January 13, 2010

The Sea of Mindfulness

by Parnell Walsh

It occurred to me that my grandpa constantly practiced mindfulness, in stark contrast to most people today who get caught up in the crazed pace of urban life.

Grandpa would get up well before dawn, and splash his face with ice cold water, then step out onto the porch and simply observe. He would smell the air, look at the sky, note the direction of the wind, and listen to the sounds of the animals. In less than five minutes, he knew what the weather was going to be that day, and how his animals were faring. At breakfast, he never spoke until that final cup of coffee. I don't think he was planning his day. He was simply eating, unhurried, savoring each mouthful of food. Then he would head out to feed the livestock, harness up the mule, and begin a day's hard labor.

As he harnessed up his mule, he would talk softly to him and run his hands over the mule's body and legs, checking for any soreness and reaffirming their bond. In the field, he would stoop down to examine a handful of earth, smelling it and letting it run slowly through his fingers. It, too, was telling him something. Throughout the day he would check the cloud formations and sniff the wind. He could tell hours before a storm arrived. I don't remember him ever getting caught out in a storm. In the evening, he would get down his Bible and sit in front of the fire, reading for a while, then staring into the fire, thinking about what he had read. Then he would go to bed, at peace.

Years later when I began sailing--without any thought to what I had learned from watching that old man--I realized how important mindfulness is at sea. There is a lot of Zen to sailing. One of the first things one learns at sea is that the elements are far too powerful to fight. You don't struggle against the elements. You learn to work with the forces of nature, always anticipating what the wind and the sea are going to do, and trying to put your boat in the best position to take advantage of the conditions that are presented. You aren't going to change the wind or the sea. Rather, you become one with them.

Accept what nature offers, and work with it. After some years, the effort becomes natural, effortless. And you are ever mindful. Sailing single-handed, especially, mindfulness is THE rule of survival. Constantly aware of the slightest shift of the wind, a gathering of clouds on the horizon, a change of the texture of the sea. The feel of the rudder, the angle of the sails, the sound of the rigging, the motion of the boat, all become part of the whole that never wanders from your consciousness, it all works together, and if you lose this mindfulness, things start coming apart very quickly. Alone on the ocean, you also remain aware that despite all your best seamanship, there are forces that can kill you in a few moments. If you can't accept that, you will never be comfortable at sea. But it is all very easy to accept at sea, because there is simply no other way it can be. Just so.

My assignment to myself is to embrace this mindfulness that I have learned and apply it to everyday life, with all its options and distractions and illusions. I need to treat all aspects of my life like an ocean voyage, remaining ever mindful of what is real.

My grandfather never wandered far from his small farm in the Cumberland mountains. He never saw the ocean, and I doubt he ever heard of the Buddha. But he could easily have been a Bodhisattva, or a master mariner.

Mr. Walsh is a ship captain on the Paradise Cruise ship, Star of Honolulu and is a long-time student of Buddhism living in Hawaii.

Posted on January 13, 2010 6:12 PM
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