Being the Ocean: Being Human

by Lea Seigen Shinraku

“If you don’t become the ocean, you’ll be seasick every day.” ~ Leonard Cohen (from the poem Good Advice for Someone Like Me)

I bet everyone has some experience of the seasickness that Leonard Cohen is talking about. Our minds have very strong opinions about the way things should be: for example, innocent people shouldn’t suffer; we ourselves should look, speak and be a particular way; our loved ones should do what we know is best for them. And when life doesn’t match up with how we think it’s supposed to be (innocent people suffer, we aren’t as articulate or successful as we think we should be, our loved ones do things that don’t make sense to us), we often feel this seasickness.

I shared Leonard Cohen’s quote with a meditation group recently, and we talked about it together. One question that came up was: What does it mean to “become the ocean”? I don’t think it’s actually a question of becoming, but more one of remembering our true nature. We each have the deep, vast and mysterious qualities of the ocean within us. The ocean within has a profound capacity for accepting what is, and by tapping into that capacity, we have an opportunity to meet our experience with a kind of flexible strength; a dose of inner Dramamine.

The group also talked about how “becoming the ocean” (or remembering the ocean that we are) doesn’t mean leaving behind our vulnerable humans selves. 

It’s easy to get caught up in the idea of self-improvement, and the way that it can be driven by a desire to abandon our vulnerable human self. Of course, when we embark on a self-improvement project, all we’re trying to do is suffer less. So, the impulse comes from a very understandable place. We want to be less subject to the unpredictable and often seemingly unfair whims of this reality we live in. We want to give ourselves our best shot at being happy. Who doesn’t want that?

The trouble is that self-improvement doesn’t necessarily deliver on that promise. Even if we try to take away the vulnerability of our human self by losing 10 pounds, doubling our income, or finding the partner of our dreams, we’re still subject to the unstable and unpredictable nature of reality. Things change, and we don’t get to say when or how.

This is where “becoming the ocean” or remembering the ocean that we are can be really helpful. Rather than abandon or try to eliminate our vulnerability by escaping into the knowing that we have a place in us that’s as vast and powerful as the ocean, our expansiveness can give us a deeper ability to meet our vulnerable human experience with care and loving presence. I think that’s what Leonard Cohen was talking about in his poem, and what Philip Booth is talking about here:

First Lesson
by Philip Booth
Lie back daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls. A dead-
man’s float is face down. You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

When we can find a sense of the ocean that we are, we can meet our vulnerable, human self with a deep love. This is one of the most powerful aspects of self-compassion ~ to recognize that we are both: we are the vulnerable human and the ocean, at the same time, meeting.