01/10/2012 07:55 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2012

The Ships of Life

Okay, so I've been looking at things all wrong and maybe you have too. Remember that metaphor of being a ship on the sea? You know, the single person in the small boat floating on that vast blue ocean? Still safe, but very vulnerable?

It's a conventional image of us as humans, and we tend to resonate with it as because, well, the world often seems as large and wild and powerful as that endless of expanse of water. And, most of us have already weathered enough storms to have developed a healthy respect for the sea of life.

The image is an accurate reflection of human experience, but the accepted interpretation is only partially true. Here's what I just realized: The boat isn't what keeps us safe, dry and afloat. It's the ever-changing sea that supports, even embraces us, and our essential nature is water.

The metaphor is a paradox. Yes, we need boats to travel the seas but that's only because our bodies pickle if we float too long. Boats keep us dry, and let us navigate with wind, sweat and fuel. But they can't keep us safe unless we recognize that the two sides of the ship's floor are inextricably connected. The dry part under our feet that we call a floor is simply the alternate edge and wet side of the hull that coasts and cuts through the what's below.

The more we invest in building bigger and stronger boats, the greater the risk that we'll forget the two-sided barrier and begin to believe that our emotional and physical defenses will buffer, if not bock, the dangerous sea of life. Such ships eventually encounter icebergs and hurricanes, as life remind us that the illusion of separation is unnatural. The further we try to distance ourselves from real experiences of raw emotion and encounters, the more isolated, vulnerable and confused we become.

Water, like life, pulses within and beneath us. When there's rain and snow, it's around us too. We are born into calms and storms, and we are creatures of tides and winds and waves. In this life, we captain our own boats through time, seemingly alone. But, really, it's only the fittings and fixtures of life that change. We are never alone or apart. How could we be lost when life, like molecules of water, takes different forms without losing its cohesion?

The more we pull away from life, the more insecure and vulnerable we become. Life, like the sea, is bigger and stronger than any of us and when we see life pitted against us, the forces of change will always win. You know this already, if you've ever gripped the gunnels with fear in the midst of changing seas and hoped your thin hull will hold out the bottomless depths. But it doesn't work, because our little boats ultimately toss and turn on wild seas, and the fear distracts us from reality.

So stop fighting the elements, and instead learn to harness the energy of water and wind.

This is a new year for those of us who follow the Julian calendar. But really, there's little actual difference between the winter days of December 2011 and January 2012. It's just how we mark the passage of time that gives meaning. So too with the experience of life and the image of each person, in a boat, on the sea.

It's a trick of the eye, this shift, from focusing on the boat to recognizing that the water supports us all. Train your mind to see the water, ever-steady, lifting your boat to ride the waves. Practice mindfulness and learn to shift your attention so you can feel the movement of the sea and trust that you'll stay afloat wet or dry.

In this new year, look out across the waters of your life mindful of that split-second before you add the mental labels and interpretations. Just take in the data of your world and sense the vast web of connections that you inhabit. Feel how everything you touch in turn borders something or someone else, and we are all aligned by definition. Cultivate awareness so that you treasure each moment spent on the water as precious until it is your time to shift yet again, like water to mist or ice, and sail into unchartered waters.

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