It sounds incredibly corny but there are times when – if you allow yourself to pay close attention, you can feel your life and intentions and understanding shifting in the moment. Sometimes it is just a subtle shift, a feeling like the wind changing direction, and other times it just slaps you across the face. Saturday I felt the latter.
I originally took up diving as a hobby because my husband was a dive instructor at the time and I wanted to be able to go along with him. Soon though, I genuinely started to love the experience of being underwater and the chance to see all of the amazing things that live there. Still, when I go without my husband, I often get anxious about getting anxious under water and it taints the experience a bit. The last time I was in Hawaii I dove Molokini but because my husband couldn’t make the trip I had to go diving on my own. It was spectacular and I saw a giant manta ray for the first time, but not having anyone who shared the experience with me meant that talking about it too much was just annoying for my whole family. This last week I was again on a family holiday to Hawaii without my husband (poor guy keeps missing out) and I had planned to spend a morning diving Molokini with a friend. We had an amazing first dive, great visibility, a million and one fish. But it took getting back on the boat for things to get really interesting.
We were on our way to the next dive site, the entire boat half stripped of their wet suits, eating fresh pineapple and enjoying the view. I for one was enjoying the fact that there didn’t seem to be any diving know-it-alls on the boat with us. And then the whale arrived. There are a lot of whales around Maui, you’d be hard pressed to look out at the ocean and not see the spout of one or two frolicking in the distance, but this one was right next to the boat and extremely interested in it. As everyone gasped and screeched it rubbed itself against the side of the boat, dove under and around it, spy-hopped to look at all of us, blew massive sprays into our faces. Over and over and over again. At times he was so close and still that people had to be reminded not just to reach out to stroke him. The compulsion to do just that was almost overwhelming. Some of us did brave putting on a mask and hanging off the side of the boat with our faces to get a different view. I can now say I have looked into the eye of a whale. In Hawaii, if a whale comes this close to your boat you are required to stay put until it leaves. And so we were stuck there… for two and a half hours until yet another whale came by to check out the boat for a while and then lured ours away.
The time with the whale was life changing not just because it was such an anomaly- which it was, it was certainly the staff on the boat who were the most overwhelmed and excited – but because it provided a window to reflect on the nature of experience and flow, on living entirely in the moment, and on the sheer grandeur of the universe. This might all sound horrifyingly new age, but there is a reason that bad whale art is synonymous with the movement.
The whale was longer than our whole boat, and was touching it, steel to skin. Yet the boat barely moved or jostled at all. The whale was so aware of its own surroundings and manoeuvred its body with such intention that it made everyone completely relax. No one on the boat was the least bit anxious or nervous. The whole experience was so mindful and in the moment that it was an experiential meditation, very close to the concept of flow. Time altered itself. What felt like ten minutes was actually 2 hours. At one point the captain gasped when he realised we were supposed to be back at the marina already (we hadn’t even made it to our second dive yet). For at least the first hour that the whale was around, the only people who had their phones out were people who happened to be holding them when the whale arrived. I cannot remember a recent time where something interesting happened and people didn’t go diving for their phones and yet there was something so rewarding about the experience itself that it almost negated the need to receive likes for it. Well almost. The whale stuck around long enough that everyone could document it and bask in social media smugness for days.
For the last several days I have been finding myself returning to the moment and finding a kind of easily accessible mindfulness just by processing and observing the memory of it. It has highlighted the usefulness of ‘experiential meditation’, in that it offers not simply the experience itself but a short cut to the calm and joy provided by the remembrance of it. I suppose this is the basis of the long term effects of animal therapy. It’s not possible to orchestrate grandiose whale encounters in everyday life, but we can certainly build in other moments of mindful commune with nature that can have similar effects when recalled on bleak city buses or inside air-conditioned offices. I think that seeing the world outside of the constraints of human culture, as something bigger and more important than ourselves, is not scary and diminishing but exhilarating and freeing. This is a tool we can and should use as often as we can.