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Roll With the Waves

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When life rolls like waves, the mind can surf or sink. If you don't believe me, all you've got to do is go knee-deep in the ocean and see what happens. But, if you lack a handy beach, read on:

So there I was, wet to the knees. With my toes digging into the sand and heels blocking the receding water, I was in the Atlantic. Well, maybe not totally "in" since its still May and the ocean isn't exactly toasty on the New England shore. But I was "in" enough to feel the force of the waves rolling in toward the beach, and the pull of the tide going out.

Despite my cold toes, I realized that standing upright in the water is an exercise in mindfulness. The moving waters wreak havoc on your balance unless you're paying attention, staying present. Then again, at the beach, the worst that happens is you get wet. In life, there are other possible consequences.

A colleague of mine has a photo of the waves hanging on the wall of his office. He teaches mindfulness in a hospital. It's as sterile a setting as possible. The air there smells like disinfectant, utterly devoid of the tangy sea smells on the coast. The medical staff buries their noses in papers while walking the corridors, instead of wandering on beaches, while sniffing the freshness and looking out over a vast horizon. There are no sparkling shell treasures on the floor here, instead the greatest find is the presence of healing. But there are waves here, and not just the image captured, mid-motion, on my colleague's wall.

In hospital, each experience of pain is a cascade of water that washes over a patient observed by those in attendance. Each infection or injury erodes wellness like a storm surge, and the last breaths of a life mark the dead low of the tide. The waves here are relentless, and remarkably the lessons of the beach still apply. Health is a question of balance, and the mind is the key to working with the forces of water.

Wherever you stand, near or far from the coast, it's good to dig in your toes with the push and pull of life. Notice the waves or whether the surface of the water is calm. Sometimes it is.
When the waves come in fast and furious, take a breath and steady yourself. BE mindful. Notice the movement and rhythms, then think. Decide what to do. Mindfulness means noticing what's happening right here, right now, accurately. In that way, mindful awareness is non-judgmental.

But it's critically important to understand that mindfulness is the basis for sound judgment, not the path to passivity. If you're caught in a hurricane surge, it's time to leave the beach. Seriously, don't just notice the danger. Move. Now.

Likewise, if you feel like you're about to go under water, come up for a breath. Rise by pushing with your feet, so you surface.

Mindfulness trains the brain to take a breath in the midst of stress. Many people hold the breath under duress, sort of like not emptying the lungs before submerging. It just makes things worse. But, like many habits, it can take conscious effort to retrain. Practice mindfulness under clear skies so you'll be ready when the weather turns foul. With practice, it will be easier to pause, in the midst of the storm, so you can fill your lungs and float.

Mindfulness also promotes optimal experience -- so you can surf the waves when the conditions are right. With a calm mind, you'll balance upright on the waters, extending forces of movement emanating from something so much bigger than yourself. Surfing life is among the greatest of thrills. It's not a risk-taking sort of thrill so much as a glimpse of the pure joy of being alive. Sometimes the balance lasts for the fleetest of seconds, and sometimes it stretches beyond the perception of time. But if you're present, you'll recognize the experience.

Whether you're on or in the waves, the fundamental lesson is trusting that our nature is water, too. The human body is a landlocked sea. Our veins pulse with tides. Even our blood is salty.

When the waves of life hit you, as they always will, it's best to rock with them and be supple. Turn sideways to minimize the pounding impact. Listen to the sounds and respond. In your own stillness notice the dynamic patterns and take action. Be mindful of watching, feeling, listening and learning. And, as always, remember to breathe.

For more by Deborah Schoeberlein, click here.

For more on mindful living, click here.

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