Tuesday, July 17, 2012

More on the Art of Riding the Waves

Since my last post about waves, I've continued to think about the big waves of life, and how to meet them. I was asked to give the guest sermon at the Eastshore Unitarian Church in Bellevue last Sunday, and my sermon was on "The Art of Riding the Waves." If you'd like to listen to it, you can download and listen to it here. Or you can read the sermon, below. Before the sermon, I told a story for children, called The Wave, which you can download and listen to here.


Good morning, It is an honor to be here with you this summer Sunday morning, when you could be out enjoying one of our tardy summer days. I want to thank Ann Carden, your worship leader, for inviting me and for the beautiful and soulful process we went through together in thinking about this service.

By now in the service you must have an inkling of what the sermon is about. Ocean waves are, as in my story, nothing at all, merely temporary, beautiful, constantly changing forms of the ocean, and yet they are one of the most powerful forces we know. 

What really got me thinking about waves happened in late March this year, when I was caught in a rogue wave.One moment I was photographing beautiful wind-whipped breakers and the next moment one of those waves, which looked like every other wave, was washing around my knees and getting higher, and I was running for high ground. I experienced the sudden bodily  knowledge that if I didn’t get out of the wave, it was going to take me out to sea with it when it ebbed. I made it out, but it reminded me of the way a life can change in an instant.

Almost everyone has experienced these moments, or knows someone who has, when everything changes. The phone call in the middle of the night, the pink slip, the conversation with a doctor. Here’s something that the Zen teacher John Tarrant wrote, after he received a diagnosis of prostate cancer:

The diagnosis seemed alright at the time I got it but I observed that the small consulting room became large, time slowed down and everyone’s eyes grew big. That room became a ship hanging in space, a ship I can still visit if I wish, and sometimes do. That moment was the last moment when I hadn’t quite absorbed the news, when I didn’t quite have cancer yet.   http://tarrantworks.com/2011/12/17/five-reasons-to-get-cancer/#more-47

Of course, there are also the big waves which are not tragedies, but no less dramatic, humbling and transforming: really falling in love for the first time or the 10th time, or the birth of a child, or the power of an idea that sweeps you away and calls you to a new life.

So I started thinking about big waves, and what we can do when the waves hit, and if there might be an art to riding the waves of life, like tai chi, or surfing. So this sermon is about my exploration of this question.

When I was in my 20’s, I had a realization that has stayed with me ever since: up to that time, unconsciously, I had thought that when difficult things happened, it was sort of a mistake, something going wrong in the midst of an otherwise smooth life. I think, by the way, that this is a very middle class American idea – most people in the rest of the world know better by the time they are in their 20’s . Suddenly I realized that life, by its very nature includes disasters and accidents and unexpected changes– they aren’t aberrations, they are PART of life, just as waves are part of the ocean. A wave is a very different experience if the whole time you’re thinking, “Stop, this shouldn’t be happening, not in my life” rather than, “Ah, right, this is the nature of life. I don’t like it, but here it is, and waves hit everyone, sooner or later.”  Then, if you’re really wild and lucky, you might even be able to have the feeling of those people who ride the largest waves in the world, “Woooeee, this is a wild ride!”

Photo by Michael Hofmann
This may seem impossible, but I know someone who had just that sort of experience, a person just like you and me. A friend from Bellingham was up hiking in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with several other people, and a grizzly started following them one afternoon. All afternoon it followed them, getting closer and closer. They had no weapons, and they were going as fast as they could, with increasing terror. Finally they realized that the grizzly was definitely going to catch up with them, in just a few minutes, and at the bottom of a small hill they turned around and joined hands. One of them started to sing, and so they stood there, waiting for the wave, singing together. When the grizzly crested the hill, no more than 20 ft away from them, my friend said that she was amazed at what she felt: not fear but awe. The grizzly, with the light shining behind it, was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. They sang and she felt tears running down her face. The bear paused there and they all regarded one another; then it turned around and walked away from them. 

Here’s another story about riding the waves. I have a friend who traveled on a Russian freighter from San Francisco to Asia, many years ago. He was young, and had no idea what was going to happen next in his life. The freighter left the Oakland docks at midnight, and the bay was full of fog and waves. He remembers standing on deck as the freighter crossed under the Golden Gate Bridge, and in the lights from the boat and the bridge he could see ducks on the big swells and breakers as they came into the narrow channel of the Golden Gate. The ducks were completely calm and at ease, bobbing up and down n the dark with each enormous swell. All my friend’s fear and trepidation about his life evaporated, and he says that the image of those ducks stayed with him for decades, as he lived the uncertain and unconventional life of an itinerant artist in Asia. The message he had understood was “You can trust uncertainty.” 

Ann shared an old poem with me, from 1947, written by Donald Babcock, a philosophy professor, about a duck very like the ones my friend saw. I’m going to read you a little bit of it.

… It is a duck riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf.
and she cuddles in the swells.
There is a big heaving in the Atlantic and she is part of it.

She looks a bit like a Mandarin or the Lord Buddha
meditating under the Bo tree,

She can rest while the Atlantic heaves

because she rests IN the Atlantic.

Probably, she doesn’t know how large the ocean is …
          And neither do we…
                    And what does she do, I ask you?
She sits down in it.
She reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity … which it is.

That is spirituality, and the duck has it!
She has made herself a part of the boundless
by easing herself into it
                    just where it touches her.

So this brings us to perhaps the most important question: what about when the wave is too big for you to ride, when it knocks you over, tumbles you, knocks the breath out of you? What about when you can’t find a way ride the wave? What then? What do we do when the wave has pinned us to the sand and every time we try to get up we get knocked down again?

I think being caught in a wave in one’s life is one of the most humbling things around. All your ideas of yourself as a competent, together adult just fall to pieces, and you are just in the raw reality of your response, which may be very unimpressive. Being humbled is not such a bad thing, actually. From a place of humility there is room for learning, and for receiving. You have fallen, and those who love you carry you in their arms. Those people who ride giant waves are supported by other surfers on jet skis, who risk their own life in the waves by going in and rescuing a fallen friend. Sometimes you can be the rescuer, sometimes you are rescued. Both roles are important, both need the other.

As part of exploring this question, I wanted to talk to someone who really knew about waves, first-hand. I had a long chat with a friend who is also a Zen priest, and a life-long fanatical surfer.

 What I realized, talking with him, is that, to a surfer, every wave you ride makes you stronger, makes the body wiser and more able to ride the next wave. A surfer rides the waves with the body’s wisdom, not the mind’s. Surfers fall over and over again, and get up and meet the next wave. Learning to ride the waves of life is like that too. I want to tell the older people here that this is a place where age and experience are a tremendous advantage.

You might be surprised at the story of the genesis of Outward Bound, the famous wilderness survival school. Outward Bound is a nautical term for a ship leaving behind the safety of the harbor for the open sea. The school was developed in the 1930s because it had been noticed that when there was a shipwreck at sea, paradoxically the older, more experienced sailors were more likely to survive than the younger, stronger sailors. Apparently, with shipwrecks, as with many other things, practice matters. We learn something each time we fall, each time we’re shipwrecked.

Falling is not a mistake; it’s what we need to meet the next wave, to build our capacity for uncertainty, for joy in the face of hardship, for compassion, for resilience. We aren’t born with these qualities; they are forged in the waves.

And this is where I think compassion is the most important thing: compassion for yourself if you have fallen, if the wave is too much for you, and compassion for others, for the whole world, all of us caught in the waves in one way or another.

Take a moment to think about your own resources, your own hard-earned life wisdom about how best to ride – or fall- in the waves....

I asked my friend the surfer/Zen guy about what it was like when he got caught in a wave, and I thought he’d give me some deep wise Zen answer. You know what he said? He said, when I’m caught in a wave, all there is is fear. There’s no room for anything else, no time for big thoughts or nice ideas (on second thought, maybe this really is a deep wise Zen answer). There is just “Help!” and hardly even that. And this reminds me of the story about ways to pray, that there are really only two kinds of prayer: Help, and Thank You.  And I would add perhaps, a third, wordless prayer, from the story of my friend and the grizzly: awe.

Finally, all waves have their end, subside into foam, re-enter the sea. That terrible grief, that tremendous confusion, that desperate love, eases, eventually, miraculously. Waves are impermanent, just as we are. As solid and overwhelming as they can seem, they have their time and then they change. We do too, whether we have ridden the wave or struggled in the foam, our life carries us past and into new waters.

I want to close with an inspiring quote from our old friend Henry David Thoreau:

You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land, there is no other life but this.