Here’s something I have been thinking about, and I thought it would be interesting to run it past you, my dear readers….
Wilderness and spirituality have long been linked. Jesus went out into the desert for forty days and forty nights. Moses went up a mountain. The Buddha sat under a tree. Thoreau went to the woods. Tenzin Palmo went to a cave in the snow. Michael Crichton (of Jurassic Park fame) talked to a cactus.
Note: none of them sat in an office, on their sofa at home, or even on a meditation cushion (although Tenzin probably did a fair bit of that too).
There was something about being in nature that opened them up to wisdom in a way that manmade environments didn’t. I’m not saying for a moment that it’s impossible to find spiritual insight in cities – maybe just that it’s harder.
I certainly hoped to find enlightenment on the ocean. As it turned out, this was challenging. There were a lot of distractions, like stuff breaking, getting blown off course, getting injured, and so on. My emotions veered between boredom and terror, with not that much in between. Serenity and insight seemed extremely distant, most of the time. As it was happening, the experience seemed anything but spiritual.
However, in hindsight, I wonder….
It took me ten years to discover the perfection in everything that went wrong. If everything had gone perfectly smoothly and according to plan, I would not have learned anywhere near as much as I did, conquered my fears and my inner demons (mostly), and grown as much as a person. It took a hostile environment like the ocean (hostile to humans, anyway) to humble me, strip away my ego, at times even make me just about forget who I was, other than a puny rower struggling her way across a vast ocean.
But I also wonder if there is something symbolic about oceans, that I am only just starting to understand and appreciate. These thoughts have been brought on in part by my current reading matter – I’ve just finished Saltwater Buddha: A Surfers Quest to Find Zen on the Sea, by Jaimal Yogis, and have started his second memoir, All Our Waves Are Water: Stumbling Towards Enlightenment and the Perfect Ride. He writes a lot about how surfing has illustrated and amplified his understanding of Buddhism and life in general.
Of course, there is wisdom and learning to be found in any kind of activity. It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it – mindfully or otherwise. I simply feel that some activities have more metaphorical value than others – for example, surfing seems more conducive to insight than playing video games.
And is there also something about the ocean as a symbol for the ineffable, the real-but-unseen that hides in plain sight all around us? In Jungian therapy, oceans and other large bodies of water symbolise the unconscious. It can also represent the beginning of life on Earth, and formlessness, the unfathomable, and chaos. There is something primal, ancient, and deeply mysterious about it.
From my low vantage point on the boat, I could see the surface of the ocean, the appearance of which depended mostly on how much wind was disturbing its surface, and what colour it was reflecting from the sky. So what I was seeing was the superficial perturbation of the ocean, not really the ocean itself. Of course, I knew that there was a whole load of ocean down there, averaging around two miles in depth, and covering huge swathes of the Earth’s surface. But I mostly couldn’t see it – couldn’t see what creatures lurked unless they chose to break the surface, couldn’t see how much plastic was distributed throughout the water column, couldn’t see into the inky depths, couldn’t see the ocean floor. I could see the “face” of the ocean, but that was only a tiny fraction of its totality and reality.
Arguably, the same could be said of the workings of our own inner selves, which remain largely unknown and unknowable to us. We see our surfaces, as they react to the winds and the weather of our daily lives, but the surface should not be mistaken for the totality and the reality of who we are.
I very much like the way that Jaimal describes individual humans as being like waves on the ocean of consciousness. I’d come across the analogy before, and it really resonates with me. No matter how they appear (or, in my experience, how they feel when they hit you!), waves are not actually moving chunks of water. A water molecule does not go waving its way across an ocean. Rather, waves are a chain reaction of energy being passed from one water molecule to the molecule next to it. This creates:
“the illusion of a fixed entity, a “wave” made of water, which has travelled miles to its destination. But really, the wave is a domino effect of energy, a series of causes and conditions. In essence, the wave is the memory of wind energy transferring between water molecules. Very little water is actually moving. A wave is at once real (real enough to pound rocks to sand) and completely different in every second. Though the wave is definitely real, and appears solid, it is also something of an illusion. (Jumping ahead a little bit, I could also add that our bodies are like these waves, as the molecules that make them up constantly shift and change over time —and the idea that there’s a single solid and persisting entity called “me” is a similar illusion.)”
We live in a culture (neoliberal, consumerist) where the concept of “me”-ness is very strong. We see ourselves as individual, isolated blobs of consciousness with our own unique identity, to which we become quite attached. Some of us believe that this unique identity even goes on after our body dies, into an eternal afterlife. We believe that I am a “human”, that creature is a “squirrel”, that thing is a “tree”, and that thing is a “rock” or a “star”, all separate and discrete. But what if I understood if the only thing that separated “me” from all of “those” was time? What if I knew that the molecules that make up the wave of existence currently called Rosalind Savage would one day get reassigned to become squirrels and trees and rocks and stars, just as they have been assigned in the past? Would that understanding make any difference to the way I treat those non-me molecules in their present incarnation?
Maybe, maybe not. Just wondering… What do you think?