The morning after the mudslides in my town, I was walking on the beach looking at the thousands of timbers that had washed up. These trees had been carried out to sea by debris flows after traveling through neighborhoods where some of them had destroyed homes and taken lives. Now they were sitting quietly in the sand, displaced from the mountains where they had been growing peacefully before the wildfires.
Contemplating all this upheaval and loss as I walked with my son, I watched the waves. It felt immediately obvious that the ocean is not the waves – it contains the waves. And you wouldn’t have to go very deep into the water to find a place that is undisturbed. This does not mean that the waves are not real — they are. It is just that they are not the totality of what is happening in the ocean.
The ocean and its waves serve as a helpful metaphor for human experience. Stuff happens – hard stuff. This fall has brought our family in contact with cancer, injury, surgery, wildfire, mudslides, and loss. As unwanted as all this is, it is incredibly helpful to keep in mind that the emotional waves that show up are not who we are — they are events contained within our awareness. And we do not have to dive very deep to find an awareness that is undisturbed by the waves of emotion.
Growing up, many of us did not get training in how to connect with the part of our experience that is not disturbed by the waves. Most of us were left with the strategies of suppression, avoidance, or acting on emotions as if they are our total truth in that moment. Is it really any wonder that depression, drug abuse, and escape into tiny screens are epidemic?
There is a lot of science to suggest that suppression is neither effective nor healthy. The same can be said for avoidance – we can try to manipulate our environment so that we never feel unpleasant emotions, but this is both exhausting and, ultimately, impossible. Identifying with emotions as the truth of our experience – or as commands to be blindly followed – can lead to behavior that is unproductive or that goes against our values.
What is the alternative? Enduring wisdom teaches that we can bring awareness and acceptance to the experience of emotions without identifying with them. This allows us to use these emotional experiences as a source of insight about what we value. It also allows us to let them go when they no longer serve their purpose. And there is a large body of scientific evidence showing that working with emotions in this way is good for our physical and psychological health.
If you sit with a difficult emotion and observe it, there is a lot of peace to be found. There is also a tremendous amount of authentic confidence that comes from the realization that you can experience it without being consumed by it. We can learn from difficult emotions – even something as painful as loss carries the lesson of how much we value human connection. We can use this lesson to be more present to those we spend our time with.
To step back and observe a powerful emotion is not the same as cold detachment. To dis-identify from an emotion is to feel it while knowing that it is not the only truth of your experience. We can see that there is an ocean of space within us that can contain all of life’s waves.
Sitting quietly each day and simply observing what shows up within you is a powerful way to practice for those moments when a wave hits. This practice is not necessarily the most exciting or even the most relaxing, but it gives you direct experiential knowledge of the space that is available to you. And it can remind you that all human beings struggle with being human. Knowing this, we can lighten up and love a bit more — right in the midst of difficulty.
By the time I arrived back home, the clearing clouds had begun to reveal the blue sky that is always there — another useful metaphor. And in the midst of all the challenge of this human life, this rainbow showed up as a reminder that difficulty does not keep life from being a miracle.
This poem was written after a meditation on the day after the mudslide