Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Water Experience


Lorback, Colin


Water in its many forms is essential to all life. It is the medium in which most living cells exist. Our bodies consist of more than two-thirds water which is constantly being eliminated, to be replaced through drinking. Water is also needed to grow food, without which we would die. Water plays a fundamental part in our everyday life. It is used for cleaning our bodies, our clothes, and many other household and personal objects. Water is used for heating and cooling, and for providing electricity as well as transportation. Most of us also enjoy playing in it-we swim, surf, snorkel, sail, paddle, ski, canoe and cruise. As well, children play with hoses and lawn sprinklers, with gushing fire hydrants, with water pistols, and with toys in the bathtub.


Water forms the base substance of almost all liquids; in its chemically pure form it is a colorless, transparent, tasteless, scentless, usually inoffensive compound of oxygen and hydrogen. But despite these rather innocuous sounding properties, water can also hold a variety of sinister features. Water is rarely found in its pure form, and may in fact be the silent carrier of harmful chemicals, bacteria and viruses. Water also causes damage and sometimes death by way of flooding, and in either of its two extreme forms, ice and steam, it can injure or kill those exposed to it. In our everyday lives water can be a major source of irritation in the form of leaking pipes, overturned water vessels, dripping faucets, and flooded or icy pathways or roads. And even the pleasure of swallowing a draught of cool water after a vigorous physical workout may be instantly destroyed in a violent fit of choking, as in our eagerness, a drop or two goes down the wrong way.


In what ways do we personally experience water? We wash ourselves in a variety of ways, depending upon certain factors. We might take a bath because we are dirty all over, or because we wish for physical relaxation (despite the inadequate length of most bathtubs which force us to half sit, half lie, invariably resulting in either feet, knees or shoulders getting cold as they stick out of the water). On the other hand, we might decide instead to take a shower. Although we usually shower because we are in a hurry, this is not always the case. Merle Flannery (1974) evokes the pure sensual delight of a lingering shower, first by relating how she concentrates on the interplay between the flowing water and her naked body, and then describing the outcome of this observation:

The feeling of being moved by the water becomes more and more intense until the skin of my body bursts: I am soaring weightless and breathless with the water and in the water as I dip and sway. The water shatters me completely. My body is an exultant, joyous, and boundless flow of energy. (6)

We also use a washbasin to wash only our hands or face, especially if, again, we are in a hurry, or if the only areas needing washing are hands or face. If the experience of washing is anything like Flannery’s, it will be very pleasant, especially when the water is at the correct temperature, the shower nozzle shoots out a comfortable volume of water, the bathtub is built long enough for stretching out, and there is no great need to hurry. On the other hand, washing may be an absolutely unpleasant experience; the hot water may run out when one has just soaped up under the shower (can water possibly be taken for granted in such a situation?), the bathtub may be uncomfortable, and the shower nozzle may either be sending out a spray too fine to wash the soap off, or so powerful that it feels like one’s skin is being pierced by needles.


As well as washing with water, we drink water in many forms, and sometimes for reasons other than pure thirst. Oliver Herford (Davidoff, 1974) attests to the value that we place on water for drinking:

Here’s to old Adam’s crystal ale.
Clear sparkling and divine,
Fair H2O, long may you flow,
We drink your health (in wine). (427)

Like Herford, we often drink water as an alcoholic beverage, especially at social gatherings, as well as hot water mixed with ground coffee beans, or crushed tea leaves. Carbonated water has a pleasant tingle to the palate which helps to quench our thirst. Water in the form of milk or juice is all we have for the first few months of our life. We all have our favorite drinks, depending upon the situation and in most cases, because we make the decision of what and when to drink, we rarely have an unpleasant experience, especially when we are particularly thirsty. But who as a youngster or patient has not been obliged to drink water or milk or juice or medicine against one’s wishes? We also use water for a variety of utilitarian purposes such as washing the car, preparing and cooking food, cleaning kitchen utensils, scrubbing floors, windows and walls, as well as watering lawns and gardens. These types of activities, for some people, may be highly pleasurable pastimes, while for others, they mav be avoided like the plague.


We are at times forced to experience water against our will. As well as those situations previously mentioned, there are times when, for example, we must walk or cycle outside whilst it is raining, attend swimming classes in freezing pools, and drive the car through heavily flooded streets. But while water in its many forms and uses may be the cause of upset or even disaster, the terms “water” and “play” are very often seen as being complementary, especially when this water takes the form of a swimming pool, a sandy lake, a seaside beach, or an ocean shore. Water sports are virtually endless in their variety, and if we think back to any summer day at the beach, it is the sound of laughter, especially that of children, which is a constant background to the great variety of activities taking place.


The most common type of water activity is swimming, but why is this so? What does swimming hold for people? Why is it such a “fun” thing to do? Perhaps because to be in the water is to be in a profoundly different world. The water envelops our body so much more concretely than does air; when we move we feel the water on our bcdy, whereas we rarely feel the air on our skin. This effect is magnified when we open our eyes underwater. We see much less clearly, and can feel the water washing across our eyes. Our sense of hearing underwater is disturbed; dull sounds are very faint, while metallic sounds are loud and clear. Of course smelling and speaking are absolutely limited in water! Thus very easily we can be transported into a different sensory environment, another “world,” to explore its properties and its boundaries. And to be able, as a swimmer, to investigate this foreign environment requires a certain trusting. The swimmer entrusts himself to the water because the water tells him in a thousand different ways that it will receive his body kindly. (Van den Berg, 1955).


But there are many who have never experienced this feeling of entrusting themselves to the water, who have consequently not felt their body being weightless as though in outer space, as the water receives their body. These people are not willing to entrust themselves to this different medium, this watery environment. They may be afraid-of the unknown, of injury, or of death. Of course, many experienced swimmers have also felt some kind of fear when swimming, especially in strange situations. They describe these feelings when swiming through seaweed or lake weeds, when stepping into thick mud on the lake bed, when swimming in dark lake water, or in ocean water for the first time, and when the temperature of lake water drops suddenly a foot or two below the surface. I, too, have experienced such feelings. When swimming in the lake of a long since extinct volcano it came to my mind, with an immediate feeling of trepidation, how deep the water below me might be. Again, when snorkelling in the ocean over a coral reef we suddenlv came to its edge, giving us the impression of hovering over the edge of a precipice, unable to see into the blind depths. At both times the physical sensations were similar-a tightness of breath, a tensing of the muscles, and a feeling of being close to panic in the face of those unknown depths.


To watch fearful beginners taking swimming classes is to see exhibited a variety of body gestures which give evidence of various degrees of being uncomfortable in the water. They show a reluctance to get into the pool at the beginning of the first few classes, even at the shallow end. They show an obvious dislike of getting their face wet, evidenced by an initial reluctance to put their face in the water, by nose holding, grimacing, and exaggerated and vigorous wiping of the face upon surfacing. They are reluctanl to open their eyes under water, as well as being loath to lift their feet off the floor of the pool in order to attempt to float, even with somebody standing by to support them. In general, their movements in the water appear very guarded and restricted in comparison to those who are able to swim. It is not easy for those who are not fearful or anxious to fully understand and appreciate the feelings of those who are afraid. Thus it would seem best left to the nonswimmer to explain what this “being-afraid” actually entails.


With few exceptions these people describe feelings of “tenseness” (both physical and psychological) as well as feeiings of a lack of control of their bodies in the water, to the point that they cannot be sure that they would not take a breath while their face is still in the water. Drowning is a very real, distinctly possible occurrence for these people, even in the shallow end of the pool, with teacher, classmates and lifeguard nearby. They do not trust the water. That same water that Van den Berg speaks of, which is clearly seen to safely cradle the skilled instructor who demonstrates various floating skills, is viewed as a menacing, engulfing substance, ready to suck the unwary-or unlucky-person into its depths. To these people the water represents danger; it is danger.


Non-swimmers in the water resist entrusting themselves to the water; they try to maintain their hold on their regular environment by keeping their heads out of the water as far as possible. Unfortunately, the consequence is that they sink deeper into this strange and feared environment.


George Leonard (1975, 16) describes the swimmer as being “balanced precisely on the boundary between two worlds.” It is frightened non-swimmers who, like the high-wire walker who has lost nerve, do not believe in their own ability to maintain equilibrium, no matter how much or how rationally others may attempt to convince them.


This acute awareness of danger being present is magnified as the depth of the water increases: “If I went to the deep end I’d be too scared to try learning-just too petrified.” Thus there are many people who can float confidently in the shallow end of the pool but will refuse to attempt to float in water out of their depth, even with the instructor standing by. Could this be because the water environment requires constant work in order to keep bringing air into the lungs, as well as to remain floating and moving in the water? In other words, although we must entrust ourselves to the “saving power” of the water, we can never unwarily relax, in the full sense of the word, as we can on land.


To swim is to undergo a series of departures from our everyday land-locked existence. Where else, but walking into a lake when going for a swim, are we able to feel the frigid surface of the water slowly, inexorably creep from ankles, to knees, to thighs, to that ever sensitive abdomen, and upwards to chest and neck? Or for that matter, how could we otherwise experience the absolute suddenness and shock of jumping or diving into cold water, especially when our bodies have been slowly cooked under the sun? There is no easy way to endure the drastic change of temperature from air to water.


We usually wear next to no clothing when swimming, even when the water is cold. And for good reason-although we rarely notice the clothes that we normally wear out of the water (unless they are itchy or tight), those who have attempted to swim while wearing street clothes have experienced their obvious inappropriateness in the world of water. We instantly become aware of these clothes as they billow around our limbs, slowing us down, dragging us under. Wearing little in the water also helps to enhance the truly sensual nature of water gliding over our skin as we move through it. This sensuousness is further heightened if the surface of the water is glassy smooth-unblemished by waves, bv currents, or by other swimmers. We often hear of water being described as “silky smooth,” but never if the surface is chopped into waves by wind, current, or tide.


The result of physical activity common to many forms of moderate exercise, is often a pleasant feeling of fatigue. The physical consequences of swimming are, however, somewhat different. We are “cushioned” in water from the effects of gravity: Our bodies are virtually weightless. We are cushioned from most of those sudden jarring movements which occur out of the water. Tiredness comes from using different muscles than those we use to transport ourselves on land, as our upper body musculature is rarely called upon for any vlgorous or sustained exercise (especially in this time of automation). But in swimming, in order to move against the gentle but persistent resistance of the water, our upper body is provided with an efficient, yet often unnoticed, workout.


Our experience of time is also different in the water. Because we are land creatures, any time we spend in the water is limited-it must end; we must return to land or die. Each time we step into the water to swim could be seen (especially by the nervous beginner) as a reminder of our mortality. No matter how much I am enjoying myself in the water, I will have to come back out. If I don’t, the only alternative is death. And when diving underwater, there is also that ever-present, stark awareness of a time limitation, as we are holding our breath until our lungs are close to bursting.

Heidegger (1977) shows us, through Holderlin’s poem, that there exists an identifiable relationship between “danger” and “saving power”:

But where danger is, grows
The saving power also. (311)

Heidegger is considering what the swimming instructor must understand and what must be conveyed to the frightened learner; that is, “in what respect the saving power does most profoundly take root and thence thrive even where the extreme danger lies.” In other words, the person who is able to give oneself up to the water, to allow the saving power-the primordial significance of the inherent buoyancy of the water-to deliver one from danger, is the person who has learned how to float, and therefore, in a deep sense to give oneself over to trusting life, or this aspect of life.




Davidoff, E. (ed.) (1974). The pocket book of quotations. New York: Pocket Books.

Flannery, M. (1974, March). Images and aesthetic consciousness. Art Education. 7 , 4-7.

Heidegger, M. (1977). Basic writings. New York: Harper & Row.

Leonard, G. (1975). The ultimate athlete. NewYork: Avon Books.

Van den Berg, J.H. (1955). The phenomenological approach to psychiatry. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas