Do you know how to swim?
Denmark could be described as the Baltic Archipelago. One peninsula, and around four hundred islands, half occupied by humans, all of them occupied by seagulls. Nowhere in the country is the distance to the sea longer than 40 miles. Consequently, Danes swim, sail, row, fish, and go to the beach year-round, and every self-respecting town on the coast has some kind of marina/harbor/pier.
In swimming class, taught in schools, you learn how to float. Stretched out with your back arched slightly, approximately 90% of you is below the water line, your ears included. If you don’t know how to float or if you panic, 100% of you is below the water line surprisingly fast. But if you know how to float and place yourself on the seaside of where the waves break, floating can be bliss. It is quiet – your ears are full of water – and you are just bobbing up and down on the waves like the seagulls.
This mental image of floating on the sea arose in a recent discussion on meditation prompted by a flow diagram on how to meditate and a comment from Ali Anani. My first experience with flow diagrams was for analyzing rules and processes to turn them into computer code, and this meditation instruction was, indeed, intended for engineers.
Quite a few commonalities exist between meditating and floating: In meditation, we can become distracted by a thought arising; in floating we can become distracted by a wave arising. Good meditators will notice the thought and let it go, returning the focus to their breath; good “floaters” will notice the wave rising under them and unperturbed let it pass.
While we learn to meditate, an unwelcome thought may cause us to abandon the meditation for ruminating or following a storyline into an emotional tailspin; while we learn to float, a wave or a slimy jellyfish may cause us to panic, collapse from the floating position, and thrash around on the surface at the expenditure of a lot of energy.
The thoughts and emotions arising during a meditation may cause us to question the root of these thoughts or feelings, perhaps leading to new insights about our life, values, or habits; an odd wave arising may cause us to question what caused the disturbance in the water and check if we still are safe to float or should get ashore.
Agreed, the process is better if you can float without fear of neither physical nor proverbial great white sharks surfacing and if the waves you are bobbing on have no chance of turning into a 20 feet surfer paradise. If these risks are in your waters, better have a “life-guard” on the beach / to assist your meditation practice. Fortunately, so far, my inner and outer waters have been free of woman-eating sharks and the biggest ocean swells.
Yet… here is a back story on my relationship with waves.
Both my husband and I have been sailing since we were teenagers. I had a small dingy, and my mother could from her windows follow my unusual red sail out on the fjord. He was a sea scout and later he bought a 28 ft yacht to go racing. When we met, I am sure it was not held against me that I could tie a proper knot, knew port from starboard, and was game for going on a 400-mile race with some of his friends against 2,000 other boats.
On the particular date described here, we sailed to a small island halfway between Denmark and Sweden where we went to explore the old Tycho Brahe observatory.
The morning after visiting the observatory, we woke up to a beautiful and very quiet summer’s day. That was great, because small boats don’t have good bathing facilities onboard and small harbors sometimes don’t have any, either. We pulled on bathing suits and jumped from boat to pier to a bathing platform chained to the outside of the pier. My boyfriend was faster in the water and faster out again, and that proved to be extremely fortunate, because as I hoisted myself up on the platform, he yelled for me to jump to the pier, held out his hand, and dragged me off the platform just as a most unusual wave was crashing in. It hit the beach and went back out so timely that it joined precisely with the next wave – that consequently became almost twice as big. The platform, where I had stood seconds before, had been ripped from the chains and smashed to pieces against the pier. Yachts that had anchored in the little bay next to the very small and very full marina were thrown halfway up on the beach. From a quiet early morning, it was now full of voices and crying as everybody had been awoken by their boat being shaken or their morning coffee had been sent flying.
The culprit turned out to be a combination of the extremely calm morning, where even this international body of water had a mirror blank surface, and a big transport ship that left a wake many miles away. Normally, any wake would have been broken up by the waves and the current but this morning it has spread intact for miles and miles, one wave followed by the next.
We were both literally and emotionally shaken by the event that could easily have had a very bad outcome, had I not been pulled to safety in the nick of time. And while I have never otherwise identified myself with damsels in distress, this trip was a hero’s journey in the most literal sense for my later-to-be husband.
Since we tied a different kind of knot, we have learned that moving to another country gives a new awareness about both sharks and ocean swells. We deal with them as they arise. Mostly mindfully, but now and again thrashing on the surface at the expenditure of a lot of energy.
I had hardly finished writing this piece when Elizabeth Urabe posted a poem and the beautiful drawing named Voice of Wisdom, which I use as the above-featured image with her permission – although I turned it 90 degrees. As with all Grandma Beth’s designs, it is glorious regardless of which side is up.