Reflections from Sheila: Into the Ocean

As I write this post today, I’m looking out the window at the Gulf of Mexico in Destin, Florida. The wind is blowing, the sun is shining, and the water is incredibly turbulent with nothing but whitecaps as far as the eye can see.

I have loved the sea in all of its forms for all of my life. I spent long stretches of my childhood summers near here in Pensacola, FL.  I have lived along both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. I’ve sailed and snorkeled in the Caribbean and I’ve been swimming in the Mediterranean. The feel of sea spray on my face and the taste of salt water on my lips stirs something ancient in my soul, and the waves, whether stormy or wild, calm or serene, fill me with longing. My life in Atlanta keeps me relatively landlocked, but I know that there will be a day when the sea calls me to its shore and keeps me there.

This longing is not unique. It’s apparent here, during Spring Break week, that thousands of others feel it too. There seems to be something in our nature that vibrates in harmony with the cresting waves. The average amount of water in the human body is somewhere between 55 and 70%, and the degree of salinity in human blood has been compared to that of sea water to argue that as a species we may harken from the ocean. Maybe that explains our attraction to the shore. Or maybe it’s something else.

I think that for me, the appeal of the beach is that it reminds me of two things: First, how small I am in comparison to the unfathomably vast size of the ocean, and second, that there is more to the universe than I can ever comprehend. I’m humbled by the immensity of sea, and I long to be part of its embrace.

In countless spiritual communities, the Ocean is used as a metaphor for consciousness. I, like so many before me, am reminded each time I stare into the horizon from shore that the mysteries of the universe are infused with divine intelligence and are more brilliant than I can comprehend. At the same time, I am reminded that somehow I too am part of this infinite ocean of consciousness.

In Yoga, we are called to remember this very thing. Patanjali describes what are called the “Kleshas” in the Yoga Sutras. These “afflictions” are the primary cause of suffering for most of us. The first klesha is what is called “avidya.” In the simplest of terms, avidya means lack of understanding of our true nature. In other words, avidya means forgetting that we are merely drops from the great ocean of infinite and divine consciousness. In this forgetting, we create the next klesha, which is “asmita,” or “I-am-ness.” And lacking awareness of our identity as part of the eternal, infinite and whole ocean of consciousness, we begin to believe that we are nothing more than our finite, externally created self.  We cling to what we like (“raga”) and avoid all that we dislike (“dvesha’), ultimately fearing the return to the infinite (“abinivesha”). The techniques of yoga are aimed at quieting the fluctuations of the mind enough for us to remember and experience our true nature, to remember that we are ocean, not merely drops.

On a very deep level, I believe this is what drives us to return again and again to the sea. We may not make the connection intellectually, but our spirit understands that we are part of all that is. For a moment, or a week, or a lifetime, the lines that separate us from each other, from Nature, and from the Divine begin to dissolve and we are embraced by the Whole.

As e.e. cummings says,

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me),
It’s always our Self we find in the sea.

We find a larger Self in the sea than we ordinarily comprehend, and I, for one, am profoundly thankful for the reminder.