“We must risk delight…We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.” - Jack Gilbert, from Refusing Heaven
At the beach last week I was struck by how glad I was to be in the company of ocean, palm trees, clouds, sunrises, and sunsets. My bones relished the heat and humidity. I marveled at the way pelicans flew in such graceful formation, swooping low over the crests of waves looking for the next meal, the persistence with which the egrets fished the tide pools, the treasures of multi-colored rocks like jewels offered up from geologic depths.
I was also reading the eye-opening, mind-bending Blue Mind, a wonder of a book by Wallace J. Nichols. His words took me on a journey of discovery while waking up and going to sleep at the Pacific’s edge. The book’s subtitle —The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do—gives you hints of what a large part of the book contains.
Yet in a manner true to both his scientific and emotional ties to water, the author also speaks of other realities—widespread pollution, the dangers of floods, storms and being unprepared in the face of water’s inherent power, wildlife dying from ingesting plastic bottle caps, and the impending work that lies ahead in the face of global warming. After reading his description of a video about seabirds on Easter Island, I was compelled into action and went in search of plastic on the beach. In an hour, I’d walked only one fifth of the three-mile beach, and collected two cubic feet of plastic, including about eighty bottle caps, rope, pieces of brushes and toys and unidentifiable objects, even a Coke bottle filled with engine oil. All of it lying amongst driftwood and pebbles and hundreds of curled, white, parchment-like fragments of sea turtle eggs. It was a sobering exercise in holding paradox—the beauty and the devastation—this “gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.”
Blue Mind is a state of mind, a perspective of honoring the interconnectedness of all things while being present in such a way that we are urged to choose how to live here on Earth within its vast and vulnerable aliveness. You may call this by another name: yoga mind or artist mind, new mother mind or visionary mind. For just as Jack Gilbert’s poetic lines walk hand in hand with Wallace J. Nichol’s 368 pages of prose, we have the amazing, privileged, creative power, as William James once wrote, to “…choose and sculpt how our ever-changing minds will work, choose who we will be the next moment in a very real sense…those choices left embossed in physical form on our material selves.”
James spoke those words a century before neurobiological changes were ever seen by the human eye using fMRI technology (functional magnetic resonance imaging). Our individual changes are not felt only by ourselves, for they ripple out to friends and family, community and the very planet itself. This power we have transforms knowledge and beliefs, expanding and stretching our imaginations and capabilities, even as habitual thoughts and actions that no longer serve us—or humanity—slowly but surely die on the vine from the blessed drought of non-use.
As Benjamin and Rosamund Zander wrote in The Art of Possibility, “It’s all invented—so we might as well invent a story or framework of meaning that enhances our quality of life and the life of those around us.”
I came back from the beach changed. Our brain is plastic in the best sense of the word. It’s built for change, constantly creating mental maps through awareness and experience. My own was re-wired in a way that can be explained by science, and other ways that belong to the mysterious realms of Nature and time. A new pair of earrings bought at the beach, small circles of silver with tiny round aquamarine stones in the center, are physical reminders of how my thoughts, words, and actions—each moment—can be constantly authored, created, chosen by myself.
May we imagine and create a better world for all of us this coming New Year! And may we be curious enough to risk feeling connection, love, excitement, wonder, compassion, and elation while we do it.
Photograph by Barry Shapiro, ©2015