Following on from last week’s extract from my doctoral jottings, When Everything Suddenly Comes Together, this week we move on to when everything suddenly falls apart, as it did for me and my boat on the Atlantic voyage. If I had been more Buddhist at the time, I would have known that this is how it goes in the cycles of life. Things come together. Things fall apart. But at the time, I was just pissed off. But, as Steven Wright says, “Experience is something you don’t get until just after you needed it.”
If I had hoped to find enlightenment on the ocean, it turned out to be very different from what I expected. My role models had embraced a fairly contemplative path. There is not much that is contemplative about ocean rowing. It is a much more intense and distracting activity than sitting in a cave or a cabin. Equipment broke, waves tossed, winds blew (often not in the “right” direction), injuries and sores afflicted, and so on. My emotions veered between boredom and terror, with not that much in between. Serenity and insight seemed extremely distant, almost all of the time. As it was occurring, the experience seemed anything but spiritual. As environmental advocacy had been my prime motivating factor in venturing onto the ocean, I spent a lot of time feeling indignant that Mother Ocean was not showing more gratitude for my endeavours.
However, with the passage of time, I have come 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.
It seems particularly significant that both my onboard stereo and my satellite phone broke. I was able to use my stereo hardly at all: for the first month there was not enough sunshine to solar-power anything apart from the essentials, such as the watermaker, GPS, and satellite phone. Shortly after the sun came out, the stereo fizzled out due to corrosion, leaving me alone with my thoughts for the remainder of the journey. I was thus involuntarily subjected to the intense contemplative experience that I had wished for, with no opportunity for solace or distraction.
There is a huge qualitative difference between occasional dips into distraction-free solitude, and an intense, nonstop, 103-day immersion. In the absence of external input, the mind reaches back into itself and brings up all varieties of thoughts, memories, and emotions. It is as if there is a membrane between the self and the outer world, and in our 21st century modern world the nonstop bombardment of words, music, advertisements, media, images, and other stimuli fills the channels of the membrane with inward-bound information. It is only when the external stimuli are suspended that the quieter, more subtle forms of information that lie within have the opportunity to emerge into consciousness. (The influential book on creativity, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, recommends a media-free Week 4 during the 12-week programme, which many participants find difficult and rewarding in equal measure. The reward side of the equation is the emergence of latent creative vision.)
This contemplative experience intensified after my satellite phone also succumbed to corrosion, leaving me incommunicado for the last 24 days of the voyage. It was only at that point that I realised what an intrusive portal, or umbilical cord, the phone was. Its demise made a massive difference to my sense of solitude; the contrast between lots of input and little input is nowhere near as great as the contrast between a little input and no input at all. My solitude was now complete.
One of the interesting features of my solitude was the erosion of my ego-based identity. In everyday life, we are usually unconsciously playing roles appropriate to our context, revealing different aspects of ourselves depending on whether we are with colleagues, with our boss, with friends, with parents, with children, or with our spouse or partner. Sometimes we are only aware of this when we feel a conflict between our roles, when worlds collide and we feel confused by the attempt to play two roles at once.
Alone on the ocean, there was no need to play any role at all. Especially after the satellite phone broke, releasing me even from the self-imposed obligation to write a blog post every day, I was in relationship with nobody and nothing apart from myself and my surroundings. On some levels this was liberating, to be so free to be and do whatever I wanted. I peeled back the layers of my identity, letting go of identification with my gender, nationality, race, education, profession, and so on. I wondered what I would find at my core: who or what was I when all else was stripped away? My (possibly disappointing) answer is that I found nothing. When all the layers had been discarded, there was nothing that I could point at and say with certainty, “that is me”.
Some may choose to see that as support of the hypothesis put forward by Bruce Hood, in The Self Illusion: Why There is No ‘You’ Inside Your Head, that the “self” does not exist as anything more than an assembly of experiences, opinions, responses, and internal storylines about “who I am”, generated by the brain to enable us to function in relation to the outside world.
My choice would be to interpret my personal experience (while recognising the paradox in this, and realising I may equally be in the grip of the “self illusion”) as supporting Neale Donald Walsch’s (God’s) revelation that we are all fragments of a unified consciousness, manifested into myriad forms in order to experience existence from as many different perspectives as possible. Possibly both these perspectives, despite coming at it from the seemingly opposing directions of science and spirituality, boil down to the same thing; what Aldous Huxley called “self-naughting”, or the mystic’s highest ambition to dissolve the self into union with the divine.
Abraham Maslow recognised something similar, adding a further level to his hierarchy above self-actualisation, to represent “transcendence”, i.e. giving oneself to something beyond oneself. He equated this with the desire to access the infinite. “Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.”
We don’t seem to talk about these ideas very much in everyday life, at least, not outside the walls of a monastery or convent. But isn’t it sort of important? Doesn’t it somehow relate to those questions like, “why are we here?” and “what’s the point?”. Even if you don’t think that transcendence, or anything like it, is the point, I think it’s something worth talking about. At some level, I believe we DO all have our own version of the reason why we’re here, even if we have concluded that there is no reason at all. Is it delusional to think that we do have some role to play, tiny, fleeting, and insignificant as we may be? Is it just an attempt by the ego to find some relevance for itself?
I don’t have any answers, but it’s fun to wonder.