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If we wish to change the person we find ourselves to be, we must change our thinking.
November 3rd, 2018
The last episode of Tinkered Thinking explored the image of visibility at sea during a storm and when things are calm. Our ability to see and notice subtle things in the distance is ultimately dependent on how calm the water is, and the water in such an analogy is the emotional state of our mind. When we are overcome with strong emotions, our ability to notice subtle details effectively goes out the window.
But angering events, depressing, frustrating, and disappointing events along with all manner of disheartening experiences are possible and potentially around the corner. We cannot control the storms that may come across the water, so we are faced with a different question that resides in sync with visibility: how do we handle ourselves in a storm?
Here we get literal with the analogy. Storm tactics and strategies have been studied and developed since we first got the idea to hop on some floating log and go for a ride. Strangely, even after millennia of experience with storms, the prevailing wisdom of what to do in a storm is not good. Lin and Larry Paradey’s book ‘Storm Tactics’ goes into great detail about the history of why this might be the case, and they present alternative hurricane-tested tactics for what to do at sea. It may seem strange to go into such detail for an analogy, but it proves useful.
The prevailing wisdom for a long time was to run with the storm. This means, put the storm that is coming your way behind you and try to run in front of it. For all intents and purposes, it’s good to have the idea that it’s nearly impossible to outrun a storm at sea, unless it’s just brushing past you which is a situation that has little use here. Running from a storm that will catch up and pass you simply means that you will spend the maximum amount of time in the storm. It also means that waves are hitting your vessel from the rear which, given enough time, will absolutely result in a broach, aka. your boat does a very uncomfortable summersault. Not fun.
The Paradey’s outline a much different approach. It’s long been a practice in nautical tradition to heave-to. And what this means is to turn around, face the storm, and then arrange the sails in such a way that a cancelling force occurs. It’s a strange, somewhat counter-intuitive way to essentially park your boat or ship in the middle of a storm. Unfortunately not all vessels have the design to pull off this maneuver very effectively. The Paradey’s prescribe deploying a small parachute, often called a sea-anchor, or a drogue off of the bow and rigged so that it pulls at an angle. This slows the boat down even more. Keep in mind that the boat is being pushed by oncoming waves, and heaving-to is the technique to park and slow the rate of being pushed while reducing the risk of being totally swamped by a wave. The drogue, or parachute reduces this risk drastically and it seems through experimentation that anything short of a wave that is breaking is mitigated by such a tactic. That’s the short and sweet technicalities of it. So how does it relate to storms of the mind?
Running from a storm, as mentioned ensures that we’ll spend the maximum amount of time in that storm. With the storm at our back, it’s a sort of denial. Literally running from a storm can be akin to running from one’s fears or one’s problems. Doing so perpetuates the discomfort in both situations, and usually results in a worse outcome.
Heaving-to is akin to turning and facing one’s fear or problem without denial. Doing so the first time might be incredibly scary and require a tremendous amount of faith in the story of the technique related above, because: all useful knowledge that we might pass among ourselves that can be practically implemented to greater result is, at the end of the day, just a different story. Believing that story can be difficult, often because what is rational does not always feel intuitive, and our intuition is the seat of fear. But facing one’s fear almost always decreases that amount of time that we are uncomfortable. Like a scary movie, the anticipation of a potentially negative event is always the worst part.
The other less obvious benefit of heaving-to as opposed to running from a storm is the mental space it creates. When running from a storm, one must always be at the helm, steering the boat perfectly in order to keep from broaching. This is not only exhausting but frankly, more importantly, you can’t do anything else that might help your situation. But while heaving-to, the helm is locked in position, and the boat is moving much more slowly against the waves. An individual on a boat that is in the heave-to position can move to different parts of their vessel. This frees up their resources, allowing one to perhaps go below for a nap, or look at a chart to check for lee shores, or simply put on a pair of goggles and gaze out at the magnificent power that the sea and the sky can produce together. Such a perspective can be used to fine-tune the set up for heaving-to, tinkering with different variations to see what works best.
This is a quick description of the actual practical conditions of heaving-to in a vessel at sea during a storm. The image can be imported as an analogy into the changing environment of our mind.
When something happens and our minds are thrown into a storm of emotion, what would it mean to heave-to in this respect?
One of the Stoics, Marcus Aurelius is often quoted, having written
“be like the rocky headland on which the waves constantly break. It stands firm, and round it the seething waters are laid to rest.”
Perhaps Mr. Aurelius was not intimately familiar with the open-ocean possibilities of mitigating such seething waters, but it’s doubtful he would not have seen the similarities.
Perhaps even more apt is a line from Joseph Conrad, who when describing what entails a good boat wrote that it should be “like a seabird going to rest upon the angry waves… will lay out the heaviest gale that ever made you doubt living long enough to see another sunrise.”
The juxtaposition of seabird and rocky headland is a juicy one. A rocky headland is clearly a strong entity, but a seabird? The image here evokes a powerful and strong strategy as opposed to being physically strong.
And so to should we strive to find a powerful mental strategy for when storms arise. What is our strategy for ‘heaving-to’ when storms of emotion come upon us? How do we essentially ‘park’ in the middle of that storm and free our mental resources from the grips of that storm in order to see what the next useful step might be?
Many good pieces of such strategy reside in the writing of the stoics, and it does well to remember that much of behavioral economics research has gone to show that things we fear happening or losing effect us much less than we think they will. (Cue the scary movie where the anticipation is the worst part.)
But these are, again, stories that we must have the courage to believe and somehow figure out how to implement, which can be difficult in the moment. We’ve all heard good advice, but implementation seems to be in a different medium altogether. Perhaps the most powerful thing we can do in order to develop a strategy for heaving-to in the emotional moment is to study the present intimately, and this is done primarily through meditation.
Meditation is a tool that can be implemented like a drogue or sea-anchor, or a sail configuration to park our boat. Meditation, with enough practice, gives the mind an ability to slow down and separate ourselves from the emotion that is overtaking our being. We are not totally divorced from it, we simply change our relationship to such emotions, in much the same way that the ship that heaves-to does not magically lift itself out of the water, but simply changes its relationship to those oncoming waves.
But just as the good sailor spends lots of time at sea, watching the waves and feeling the wind, we need to spend the necessary time watching our mind, seeing how it works, tinkering with our perspective of it and feeling around for an escape hatch - a strategy that can give us more visibility. This is, in essence what the practice of meditation entails. And eventually, with enough practice, meditation becomes our drogue in the storm, because any and all phenomena can become an object of meditation. Even the worst moment of life can be grasped by the meditating mind and held in relation to our mind in a way that effectively makes one’s mind like that seabird, comfortably waiting out the storm, bobbing along peacefully over the angry waves.
This episode references Episode 201: Visibility
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