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November 2nd, 2018
Imagine being out at sea when it is perfectly still, like a glassy mirror from every point on the horizon beneath a clear blue sky. The visibility couldn’t be better in this sort of situation. We can notice anything for as far as the eye can see. Even the tiniest blip at the edge of the horizon could be seen.
Now imagine the same ocean in the middle of huge storm. Even if we have never been at sea in a storm, we can close our eyes and imagine gargantuan waves, like mountains scraping across the face of the world. Imagine being in the middle of that terrifying place. Perhaps on a small boat, sliding down into the deep troughs, being overcome again and again by the next wall of water.
What’s the visibility like in the place?
Perhaps for the briefest of moments at the crest of a wave we are high enough to look around and see the ocean like a mountain range of grey walls moving with hissing wind. But at best this is only for the briefest moment, and most of the time we are stuck tumbling down into a trough between waves, where the only visibility is up, into spitting rain.
It’s a ripe analogy to see the mind as this ocean of water. The emotions we feel are like the motions of that water. When we are caught up in some welling, intense emotion, it’s as though we are deep in the trough between waves, and each new one is not seen as an opportunity to perhaps get a little more visibility, but an ordeal to try and survive. On the contrary, when we are calm, and our minds are still, we can see much more clearly.
It may be widely believed that it’s our emotions that make us human. Some like to point out our compassion and empathy as core to our humanity, but anyone who has ever had a kind pet, like a cat or a dog can recognize similar lovely emotions in such animals. Unfortunately, our emotions are a shorthand system for analyzing and reacting to the world, and just as a dog can snap at someone if pushed too far, so too is the case with humans. It’s not our emotions that makes us so human, but our ability to put emotion aside, and notice important details that we are blind to while in the throes of emotion. Having clarity of mind simply expands our field of mental vision. Such calmness gives us the space to notice a small thought, barely audible that has been trying to nudge us in a better direction, a more interesting direction.
It can easily be argued that such big emotions may be very useful. They might be described as large attempts on the part of some sort of subconscious to alert us to some sort of problem or inequity in life that we need to deal with. But most of us get too caught up in the sounding of the alarm to actually understand what the alarm is for.
Calmness and clarity of mind is the place we should always strive to return to. It’s unrealistic to expect it perpetually all the time, but it’s not a fool’s errand to try, because trying gets us there more often than not. More importantly is how do we handle ourselves in the storm? Do we just tumble into troughs? Or is there another way? Can we compose ourselves to deal with such whims of fate, and take advantage of those brief moments at the high crests of waves when we can gain some visibility and perhaps notice something that might help our situation.
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