Mindfully at Sea

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“my gaze shifts to the Atlantic. Each wave is completely new and distinctive. No matter the size of the wave or its intensity, the beach gladly accepts each one as an offering from the sea. I smile and feel the rise of gratitude in my body for this lesson and for my teacher, the seashore. Without any fanfare, the sea meets the land and the message is simple: welcome everything.”– Brandon Nappi

 

I’m on a cruise in the Pacific Ocean and seeing nothing but water. From horizon to horizon on the starboard side, on the port side, aft, and forward; nothing but ocean. Living on land away from the ocean I’ve lost track of the fact that the Earth is also called the water planet, with over two thirds of its surface covered in water. Looking out on the ocean mindfully I am struck by how much our existence is dependent upon these vast waters. I am reminded of how interconnected everything, including ourselves, is with the oceans and how the oceans are interconnected with us. And, in spite of my ego, I am humbled by how powerless, miniscule, vulnerable, and insignificant I am. The timelessness of the ocean underscores how brief my life is; an eye blink in geologic time. This resets my thinking and puts perspective on existence.

 

The ocean is the cradle of life. It is the birthplace, the origin, of all life on the planet. Only relatively recently did creatures emerge from the oceans to occupy land. But, even though new forms of life developed on land, they carried with them the oceans of origin. The blood has the same electrolytes at the same concentrations as sea water. In essence, rather than being divorced from the sea, I carry the sea with me. Even our terrestrial existence is dependent upon the seas. Without them there are no clouds in the sky, there is no rain, and there is no vegetation. Life on land is dependent upon the oceans. It reminds me of how interconnected I am to the entirety of my planet and how without those interconnections, I would not be able to exist or for that matter would never have existed at all.

 

Seeing the ocean helps me to realize how weak and vulnerable I am. My life dangles by threads. Should I fall overboard, I would not last long in the cold waters. It would be too far to swim to shore. No matter how powerful and strong I believed myself to be, the sea unmasks my vulnerability. Society and human advancement has to some extent provided protection, including the wonderful machine I’m riding on. This allows my ego to generate the illusion of strength. But, when there’s a storm at sea, or even when it is calm, the delusion of invulnerability is stripped away and my true condition revealed. This generates a mindful appreciation for my life and the precious seconds that compose it. It opens my eyes to my dependence on others and society for protection, for being my port in the storm. It creates vast gratefulness and appreciation for others and all that I have surrounding and protecting me. When I mindfully look at things this way, I can see interdependence and impermanence in action, moment to moment.

 

Looking out mindfully at the vast expanse of ocean I see myself as a speck on the surface. Self-importance melts away and a tremendous humility emerges. All the events in my life and accomplishments seem so insignificant. Looking out mindfully at the agelessness of the ocean I see my life as a microsecond of oceanic time not to mention cosmic time. My ego has convinced me of a delusion that what I do and have done is important. A mindful examination of the ocean corrects this delusion. My life is but a drop in the ocean. In some ways that seems sad, but seeing the truth is never sad, it can liberate, eliminate unsatisfactoriness, and produce great happiness. All of the difficulties with career, family, and society all now seem so minor that I can’t believe that they so defined my life and determined my happiness.

 

When I mindfully look at the ocean the sadness lifts as I become awed by the wondrous beauty and infinite wisdom of existence. I may not be able to change it or even alter it in minor ways, but I can experience and enjoy it. I can see my life as a supremely lucky accident in the vastness of time and space, a time to be savored, a time to enjoy and a time to appreciate and learn from, in other words, a time to be mindful. It is a gift from the cosmos to me, a time not to be squandered. The seeming timelessness of the ocean underscores the brevity of my own life, like a solitary wave building and passing away, impermanent and ever changing.

 

With this mindful perspective my trials and tribulations become laughable trivial constructs of my ego. In the face of such vastness, how can I see an interpersonal slight as meaningful, an unattained career step as important, or a new car or a bigger house in a better neighborhood as necessary. But, this perspective doesn’t just remove delusion, it replaces it with love, wisdom, and happiness. With the death of delusion comes the birth of equanimity; seeing things, myself, and others exactly as they are and finding them not just OK but extraordinary, not just static but ever evolving, and not just real but spiritual. With the death of delusion comes the birth of deep noncontingent love, for myself, those close to me and extending to all of humanity.

 

Putting these thoughts behind and becoming mindful as I speed walk around the upper deck I let the present moment come into and dominate my awareness. Looking out to the horizon I feel the peace, quiet, and serenity of the horizon to horizon sea. Watching the ocean race by, feeling the breeze on my skin, smelling the fresh salt air, feeling my leg muscles at work and the clothing against my skin, hearing the engines purring, the bow breaking against the water, and the waves breaking against the side of the ship, I feel so totally alive. With my mind clear of thoughts and the ego’s delusions, I am totally awake and loving every moment. Quieting the inner voice, I am mindfully blissful at sea.

 

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

Mindful Vacation

 

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By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Fatigue sets in, rigidity applies, and all creativity and innovation are lost — both of which need time away for other activities to increase the probability of new ideas. Unhealthy overwork costs companies money for healthcare and creates stressful and unrewarding lives, both of which detract from the good work they are supposed to be furthering.” – Lotte Bailyn

 

The Buddha taught that we should follow the middle way. He taught that an instrument’s string, if it is too loose, it doesn’t produce a note and if it’s too tight it will break. It is best in the middle, producing beautiful music. So it is with us. To be successful in almost anything, but especially in our spiritual practice, we must follow the middle way. We should neither meditate too little or too much, we should neither work too little or too hard, we should not relax too much or too little, we should not eat too much or too little, etc. We should find the happy medium in all things.

 

Unfortunately, Americans do not follow the middle way. In their careers they work far too hard. Hard work is laudable and productive if balanced with sufficient rest, relaxation, exercise, and being with family and friends. But for far too many Americans, work has been overemphasized and has become over weighted in their lives’ balance sheets. One clear example of this is vacation time. It’s gotten so bad that America has been dubbed the “No-Vacation Nation.” Fully 41% of Americans took no vacation at all in 2015 and another 17% said that they took fewer than 5 vacation days. In other words, approximately 2/3rds of Americans took less than a full week of vacation in the entire year.

 

It is estimated that half a billion days of vacation that were available to Americans are not taken each year. In addition, many of the vacation days taken were used not for rest and relaxation, but for other work or medical needs. To make matters worse, Americans when they do take real vacation bring their laptops and cell phones with them and continue working even while supposedly relaxing on a beach somewhere. It is no wonder that Americans are so overworked, stressed, and unhappy. It is no wonder that Americans suffer from stress related diseases. As the Boston Globe commented “we are a nation of vacation-deprived, work-obsessed, business casual-attired zombies.”

 

Under the conditions of stress, overwork, and lack of sleep experienced by most Americans, vacation becomes terribly important. It can begin to rebalance life by increasing rest and replenishment. We have to give vacation a much higher priority and not only take our available vacation, but use it as it was intended. In addition, it is important that we not only prioritize and take vacations, but also that we take them mindfully. This means that we should invest vacation time in reconnecting with our world, ourselves, and our families. We should rest, relax, and have some fun, but do so totally in the present moment, without distraction.

 

To reconnect we need to disconnect; that is, we need to remove all of those distraction that so occupy our time and attention, that we end up without connection to those things that really matter. On the death bed there is no recorded incident where the person regretted not working enough or not making enough money, or sending enough emails, or not making more tweets or social media posts. What they regret is not having spent enough time with family and friends, not investing in their own happiness and that of others, and not being themselves and letting their emotions out. These are what we must reconnect to. This is what vacations are designed to do.

 

It’s really important to disconnect. Get away, staycations involve far too many distractions. Leave the computers and cell phones at home. Go somewhere where you can disconnect from the net. Go somewhere that you enjoy and where you can rest, the beach, the mountains, the wilderness, etc. Go there with the people you are closest too. It would be useful if TV and radio were unplugged; nothing to stand between you and a real vacation. This can be difficult to do as many vacation spots pride themselves in providing you with all of the things that distract you at home. But make the effort to either go somewhere where these things are absent or turn them off when you get there. In this way you can truly spend time in the present moment. Get to really know yourself and perhaps your family.

 

You should begin with sleep and rest. Before you set an agenda to do anything, first get physically rested. So many people in the modern world are actually sleep deprived and don’t realize it. When they go on vacation the first things they do is dive into activities and exhaust themselves further. The first step in having a vacation should always be to start letting your body rest and recover. Take my word on it, your vacation will be so much better if you do this. Sleep late, take naps, don’t schedule much on the first couple of days of vacation. There is a tendency to feel that vacation time is precious, which it is, and shouldn’t be wasted on doing nothing, but actually it should. This is much more important to the quality and effectiveness of your vacation than you can imagine. Prioritize it and you’ll be amazed at how much more you get out of your vacation.

 

Once you’ve disconnected, it’s time to reconnect. Spend some time just being still and quiet. Just look carefully and mindfully at your surroundings, hear the sound, smell the aromas, connect totally with your environment. Don’t feel that you need to finish and move on to the next thing, you’re doing the next thing. Recognize how hard it is for you to do this and see how conditioned you are to constantly return to those things that you’re trying to get away from. Watch your thoughts. See how they keep looking for something else other than what is right in front of you. Notice how they return again and again to work and your daily distractions. This may not be easy but it can be a revelation. It can show how much you need to reprogram yourself to achieve balance. If you stick with it, slowly, ever so slowly, it will begin to take hold and you’ll begin the long process of becoming truly mindful.

 

Spend time with you family and friends. But, do so without distractions. Don’t watch TV, go to a movie or send each other text messages. Really be with them. The most important thing that you have to give them and they you, is undivided attention. Once again, it may be hard to do. We’re so programmed to be with people while doing something else. Drop out the something else and you can truly be with people. Practice deep listening. As someone else is talking, don’t be thinking of your response or the next thing you’re going to say, simply listen, really listen, deeply listen, to what it is that they’re trying to communicate. Then, when it’s your turn, you’ll be continuing on the same theme they were. You’ll truly be responding to them, not showing how smart or clever or funny you are, but how compassionate, understanding, and caring you are. This also will take time. Your conditioning is deep and strong. But, if you stick with it, slowly, ever so slowly, it will begin to take hold and you’ll begin the long process of becoming truly connected to those you’re closest too and they to you.

 

Next, mindfully watch yourself. Take note of when you feel happy and when you don’t, when you feel relaxed and when you don’t, when the people around you are happy and when they’re not. Feel what it feels like when you happy at a visceral level, not in your mind, but in your body. Let theses explorations reveal to you what is really important for making yourself and others happy. Don’t look at peak moments, those are obvious. Rather look at the little moments of contentment and happiness. These are the ones that make up most of your life. If you can learn them, you can begin to arrange your life to promote happiness. If you stick with it, slowly, ever so slowly, it will begin to take hold and you’ll begin the long process of becoming truly happy.

 

Finally, don’t leave what you’ve gained on vacation behind. Try to take it with you as you return to work and everyday life. The lessons that you’ve learned need to be practiced there as well to insure that vacation has a continuing effect. It’s hard to do and probably shouldn’t be tried all at once with everything. Just see if you can incorporate some of what you’ve learned occasionally into daily life. Try listening deeply at least sometimes with some people, try getting a good night’s sleep as often as you can, try to notice how you feel at times when you’re happy, and try to occasionally be mindful. Give it a shot. The positive effects it has will reinforce it and slowly, ever so slowly, it will creep more and more into your life.

 

These are my recommendations for a mindful vacation. But, everyone is different. You’ll need to explore for yourself what works for you and what doesn’t. There are no rules and no mandatory processes or activities. Learn from your experiences and experiment with new experiences. Look at it as an investigation which is based upon what produces well-being and happiness in yourself and the people around you. In other words, vacation mindfully.

 

 “The benefits are huge. Not only is the society measurably happier, but workers are more rested and productive, relationships are closer and people are healthier.” – Terry Hartig

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies