Paddling through Space:
An essay on Equanimity Within and Without
Suzanne Engelman, 4/4/19
Equanimity is the 10th parami; the highest “mundane”, conditioned state we can rest in that is not nibbana (Pali for nirvana). Like a multifaceted crystal, it has many aspects. Looking into the equanimity crystal, is to see without being caught; to be even, spacious, centered; a clearing of the ballast that keeps the ship upright in a storm. Equanimity is not a static state on the seas of life; rather, a process of learning to surf with whatever wave comes along. Like nature and the weather, it is uncontrollable and wild. “And there is room for this too”. The near enemy of equanimity is detachment, aloofness, indifference; rarely experienced in the wilderness.
Ten days ago, I completed a silent wilderness kayaking retreat with meditation teacher Mark Coleman in Baja’s Sea of Cortez. Still integrating the experience, I would like to offer a few examples of noticing, as I practiced expanding my bandwidth capacity to be equanimous; that is, attempting to meet my suffering and joy with as much spaciousness as possible, to let experiences come and go on their own.
First Noticing: For weeks before hand, I watched the fear about going on this physically challenging trip–seven days in the wilderness, no electronics, no electricity, no contact with civilization. Three-four hours of kayaking/day you say? I’ve been working diligently up to one hour a day in Dana Point Harbor! What if my chronic back issues resurface and there is no way out? Watching the fears come—and then go: “This trip is for me; I can do it; what a fantastic opportunity to be in and with nature!” A meeting of my edge and softening. I was committed.
Second Noticing: Ah, immersion in the Sea of Cortez. Paddling from my seat 4 inches above, on what looks like glass; the mirror-like reflection is cracked only by pods of dolphins frolicking nearby; the vast stillness interrupted only by sea birds’ cries overhead as they glide forward in formation. Paddling: Dip, push from the top on the right; dip, push from the top on the left; right, left; right left, right left. Ah, simultaneously soothing and strenuous; so easy to cling to these sensations of ecstasy; just be with, in my full body. Rhythm, breathe, rhythm, breathe. Sliding along in our own loosely formed kayak flotilla.
Third Noticing: The glass is shattered by cones, topped with white peaks. We have 2 hours of paddling to get to the next island, no stops. We are admonished to stay close together in these rough waters, to offer protection to one another as we make the crossing. Fear strikes, tranquility vanishes. My body tenses in anticipation of the challenge. I watch myself hope for a delay on a mid-way island to wait out the storm; I need to pee to put off the inevitable. The decision is made to cross now. The winds pick up their volume and force, seemingly in response to us accepting the challenge. I am forced to meet my edge–and try to soften–to the rolling/crashing waves and my own physical strength limitations.
My companion tandem paddler and I begin; others are already far ahead. No matter how hard I paddle, our kayak is left in the rears. Here comes a large wave. The crest is going over us; we are in the trough of the wave and my oar stabs in, but grabs no water!! There is nothing there but space. Spaciousness…this is Fear; RAW vulnerability. Pay attention! Keep rowing; The rhythm will carry us. No one can take care of us now or fix it. This is the way it is. Releasing into “what is” brings an unexplainable sense of felt-safety and peace; like being with the pause between the crashing and receding waves on the beach.
Eventually, we make it to the shore where the other paddlers are already non-verbally celebrating their jubilant arrivals. My paddling companion grapples with her inner self-judgments of “not good enough”, “not ok to be last”. I feel compassion for her struggle, but do not take it on as my own. It is no fun being last; but I feel an exalted, heart-full, sense of accomplishment. Not exactly nibbana, but my felt sense is pure and vital. My senses continue to rock back and forth with the motion of the seas. Every fiber of my body vibrates with exhausted delight.
Fourth Noticing: this retreat is a contemplation on impermanence. We camp on an island which is an oceanic graveyard of piles of discarded shell-homes abandoned by sea creatures devoured by octopi; scatterings of skeletal remains of scorpion and trumpet fish, long undulating eels, sun bleached star fish and sea urchins, all washed up into their final resting place; we practice sunrise qi-gong on the uplifted ocean floor mesa of condensed, fossilized sea shells. Scavenging scorpions sleep in the coolness under our tent footprints, awaiting a false move. Meanwhile, the tidepools’ very existence come and go, with the fluctuating ocean levels; teaming with scurrying life, making best use of their temporary haven for a few hours, only to evaporate in the desert heat as the tides recede. A blue-green crab stealthily clings to the rock ledge as it makes its way, then miraculously “flies” in a visual blur over a foot-long water channel, to the rock beyond.
I contemplate my physical limitations at this age of 66 years. The 30- something year-olds help me with beaching and launching my 130-pound loaded kayak, when arriving and departing our temporary island homes. The aversion and self-judgement of needing their help arises. I question the fairness to them of my decision to be part of this sangha/community, when what I have to offer physically, is “less than”. Mark provides reassurance of not needing to do it all-that this is real, and how I relate to it is what matters. I am humbled by the deep interrelatedness that a true wilderness retreat provides, and the opportunity to see the different ways we all give and take.
I return to presence. I am here now—watching the earth’s horizon giving birth to the subsuming creamsicle sun and moon as they arise each day over the water; their celestial trajectories to the opposite horizon emblematic of life and death. Melancholy permeates my mood. I am with the hypnotic, lapping waves, whose sounds echo the jagged rock formations into which they crash; then, as if heralding the new day, the loud pelican chatter begins; a noisy, fishing dive—whop!!! And my humor awakens. A full smile emanates, as I see the ultimate joy in all these portals to waking up. At the moment, mortality is still somewhere in the future, forestalled for now.