Leaning In

When the wave picks up your kayak, he told me, it’ll try to flip you. It’ll spin your boat side on to the beach and flip you upside down.  Don’t try to fight it or turn away from it he said. What you need to do is lean into the wave. Get on your edge, lean into it and put your paddle right on it. If you do this, the wave will push you towards the shore.

In some ways it’s counter-intuitive, leaning into a foaming, roaring wall of water. Moving towards the thing you hope will not engulf you, take you and tumble you in one swift movement, toppling you into the sand-stirred water below.

It doesn’t feel natural to turn towards the thing you fear. But it works.

I’ve been thinking about this a bit this year, because of pain. Pain is an uncomfortable sensation, your body telling you that something is wrong. Reflexively we scramble to remove the stimulus, remove ourselves and remove the pain.

The trouble is, sometimes you can’t. When your body hurts because your soul is aching, you can’t. We distract ourselves, busy ourselves with work and drink and plans. But it’s like building a slapdash dam of twigs and stones to fend off rising waters. In the end nothing can quell the relentless gnawing, keep the searing pain at bay.

About 8 years ago I started meditating. I thought that meditation was a way of cultivating blissful equanimity and I wanted that.  I needed it. My emotions were afire at the time and I was hoping to find some relief. To take a break from the pain.

As I sat, my emotions a tangle around me, focusing on my breath, a deep, physical pain built in my chest.  It was almost incapacitating.  I couldn’t breathe.

My meditation teacher told me to bring my attention to the sensation. To picture it: the space that it filled, the shape and colour and form of it.  She asked me to approach it with curiosity and interest. To reach out and gently touch it, recognise it as my own, as a part of me. I could see it, the dark, writhing knot in my chest. And I could feel the tightness, resistance, anger. I didn’t want to go anywhere near that.

But I didn’t know what else to do.  I stepped towards it, doubtful and defensive. It didn’t react. It was just a knot, tight and twisted and as I got closer, strands of the rope were snapping like the frayed filaments of a sea-weathered hemp cord, carried away by a soft breeze. The physical pain eased, replaced by waves of emotion. The resistance was gone. This was release.

This year has been different.  Not afire with emotion but at sea, buffeted by the swell, pain coming in waves.  The swell pushes me inexorably towards the coast, the break zone, the foaming white, the distant shore.  I can’t choose a wave so it chooses me, pitching and crashing against the rocks.  I try to swim to shore, to battle the waves, but they haul my body back out to sea.

Suddenly I’m in a kayak, in this muddled world of dream logic. I grab the rails of the cockpit and scramble inside. The waves look smaller from the boat but I’m still scared. They catch my kayak and flip me. I fall out. I don’t know how to surf these waves. I just want the white sand under my feet. I want to run from this pain. I lean towards the shore and tumble.

Then I remember. The kayak turns broadside. You have to lean towards the wave. Lean in.

It is a turbulent ride, skidding and out of control. Leaning into the wave on the edge of your kayak you’re testing a delicate balance: you might fall in. But if you hold on eventually you will wind up on the shore, panting and breathless, kelp-adorned and covered in sand, bathed in sunlight and ready to begin again.



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