I am no stranger to water. (Thanks, Mom, for those early swimming lessons when I was 3.) It is, in many ways, my preferred element. In water I am graceful, far from the klutzy thing I am on land. As a young person, though I could fall over standing on two feet, in a pool I could scull like mad and thrust one leg into the air to do a lovely ballet leg. I was an OK water skier in a family of proficient water skiers, a synchronized swimmer (later a coach) and a teenaged lifeguard in a red bikini swinging a whistle around my index finger. My first teaching gig was not in a classroom but standing in waist-deep water in a high school pool, coaxing nervous little kids to splash their way off the wall to me.
When Dick first brought me to Hawaii nearly 30 years ago, I was eager to snorkel in warm ocean water. I’d not done that before, but I figured I could learn. And I did. As a Northern Californian who loves the coast, I’ve never set foot in the frigid Pacific waters of the North Coast—though I love to be on the beach and watch the waves. But as soon as I get near the waters surrounding the most isolated island chain in the world, my feet are itching for the beach. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I think everyone floats like a cork in the waters surrounding the Hawaiian islands. I certainly do.
But in recent, pre-pandemic years, I’ve felt my ease with snorkeling dissipate. Maybe I was out of practice. Dick was not as comfortable in the water anymore, so he’d spot me from the beach as I snorkeled, never far offshore, always around others in the water. (Old lifeguards don’t forget their water safety.) But no matter what I tried, my mask would fog up and take on more water than was comfortable. I’d often end up gulping ocean, and I’d have to stop, pull off the mask and sputter.
On this trip I resolved to practice snorkeling every possible day, weather and ocean conditions permitting. I’d look for the calmest spots where tour operators take beginners and kupuna (elders). I would embrace beginner’s mind, since I seem to be there anyway when it comes to snorkeling. Let me start again, I said, looking up lots of snorkeling tips online, many of which I knew. One suggested that part of the problem was a dirty mask, that I should take a gentle toothbrush and toothpaste to the lenses in addition to applying no-fog goop before snorkeling. I did. I looked for shallow, calm water in which to practice, floating inches off the sand, trying to mouth breathe only into the snorkel. I shrugged my shoulders to relax in the water, let my arms float at my sides like limp noodles.
As a longtime meditator, I know well that what I do when I sit is called “practice.” As in “a practice” as well as “practicing.” As in beginner’s mind (shoshin), never assuming proficiency or having a desired outcome. Just to sit and breathe quietly for a bit without expectation that anything in particular should happen.
I remembered Shunyru Suzuki’s book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, in which he advocates an open, unbound, curious mind—that of one who is beginning, open to all possibilities. He famously said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
So that’s how I decided to approach snorkeling. Not that I was ever as expert, but I once was reasonably skilled. If the mask fogged, so be it. I’d fin on anyway. If it got too bad, I told myself, I’d take it off, rinse it, spit in it and see if that helped. Water in the mask? Float on your back, tilt the mask up and let it drain. Or take it off and start again. Swallow a little sea water? Again, float, clear throat, start again.
It’s what we do every day, every minute, anyway. Why should I assume proficiency at something I do perhaps a dozen times annually? Isn’t the ocean new every day, every minute? Just because the current was pushing me in one direction yesterday doesn’t mean it will do the same today.
It seems like a good time in life to begin again. I retired last year during a pandemic that upended the whole world. Everyone’s starting over. Some are forced to because of famine or flood, threat of harm or war. They have no choice. I, fortunately, do.
As I meditate, I’ve been practicing tonglen for the past couple of years, breathing in the sorrows of the world, the hurts of those hurting and breathing out peace and compassion. I’ve also long practiced the lovingkindness meditation (also called metta) in which you find a little spark of compassion deep inside and breathe into it, fanning the flame, then think, breath by breath, “May I be happy. May I be well. May I be at peace. May I be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.” Then you think of someone you love and wish them the same. Then (a toughie) you send lovingkindness to one who is difficult, who pushes your buttons, with whom you struggle (someone you know or know of). Then you send metta to all beings everywhere.
May you be happy.
May you be well.
May you be at peace.
May you be free from suffering
and the causes of suffering.
So as I’ve snorkeled in calm-ish waters on Kauai’s north shore over the past couple of weeks, I’m doing metta practice, breathing in, breathing out, admiring the fish (may you be well; may you be at peace), the coral, noticing the waves bouncing me a bit. Not struggling against a little mask fog or water around my nose. Rolling over, looking up at endless blue sky, grateful for it all. No expectations.
Today, during my meditation-at-sea practice, I shoved off into the shallows, trying to take slow, deep breaths. I was not even 20 yards from shore, in clear blue water over a sandy bottom when a huge flying saucer appeared beneath me. Very close. I had yet to see a green sea turtle (honu, in Hawaiian) as I snorkeled, though we’d seen a lot of them from our lanai next to Lawai Beach on Kauai’s south shore. They do good imitations of rocks—surfing rocks—as the waves tumble in. And, if you pay attention, their thick heads with their curved beaks rise now and then to grab a breath and head back down to nibble at limu (seaweed or algae).
On the north shore today, this descendant of dinosaurs was nowhere near food and didn’t seem in a hurry at all. You’re supposed to maintain a 10-foot distance, and the big honu looked closer than that. But she (females have short tails, like this one) glided underneath me as I floated and watched—for once ignoring the water in my mask and mouth, watching that majestic being slowly flippering away from me, the definition of peacefulness.
I had to surface, clear my mask, choke a bit. When I put the mask back on and my head down, I couldn’t see the honu, but I headed in her general direction, and there she was. Hawaii’s only indigenous reptile, on earth for more than 110 million years, outliving dinosaurs, right there. An aumakua (ancestral spirit guide), symbol of longevity, endurance and mana (spiritual energy).
They seem to me the most patient of animals, unhurried and unbothered by turbulence or humans, incredible breath-holders thanks to their huge lungs. And when they surface for breath, if we’re lucky, we sometimes get to see their soulful eyes, bask in their calm, appreciate their journey.
May we remember to raise our heads, too, and, even when we’re struggling, breathe lovingkindness into the world, radiate peace. May we always be beginners, ready to start over, eager to try again.