers. How long have I been here? Ten minutes? I look at my watch: closer to an hour. Time stretches when you’re deep in the present moment.
Back on the boat, I’m awash with the same feeling of calm I experienced in my childhood bedroom after my meditation sessions. Maybe it is because I am captivated by the sea, or maybe it’s because I can’t check my phone, but it feels easier to let go of my thoughts. As the sun burns embarrassing wetsuit tan lines on my skin, I realize I have no idea what’s coming next for me – and for the first time in ages, I’m okay with it. Pretty dushi, I know.