Heather Lyn Mann surrenders to the ever-changing ocean, and impermanence itself.
24 nautical miles north of St. Thomas, USVI
It’s dawn and I am alone at the helm of the Wild Hair. The lights of St. Thomas sparkle gold and red in a flat, wide cluster. I am uneasy because I don’t fit in with ordinary society anymore. The ocean made me different. It beat and bullied me, teased and seduced me, shouted and whispered and altogether exhausted me until I cracked open, let go, and began appreciating not patterns in the wilderness but the ultimate formlessness, unknowability, and impermanence of the sea (and everything else in the universe for that matter). I’m completely and utterly ruined for good company, maladapted to be with anyone who actually believes what they see, feel, and think and who depends on things to continue as they are.
People who expect the sweet spot of their world to last forever make themselves miserable. Rather than surfing waves of becoming and ceasing, they cling to their preferences and experience epic loss when conditions inevitably change. They trust their perceptions absolutely and find fault when life shifts. They spin stories, assign blame, and develop prejudices. They expend vast resources resisting change and build large militaries to make war. Before the Great Atlantic Teacher hammered the lesson of impermanence deep into me, I was someone who clung to my perceptions and preferences like battle flags. I can’t be like that anymore.
In the past few weeks I’ve seen weather forecasts turn on a dime; the wind direction endlessly clock north-south-north; our bodies injured and well, filthy and clean, sleepy and awake; and a joyous holiday turn to heartbreak. Storms blew over. Wild Hair zig-zagged between soundness and breakdowns, and sails trimmed perfectly became dangerous.
On this voyage, my husband, Dave, and I have been both alone and together with family. And all the while, waves of emotion—from happiness to mutinous anger to transcendent endurance—rebounded between my heart and mind. I felt as if I was back in Chicago growing up, when cab drivers liked to say, “Hey, if you don’t like the weather, wait a few minutes.” There’s profound wisdom in these words.
If the world stayed just as it is, then there’d be no such thing as possibilities, learning, or justice.
Impermanence is a precious insight: like my boat, it helps me surf the waves of change and avoid getting swamped when they arrive. There’s value in remembering the unique preciousness of this moment without clinging to it. Contemplating the impermanence of a thing or moment isn’t morbid—growth and the potential for transformation are rooted in the reality of change. If the world stayed just as it is, then there’d be no such thing as possibilities, learning, or justice. I want to keep the experience of impermanence alive and live fully from this place of insight, even when I’m on land and my days feel ordinary and routine. Perhaps when I sit in meditation I can reflect upon how things around me change: thoughts, trends, relationships, and this aging body. Maybe I can touch impermanence when I read reports about shifts in Earth’s climate. I can also spend time outdoors and intentionally find evidence of seasons in transition in the migration of birds.
All at once, the bright moon escapes from behind a cloud, and Wild Hair and I glow in blue light.
“Who am I kidding? Moon, you are my friend. Knowing you has severed me from my species and I have no interest in going back. I want to be with you.” The moon doesn’t flinch but listens deeply to my words.
I am maladapted to humankind. If I re-immerse myself in a civilization convinced it will go on indefinitely just as it is, if I mingle with people who cling to fixed views of right and wrong, us and them, have and have not, wealth and poverty, safe and unsafe, I’ll forget the lesson of the Great Atlantic Teacher: that absolutely everything is in flux and nothing is solid. Distracted by society’s trappings, I’ll get complacent; my thoughts will grow small and selfish and my body comfortable and flabby. I’ll slip into my old ways of being and once again become a driven, frustrated, exhausted woman determined to change the world without really knowing the world.
This thought makes my hide itch.
What’s pleasant, we relish. What’s unpleasant, we wait out. What’s dangerous, we amend.
Screw it. I can’t go back. I’m going to continue sailing, living in the present moment, experiencing the Atlantic, riding endless waves of impermanent cloud patterns, sea states, sounds, thoughts, feelings, and ideas. Life is clear out here. What’s broken, Dave and I fix. What’s pleasant, we relish. What’s unpleasant, we wait out. What’s dangerous, we amend. I’m going to keep letting go of ideas around well-being and derail my stubborn determination for things to be just so. I’ll stay free of the limitations of form and perceptions and live from a place of transcendent endurance.
“Atlantic, beloved ocean, you are my true home. I will veer off and keep sailing. Won’t Dave be surprised?” A passing breeze wraps my shoulders, hug-like, as it moves along.
Suddenly I catch myself and take a breath. I realize I’m not welcoming the impermanence of the voyage but clinging (once again) to my preferences. I do in this moment like life here better than land. But I ought to be looking past my fleeting conceptualizations about both the sea and society. After all, my natural habitat is land; my community is people.
I breathe again and try to let my emotions and judgments about returning rise, exist, and disappear.
Closer now to St. Thomas, I can see the lights on shore illuminate roads and buildings. An insight begins to percolate: the lights themselves are evidence of love—people laboring to offer kindness to one another. Society is imperfect but beautiful. We teach our children, care for our sick and elderly, protect the environment, feed those who are hungry, create peace in the hearts of those who are troubled, and work for justice. There is formlessness in society. Yes, many people cling to their misperceptions and behave badly, but these actions are impermanent and there’s no need for them to ultimately define our species. Humankind is extraordinary and has given earth the gifts of literature, medicine, dance, science, and education. We make each other laugh for the joy of laughing. We create beautiful architecture and plant trees for future generations. As a species, we are both wearisome and inspiring, and the complexity makes the essence of our kind ultimately fluid, unknowable, and beyond description—like earth herself. Society is not society, therefore it is society.
Feeling this truth echo from my baseball cap to my stocking feet, it dawns on me that society can turn on a dime. We are capable of greatness, and anything is possible because of the nature of impermanence. I breathe for several minutes. Wild Hair hums evenly through gentle waves.
When we’re gone, something else miraculous (and equally fleeting) will take our place in a great continuum of arising and ceasing.
There’s no difference between people and nature. We are born of earth; we are the stuff of earth; and we will return to earth. Humankind is impermanent. But somehow this realization isn’t sad or morbid. There is joy in the knowing. We’re precious and fleeting—like the sweet smell of a baby’s breath, like fresh-cut flowers on a wedding day. And when we’re gone, something else miraculous (and equally fleeting) will take our place in a great continuum of arising and ceasing.
“Not so fast, Heather,” I mumble, smiling. “Let’s not jump ahead to our demise. Stick with the fact that humanity is capable of greatness.” The thought turns in my imagination. I decide to nourish myself in the transition back to a life on land, by paying attention to the evidence of humanity’s love, finding it everywhere.
In the turmoil of impermanence, in the confusing array of mistakes and possibilities, humanity’s love can be the salve for my pain.
“This is a good way to be in a suffering world, dear Atlantic Teacher,” I say with energy into the night. My shoulders lighten. A smile grows on my lips. Now I know where to look to counterbalance the chaos of petty ways. In the turmoil of impermanence, in the confusing array of mistakes and possibilities, humanity’s love can be the salve for my pain. I stand and test out what feels like new legs wobbling on the threshold between an ungraspable ocean and an inscrutable civilization. As I stretch, I smile to the moon. A wave splashes through the open cockpit panel and salty drops of water land on my cheek.
There are two kinds of sailors: those who sail offshore and those who want to. Today, Dave and I graduated into the first category. We completed the rite of passage from the transmission of learning to proficiency, from unknowing to knowing, from theory to experience. I realize now I sailed not away from society, but deeply into it. All that arises ceases to be (this is the reality of impermanence). The land is the ocean and the ocean is the land (this is the reality of formlessness). Taken together, we cannot ultimately know what’s going on or what lies in store. All we can do is surf the waves.
At the helm of my ship, blanketed by the moon, I sit and breathe in peace.
Some months later, to celebrate the insight of impermanence, I wrote this poem. I recite these words whenever I need to remember how to surf reality and touch the universe of possibilities.
formless and in flux
becoming and ceasing
precious and fleeting perceptions you are flawed
body you will not continue
civilization you will end
beloved Earth, we will leave you.
My darling let us dare
to be great
surf and transcend for
Excerpted from Ocean of Insight: A Sailor’s Voyage from Despair to Hope, by Heather Lyn Mann © 2016. Published by Parallax Press.