Waking up before 5am is usually a sign for me to roll over and go back to sleep. But this time I was wide awake. So I rolled out of bed and shuffled toward the porch to see what colors had taken the sky. The sun was beginning its daily routine of emergence and reflection onto the Puget Sound.
Each morning I try to meditate for 30 minutes and I figured today, I could do my morning meditation down by the water. When I arrived, the tide was in and our old row boat was floating there, calling for me to take it out for a sunrise row. I had uncovered the boat from a mess ivy the week before, and taken it out once with a few friends a few days prior. I wasn’t much of a rower, but it seemed so perfect – so I obliged.
I climbed in, untied the rope, and pushed my oar against the bulkhead to send myself out into the bay. I began to row. Roosters crowed in the distance, a few sea birds rested on the still water. Mount Rainier was standing solidly with her reflection pointing back at me. I was so happy in that moment. So peaceful. So serene. I drifted past jellyfish and kelp, even saw a sea otter pop up his head to say hello.
I pulled in the oars and set my meditation timer. Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out. In… Out… I heard splash — only to open my eyes to a seal playing by a buoy. To meditate on a boat at sunrise! I could do this every day!
As my meditation continued, I began to feel the heat of the sun intensify. I opened my eyes again to capture the sun peaking over the horizon. Shortly after, my meditation bell sounded. I felt peacefulness so deep as I looked at my surroundings.
Then it happened. I panicked.
I had been drifting for over 30 minutes, and even in my mindful awareness of the smells and the sounds of the morning, I had not realized I had floated so far from home.
My mind went down a rabbit hole of possibilities of being lost at sea. Fear, Self-Judgement, Anxiety, Stress. I was full of all of it.
As the next hour unfolded, I rediscovered my ability to handle stress and adversity, and became the observer of my own state of being. Here is what helped me get through my panic state:
1. Call myself out – My breaths grew quicker and noticeably shorter. My mind began to race. I started rowing as fast as I could, with uneven, sloppy strokes. After five minutes, I noticed I hadn’t gained any ground. The tide was going out and I was rowing against the wind. I said aloud, “Jess, you are panicking. It’s okay that you are in a panic state. But take a deep breath, and chill the F+*& out. You will figure this out.” As the words rolled off my tongue I actually laughed out loud at myself and the whole story I was in the middle of. “A Zen meditation that lead to intense internal panic…” It was too ironic not to laugh at. My laughter lightened my mood and allowed a more relaxed response-mode to enter. (Gentleness and humor are helpful while we transition from being in the panic to being an observer of ourself in the panic. This is related to step #1, saying hello to your emotions, on my last post.)
2. Slow down – I stopped rowing and took a few deep breaths. This was helpful but I knew if I stopped for too long I would lose more ground. I needed action, but I also needed to pay attention and be intentional with every muscle and action. What would slower, intentional strokes do versus short, spazzy ones? I went from sloppily rowing in circles to finding short bursts of rhythm. I began to gain a bit of confidence.
3. Play to my strengths – Did I mention I didn’t really know how to row? The most rowing I had ever done was in various gyms in college and my early 20s. The last time I was in this boat was four days prior, and I was awful at rowing it. I knew the motion, but I could not get the boat to go straight. So, instead of beating myself up for not being able to “row correctly”, I tried something different. I realized I had more control and consistency when I rowed in the reverse fashion, pushing the oars rather than pulling them. I turned the boat around and began my push-row back in the direction of my home… it was working!
4. Apply logic – I decided if it took me 30 minutes to float out, it would probably take me twice that long to row back in. If I’m not home in an hour, I thought, THEN I’ll panic. I began to asses my actual ability to row back home. There were some factors to consider: Tide (it was going out), wind (I was rowing against it), muscle fatigue (my reverse-rowing technique used smaller muscles that would fatigue faster than the large muscle groups used when rowing correctly). I decided to keep going with what was working, and when my arms got tired, I could try rowing correctly to give my arms a rest.
5. Sing along the way – Throughout the bouts of stress, I was still on a boat at sunrise in the Puget Sound – and so grateful for that privilege. I wanted to enjoy the ride, so I began to sing. I rowed in rhythm with some buddhist mantra-songs and then sang a few other tunes. The songs connected my heart to my body and I found myself singing and rowing my way home.
By the time I arrived, I had effectively moved from Peace to Panic, and back to Peace again. I realized it’s not about never panicking…that’s not realistic. It’s about how gracefully and quickly we are able to find Peace again.