3 Spiritual Lessons That I Have Learned from the Ocean.
My first experience with the open ocean came in 2005.
I was serving with the U.S. Marine Reserves, and my unit was sent to Louisiana to do disaster relief after Hurricane Katrina. The situation on the ground was terrible, but it only got worse when we found out that Hurricane Rita was about to make landfall.
We jumped on the U.S.S. Shreveport, a navy ship, in order to ride out the storm at sea. It was while I was cruising around the Gulf of Mexico during a hurricane that I found out that I get seasick. We were on the ocean for the better part of a week, and I spent most of that time throwing up.
Unable to keep anything down, I got dehydrated and lightheaded, but I still had a job to do. So, each time it was my turn to go on duty, I fell into a not-so-pleasant routine of getting up, throwing up, and getting back to work. Needless to say, I was one of the first people off ship when we finally came back into port.
Thankfully, not all of my experiences with the ocean have been negative. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to go body-surfing in Huntington Beach, CA, whale-watching in Cabo San Lucas, and splash around like an idiot on Florida beaches. While doing all of this, I learned the following lessons from the open water that have truly inspired my spiritual practice.
Know When to Float, and When to Swim
The ocean is incredibly beautiful, but I’ve learned that it can also be dangerous. This is especially true where riptides are concerned. A riptide is a localized current of water that flows directly away from shore. People who get caught in them can find themselves rapidly pulled out to sea. Despite the danger, however, one can survive getting caught in a riptide if they keep their cool.
The key is to never fight the current. Doing so will only result in exhaustion and increase your potential for drowning. Instead, float on your back and locate the shore, then swim parallel to the shore until you are out of reach of the riptide (they are usually less than 30 feet wide), and finally swim towards the beach.
This is good advice for swimming in the ocean, but I’ve found that it’s also an excellent way to approach life. The world is full of riptides (both real and metaphorical) that can drown us if we aren’t careful. It can be tempting to waste precious energy fighting against the current in order to prove a point or get where we want to go faster.
But the direct path isn’t always the best path. In other words, we must use our inner wisdom to know when it’s time to center ourselves by going with the current vs. when it’s time to swim hard towards our goals.
Build a Container for Good Things to Happen
One of the truly incredible things about ocean water is how much life exists within it.
According to scientists, there are over one million individual species of plants and animals in the sea. This includes massive humpback whales who live in all major oceans, and tiny seahorses who are only found in tropical waters. There’s the Great Barrier Reef which is composed of billions of coral polyps, and octopuses who can change color at will.
The amount of ocean life that exists is fantastic, but what’s even more interesting is why it exists. We must remember that there are no magical incantations or preternatural powers being used to create all of this abundance. Rather, the ocean is simply the perfect container for different forms of life to manifest.
It provides the right salt content for tuna, the right temperatures for jellyfish, the right pH levels for seaweed, etc. And then the Universe takes care of the rest.
Over the years, I’ve learned that this is also true of human interaction. For example, we have no control over what people say to us throughout the day. Conversations may be pleasant, or they may be absolutely dreadful. It’s completely out of our hands. But like the ocean, we can create a container that encourages good things to happen.
This can be as simple as smiling when we see our coworkers in the morning. Or making a point to compliment a friend’s outfit. These small gestures create an environment where pleasant conversation can occur in much the same way that ocean water creates an environment where sea life can flourish.
This is true in all aspects of daily life. If we focus on building a suitable container for good things to happen, then the Universe will take care of the rest.
Work with What Life Gives You
Countless rivers flow into the ocean each day. Some of them are clean and teeming with life, and some are heavily polluted. But the ocean accepts them all. Over time, the ocean’s currents are able to mix the good and bad river water together until it’s purified and suitable for supporting life.
In this way, something that could be a source of great suffering, polluted water, is transformed into a source of happiness.
As human beings, we have the power to do the exact same thing. It’s inevitable that both good and bad life experiences will flow into us throughout the day. This can be a cause of great suffering. However, we have the ability to end that suffering by learning to practice acceptance and working with everything that the world gives us.
There is a very simple but profound quote from Rev. Gyomay Kubose which sums up this teaching perfectly. It states, “Acceptance is transcendence.”
Of course, this isn’t to say that we should sit passively like roadkill on the street. But the simple truth is that there are many things that happen to us each day that are out of our hands — traffic jams, bad weather, layoffs, etc. If we can learn to approach these things from a place of acceptance, like the ocean, then we can use the currents of our spiritual practice to purify them.
The ocean is a source of life for every creature on earth. It’s also a fantastic spiritual teacher. Through careful practice in the laboratory of daily life, we can use its teachings to work with what life gives us, create containers for positive change, and discern the appropriate times to either float or swim with life’s currents. In this way, we can make life better for both ourselves and others.
Sensei Alex Kakuyo is former Marine who’s been practicing the Way since 2013. He’s training to become a Lay Minister in the Bright Dawn Center of Oneness Buddhism. And he spends his free time reading, cycling, and playing with his cat, Ensō. You can read more of Alex’s work by visiting his blog, The Same Old Zen, or following him on Twitter.