It Comes in Waves

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.

Editor’s Note: “Voices of Wisdom” featured image courtesy of Elizabeth Urabe. Enjoy her entire gallery here.


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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  1. Oh Charlotte! I’ve had this post open for a while, but had been getting sidetracked with work and life. I’m glad I waited. I loved reading about the comparison between floating and meditating. Meditation has been such a gift to me. It’s shown me to appreciate more – within myself as well as within the world all around me.

    And then your piece went on to describe the wake of a boat causing such turmoil because of peace. That reminds me of my current reality. And I’m grateful for the reminder that even thought the waves are coming, they will be calm again. And the pieces will be repaired. And the sun will shine.

    • Late to your lovely comment, JoAnna, and happy it resonated.
      Your phrase “turmoil because of peace” is so rich. Yes, it is an inner contradiction and I will let my subconscious see where it can take it. And yes, it will be calm again, and the sun will shine. (Have you watched Chaplin in The Great Dictator? Perhaps we should make a movie BC360 club with discussion?)

  2. Dear Charlotte,

    When reading your remarkably vivid description, I felt as though I should grab a towel and dry myself. Also my ears were full of water! I can visualize and sense experience. Denmark is certainly for swimmers and sailors. What I did miss was the Lila Hafru (spelling?) The Little Mermaid! Your description is as vivid as the graphic.

    Now I am dry and can read your article again.

    Thank you so much for the mention.

    • Thank you, Simon, for reading and for bringing a smile to my face mentioning the Lille Havfrue – the mermaid that is a huge or rather small disappointment to tourists who think they are going to find a watery version of Lady Liberty and then find a human sized sweet longing girl.

  3. Charlotte, you’re firmly among the ranks of Jeff Ikler and Randy Heller in your ability to tell a story that ripples (no water puns intended) in directions philosophical and pragmatic.

    Thank you for giving me some meditational moments of peace, reflection, and joy in the midst of a Wednesday afternoon.

  4. Hi charlotte,
    Thank you for sharing your experience!
    Reading your article brings me on an adventurous journey of living on the sea and also the value of silencing our minds and calming the waves til there are none left only to see what has been there all along…
    peace and harmony with a beautiful melody of the endless ocean and seas.
    blessings to you and yours.

  5. Hi Charlotte
    Thanks for a couple of elements of your story:
    1. Your descriptions of Denmark, sailing and swimming raise my desire to visit your home country and get back to sailing and swimming
    2. You create a desire to expand my meditation prqqcice, which though it has been fifty years since i learned and twenty years since I got disciplined, has mostly been about balancing my energy and outlook and only rarely about introspection.

    As you point out there are manyy waves in or life, some tougher than others to float through. Glad you walked away from that one unharmed.
    Thanks again

    • I have found that quieting the mind gives room for what I really should listen to instead of the noise of the world, Alan. Is that introspection? It probably is – but not as much for creating explanation, more for asking questions. The answers come from the deep.

  6. When I started reading your post, Charlotte I felt nostalgic for Denmark. I have been there several times and toured most of the country and met so many very kind and friendly.Danish people.

    Then the big sig wave emerged as i found my name gratefully mentioned in your lovely post. This is honorable for me. Thank you.

    A bigger wave followed when I read your metaphor of mediation and how it resembles floating in water. So lovely your explanation of the analogy between the two that captured my full attention while reading the post.

    I wonder if you have considered expanding the analogy to include the meaning of be in the flow. while floating. Sometimes we find ourselves sunk in deep waters and in need to flow. How right you are when you mentioned that being filled with fear sinks us. It is these times that the art of floating in water extends to the art of floating in deep waters of trouble.

    • I will repeat my invitation from Linkedin for you to run with the flow analogy, Ali.

      And after reading Melissa’s post on nostalgia, please enjoy – but not for too long. Better plan to go back.