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Taking the Dive

Fighting to keep up with the Coast Guard’s best and brightest, my Buddhist practice proves vital to breaking through fatigue and self-doubt.

Photo by Thomas Mullin

by Alex McClintock
Kaneohe, Hawaii

I first heard of the Navy Diving Training Center in 2018 while on my first Coast Guard assignment—a 10-month engineering apprenticeship in Alaska. Right away, I was intrigued. Here was a door to a career promising to be physically rigorous and mentally stimulating. I would be working with my hands, on boats and buoys and the like, problem-solving up close based on what I could hear, see and feel, the kind of work I love. This is it, I decided. But my rank didn’t qualify me even to apply. I shelved the prospect, put my head down and worked toward ranking up and fulfilling my apprenticeship.

Rewind two years to the summer of 2016: I’m sipping beer at a friend’s house at dawn, watching a movie, utterly depleted by another cycle of drinking, weed-smoking and partying. I’ve just turned 22. Realizing that this kind of freedom—the absence of discipline, hard work and parental supervision—is no guarantee of happiness, I left for home and drew up a long list of actions to break the cycle. Unsurprisingly, Buddhism made the list—my mother, a longtime member of the SGI, had always encouraged me to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to summon the strength and wisdom to overcome life’s challenges.

Now, the word seemed to jump out at me. Buddhism, I thought. Couldn’t hurt to try. I knew it was working when, after one month of consistent chanting and SGI activities, I ran into an old friend who told me how good it was to see me looking so alive. The stress she put on the word told me that I was remembered as a kind of zombie—someone permanently checked out. But it also told me how much I had changed in the short course of my Buddhist practice. I determined to continue making causes, and within a year, these causes led me to the Coast Guard.

After serving in Alaska, I received orders to Oregon, where I heard about the U.S. Navy’s dive academy again. It was summer 2019, and I’d received a promotion, which qualified me to apply. I began training in earnest in May, and in August, I was accepted.

The Navy dive center is the top training center in the country, producing the U.S. military’s most elite divers. There are, in fact, only 80 divers in the Coast Guard. If I graduated the program (the attrition rate is incredibly high), it would be just the first step taken toward becoming one of these 80.

As an athlete and former lifeguard, I was used to competing in the water. But never in my life had I competed under such pressure as at the dive center. As I struggled through each workout, the instructors shouted reprimands. At the end the day, on the edge of my bed, I rewound what had been said, comparing myself with the others, convinced I had no chance of graduating. Chanting early in the morning and attending local SGI district meetings became my lifeline. While the rest of the guys partied on the weekends, I prioritized my Buddhist practice, renewing my determination. In this way, I advanced one day at a time, graduating from the program in September.

But this was just the first step to becoming a fully qualified diver. I received orders to Hawaii, where I would train for a year toward a “charting” exam simulating the realities of a dive operation. I would have to deliver the oxygen to divers, calculate critical numbers related to their health and communicate messages between them and the supervisor above water. Math is not my strong suit—even after a year of training, I still found juggling these tasks to be overwhelming. On exam day, overcome by self-doubt, I failed and returned to barracks feeling totally discouraged.

But Buddhism teaches that apparent setbacks are, in reality, opportunities. I chanted with the determination that it was either win or lose and resolved to take full responsibility for my shortcomings. I exerted myself 100% in preparing for a second go at the exam while studying Ikeda Sensei’s guidance and Nichiren Daishonin’s writings, and doing my best to support the members in my district.

When I arrived the morning of the exam, the chief examiner raised his eyebrows.

“I can feel your energy, Alex. It’s good. Are you ready?”

I was. When it was over, I was a certified diver of the Coast Guard.

I had done it! And yet, in the weeks that followed, I felt myself being pulled back into habits of comparison and self-judgement. Work remained as competitive as ever; opportunities to lead assignments were met with a forest of hands. I began to feel that everyone was more eager than I, smarter, faster, more capable. In a room of leaders, it was easy to take a back seat. I began to ask myself again whether I was cut out for this.

Again, SGI meetings kicked me out of this self-defeating cycle. Members reminded me of Nichiren Daishonin’s assertion that when we advance in our Buddhist practice, devilish functions invariably arise to impede our growth. The negative, confusing thoughts assailing me were precisely such hindrances.

As I chanted to win over my weaknesses and self-imposed limitations, my whole perspective about work began to change.

I soon accepted leadership for Windward Chapter and doubled down on supporting the young men. As I chanted to win over my weaknesses and self-imposed limitations, my whole perspective about work began to change. Whenever leadership opportunities arose, I volunteered, not worried whether I was the most qualified person in the room but simply determined to jump at every available opportunity for personal growth.

My determination remains to show up to work every day with a high life condition, as an example for the rest of the team, and to never slacken in the SGI spirit of self-challenge in daily life. Now, when negativity drags me down, I take a moment to reflect.

Hold on—How is my Buddhist practice right now? What efforts am I making in the SGI? I find it always comes back to this. Laziness, negativity, doubt—they can’t sink or even slow me down when I’m treading hard for kosen-rufu.

Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy. Regard both suffering and joy as facts of life, and continue chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, no matter what happens.

“Happiness in This World,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 681

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