Waves of Stillness
Remembering the stillness at the heart of
our own lives reunites us with everything.
This piece began as a
podcast, recorded live on the shore 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 (Waves of Stillness CD Track) 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 gray 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, the right whales have disappeared, 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
In our industrial economies it is not enough to get the food we need for survival or even enjoyment; we have to have a surplus. The economy has to grow endlessly. We have to take more than we need and sell the remainder at a profit. This fact, that we are exponentially increasing what we take from the Earth, is running into the physical limits of the planet. For the first time in the history of the Earth, one species' activity is having a destructive impact at a planetary level. 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 Earth.
How has such an intricately balanced system lost its equilibrium? 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, a few feet 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 took 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 was 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 a significant aspect of 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, all of your ideas eclipsed by reality, 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 alive.
A gaping hole opens and you disappear into it. You disappear 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. No idea can touch it.
Yet it lives and breathes in everything. In perfect balance. In
stillness. In motion.
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
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, skitter across the surface of the deep,
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. We have forgotten the stillness.
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.