"I was, in fact, homesick for wildness, and when I found it I knew how intimately - how resonantly - I belonged there. We are charged with this - all of us. For the human spirit has a primal allegiance to wildness, to really live, to snatch the fruit and suck it, to spill the juice." - Jay Griffiths, Wild: an Elemental Journey

Monday, September 3, 2012

Three Lessons from the Ocean

I spent the past week in a rented house right on the beach with eight other people in Outer Banks, North Carolina.  We had a wonderful time eating, laughing, drinking, and mostly hanging out on the beach.

Two friends enjoying the beach

The ocean is an excellent metaphor for my life right now.  Water represents the subconscious, and according to many spiritual traditions, large bodies of water symbolize unknowing and fear.  The more time I spent in the water this week, the more lessons I learned about life.

Lesson One: Take Friends

I have always been afraid of the ocean - it is deep, vast, full of creatures who can eat me, and so unknowable that we know more about the surface of the moon than the depths of the ocean.  I have had recurring nightmares about sharks since I was a child, and every time I go to the beach it takes me several hours or even days to get up the guts to get in the water.  Mind you, this is from a woman who loves skydiving, grizzly bears, snakes, and spiders, and has no fear of public speaking, heights, small spaces, ghosts, or death in general.  But sharks and the ocean?  Yikes.

As usual, I finally gathered the courage to get in, but only with several other people.  This was the first metaphor.  Would two or three equally-vulnerable people around me really save me from a shark attack?  Probably not.  Will having a couple of friends in my life literally save me from emotional crises?  No.  But psychologically, having their presence and laughter nearby literally buoys me up - in both situations.  I need to be surrounded by supportive people before treading into the unknown.

Beach sunset with Oldman

Lesson Two: Keep Swimming

As anyone who's ever swam in the ocean before knows, to get to the calmer water, you first have to battle the breaking waves near the shore.  As in my life lately, the violent waves kept breaking and pummeling me - one after another after another.  Every time I thought - that one was bad, I'm sure they can't get any worse than that - they did.  Each wave seemed bigger, more powerful, more intent on driving me into the sand headfirst, breathless, and terrified.

But also as in life, the more I fought with them, the more I tried to "win," the more exhausted and defeated I became.  I was in their territory.  I could get upset and continue trying to stay upright, or I could surrender and simply let them wash over me.  It wasn't until I finally stopped fighting and just ducked under each one that I could pass the obstacle course.  I think the life lesson is obvious here.

Beach sunrise

Lesson Three: Don't Think. Feel. (or, Cut Off Your Head)

On the final day at the beach, we looked out and noticed several people waaaaay out in the ocean - standing.  They were at least three times as far out as any of us had ever gone before, yet it was obvious that they were able to stand.  We figured they must have found a sandbar, and we decided to go check it out.

This took all of the courage I had been growing through the week.  We had to swim for a good 10-15 minutes - over a deep part of the ocean floor where none of us could find the bottom - to get to the sandbar.

As I was standing out there with my friends, completely surrounded by water on all sides, I panicked.  Well, let me be more specific - my brain panicked.  Every time I allowed myself to think, I went on a downward spiral of fear.  My heart sped up, my jaw tightened, and I felt like I couldn't breathe.  When I  figuratively cut off my head, or forced myself to stop thinking and feel instead, I was at peace.  

I instantly realized that I was standing in beautiful, warm, green water with my friends.  There were schools of small fish swimming right through us and sometimes jumping out of the water.  Flocks of pelicans flew by at eye level, occasionally dive-bombing into the water and coming up with a fish.  We even saw a pack of dolphins playing further out.  Feeling brought me to a paradise.  Thinking took me to a hell.

The life lesson I will take away from this final scene is that when I am tempted to panic in fear, I will stop and look around.  I will allow my body to feel what is around me, and I will realize that I am safe, and all is well.

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