The Natural Contemplative
Waves of Stillness
Remembering the stillness at the heart of our own lives reunites us with everything.
This piece began as a podcast, complete with the sounds of the Bay of Fundy, and then was published in written form in the environmental journal, Whole Terrain. A version that combined those two efforts then made its way onto my CD, Natural Meditation, which is currently not being produced but is temporarily available for download. The print version below is similar to the version in Whole Terrain, and substantially different from the spoken versions.
I am sitting on the shore of the Bay of Fundy, shrouded in fog. Foghorns sound in every direction. When I visit the Bay, I sit for hours, watching the spouting whales, and the seals at play, feeling the slow rhythm of the tide, listening to the foghorns.
The Bay of Fundy is a 290-kilometer long, 215-meter deep, ancient rift valley at the northern end of the Gulf of Maine. It is a living body, of water, stone and air; of plankton, fish, birds and mammals; of currents and tides. The tides are this body's life-giving breath. Over 100 billion metric tons of water flow in and out of the Bay every twelve hours, creating exceptionally high marine productivity and endlessly changing character.
Whatever happens here - seal playing, whale spouting, human sitting - becomes an expression of the larger happening of the Bay itself. The foghorn sounds, radiates across the water, and disappears into unobstructed space. Begins again, and is lost again. The whale appears at the surface but briefly, and returns to the deep. Thoughts arise, claim attention for a short while, and disappear. This is a slippery place. Everything is in motion. Nothing can be held. And everything belongs to the Bay.
A large grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) swims close in to shore. First I hear his snorting breath, then he appears in front of a curtain of fog. I know this seal from past years. A length of orange nylon rope that was once attached to a bit of fishing gear encircles his neck. He got entangled in it and couldn't get it off, and the rope has remained in place. During the years I have observed him, the skin around his neck has folded over the rope, embedding the rope in his skin. Filaments of nylon stick out like hair. His neck looks raw and infected. The seal can't do anything about it, and he seems to get by, but the presence of this rope will surely shorten his life.
The Bay remains abundant with seals, dolphins and porpoises, large whales, pelagic birds, and the herring and plankton on which they all feed. But for how long? Whales and seals get entangled in our gear, seals are shot wholesale by fishermen who see them only as competitors for their livelihood, and the fisheries are erratic. Here on the shores of the Bay, it is all on display: nature's abundance and inherent balance, and the imbalance we have introduced. Our ways of living and working, of growing and catching food, of making things, of gathering the resources to make things, and our ways of disposing of those things are tightening like a rope around the neck of the world.
How has such an intricately balanced system lost its equilibrium? For the first time in the life of Earth, as far as we know, one species' activity is having an impact at a planetary level. Radical change is needed, but what is the root of the imbalance? Can we find the center that will restore equilibrium? The clearest answer I have received to these questions came from the Bay, on the day I met my first whale.
The year was 1995. My girlfriend and I were on vacation in Nova Scotia, on the eastern rim of the Bay. One gray morning she decided we should go on a whale watch. The idea of gawking at a bunch of whales and putting them off their food was a bit repulsive to me, but she wanted to go, so on this rainy, foggy day, we boarded the fifty-two foot Cetacean Quest, and went in search of whales.
The weather was miserable. We motored around the Bay for a couple of hours without seeing anything but rain and fog. I was standing alone on the small aft deck, on the starboard side, staring into the rain at a small, visible patch of the Bay when the captain gave up the search and turned back to port.
Suddenly, out of the fog, just beyond the reach of my fingers, something appeared, parallel to the boat, heading from bow to stern. First a gigantic snout, then a gaping hole that opened and baptized me in whale breath, then a long, long wait as a creature nearly twice the length of the boat rolled slowly past: a fin whale. I must have dropped into a different time space, because that fin whale rolling past seemed to take forever. It was probably visible for less than 10 seconds, but it seemed like forever. The smooth, dark back of the whale, the small sickle-shaped dorsal fin two-thirds of the way along the back.
And then it was gone.
The normal passage of time returned, and I started jumping up and down and screaming, "Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!" Which is exactly how it felt. An encounter with ultimate reality. I was suddenly thrust into wild joy. Even after the euphoria wore off, something fundamental had shifted in me and I knew I had to be with whales. I had fallen deeply in love.
It has taken me years to unpack the contents of that brief meeting. Within a few months I started working with Roger Payne, the whale biologist who discovered that humpback whales sing and that fin whales are able to communicate across thousands of ocean miles. In time I created my own whale education programs and began to shepherd others through their first contact with whales. I have accompanied hundreds of people who are seeing a whale for the first time, so I know my experience is not unique.
Whales change people's lives.
Two years ago a British couple was on one of my trips. We saw several humpbacks feeding, breaching, and approaching the boat. It was spectacular. On the ride back into port the couple looked dazed, and all they could say was, "I had no idea." I checked back with them every few minutes, and all they could say was "I had no idea." Which sounds exactly right to me. They had no preconceived notions to diminish the raw, unmediated experience of the whales.
Many people are stunned by their first whale encounter, and many others become giddy with happiness, but my sense is that most people also miss the true significance of the meeting.
Whales are huge and graceful and silent and mysterious. They have lived here one hundred times longer than modern humans, yet they live most of their lives out of our sight and reach and understanding. They are intelligent and aware, creative and communicative. The human encounter with this extraterrestrial intelligence is so surprising and unprecedented, that the mind does not quite know what to do. The normal mental activity that takes the present and connects it to what is already known and familiar, stops abruptly. The culturally accumulated assumptions about who we are and what the world is, break down. The mind meets something it cannot fully comprehend, all the senses open, and the whole person comes into direct engagement with the sheer fact of Whale.
In that moment, mind chatter silenced by sudden awe, you are returned to your most essential nature. You and the whale meet in perfect stillness, one movement of life together. You know you are that movement. You know you are that stillness. And joy erupts as the mind's burden falls away.
For one vital moment, you see with perfectly transparent clarity that the mind cannot tell you who you are. Your ideas and experiences cannot tell you. Your preferences and opinions cannot tell you. Your possessions and personal history cannot tell you. Your accumulated knowledge and accomplishments cannot tell you. You spend your life trying to pin yourself to those things, to find yourself in them. Then you meet something you cannot fathom (a whale in this case, but it could be any deep love, or a terrible loss) and all that mental orienteering comes to a halt. In one astonishing moment, your sense of who you are shifts, from the exclusive world of "me" and "mine" to the absolutely inclusive totality of being. A gaping hole opens and you fall in. You fall into a heart of stillness that can not be described, but that expresses itself as the whole movement of life, including your own.
This is home. Whether we realize it or not, we live in a heart of stillness, wildly in love with the whole, wide world. This heart of stillness is as close and as vital as breathing ‚ my breath, your breath, the whale's breath ‚ and every bit as elusive. It cannot be held. Nothing real can be held.
The living truth - you, the whale, the world, the heart of it all - cannot be captured or tamed. It cannot be conceptualized or objectified. It cannot even be named, so it is easily forgotten. Yet it lives and breathes in everything. In perfect balance. In motion. In stillness.
All that, from 10 seconds with a whale! Perhaps this is not everyone's experience, but it is not uncommon for the whale-human encounter to leave the human speechless, with the unexpected sense of having suddenly located themselves within the larger movement of life.
The fog is clearing. The foghorn has stopped. The Bay is changing again. Wind is picking up, creating ripples on the surface of the water. These ripples have their own distinct, individual quality, yet they are in no way separate from the Bay. In partnership with wind, the Bay forms surface ripples that arise, intertwine, fade and disappear.
Nothing can be held. Everything slips away from us: our most beloved friends and companions, our most cherished ideas of who we are and what the world is, our own lives. Everything is in motion, like ripples on the surface of the deep. Everything resides in stillness, like the depths beneath the surface.
At its root, the ecological crisis is not about too much carbon and too many people and too much waste and too many toxic products. It is not about bad policy and inefficient technology. It is about us. We have forgotten what we are. In our scramble to accumulate and possess, to understand and control, we have lost touch with the living truth, which we cannot possess.
When I first came to the Bay of Fundy I was captivated by its presence. One hundred billion tons of water in motion, but the stillness of it enfolds everything in its embrace. Stillness in motion. The deep, rippling at the surface. The whale, rising to breathe. This stillness lives in us as well, and knowing it is a profound homecoming. Remembering this stillness at the heart of our own lives reunites us with everything.
The realization of our essential, irrevocable unity with everything won't remove the rope from the neck of my friend the seal. But it might restore our equilibrium in time to avert a greater catastrophe. The deep stillness pervading all life, the welcoming love at the heart of our lives, the source of balance, is waiting for us to rediscover it. One moment in the embrace of the real strips away all artifice and leaves us with nothing we can possess, and nothing we need to possess, living in unfathomable abundance.