July 23, 2014

Meditation on a Beach

There's an old saying that people who live at the seashore eventually stop hearing the waves. My own experience has not borne this out. The more I live by the water, in fact, the more I learn to listen, and the more I am able to discern and understand its lessons. For nearly 20 years, the beach has been my classroom; and I try to attend every day, sitting most evenings, and many mornings, as close to the teacher as possible. It's a relaxing way to start and end the day-but much more.

The first lesson the beach teaches, I have found, is that you must quiet your thoughts to hear the lessons that follow. The best time for this is early, before others have left their footprints, when the sounds of the natural world dominate-the waves scuffing over shells, the cries of sea birds, the rustle of palms in the breeze. Nature seems magnified, although one soon realizes that this is its true size, undiminished by the human noise of daytime. Early morning air tastes like a promise, a return to innocence. The sky shimmers, the water is calm. One sees and hears things that do not occur later in the day-and some that will not ever occur again. Once I watched as several hundred birds standing on a sandbar at Pelican Bay's South Beach suddenly lifted up into morning fog and performed a ballet of dives and climbs, among the most stirring sights I have seen.

Other people come out in search of such fleeting moments, buoyed by the crisp breezes-nodding hello with words or a smile or just with their eyes. One morning, I sat on Vanderbilt Beach shortly after sunrise and a woman came up to show me the seashells she had gathered. "Do you want to hold them?" she asked, as playful as a child.

Every day at the beach has its seasons, as regular as the ebb and flow of the tide, reminding us of the cyclic nature of our lives, teaching us lessons about patterns, patience and surprise. As the day lengthens, the morning's promise evaporates and a brighter, harder reality takes its place. People arrive with chairs and coolers and more self-centered energies. They plant umbrellas, spread towels, click on radios. Nature's sounds are quieted. Temporary communities form in the sand. The beach adapts. The gulls at midday hop among the people like peanut hawkers at a ballgame, hoping for handouts.

By noon, people think nothing of setting their chairs and bassinets and boom boxes several feet away from one another. There are none of the hopeful nods and smiles of early morning-and yet a different sort of dynamic occurs, a sharing of rituals: lying nearly naked on towels in the sand, walking the surf, combing for shells, building sand forts, tossing Frisbees. The intensity of midday on a crowded beach feels like an event, a celebration of family, of the body, of the star around which our planet turns, an essential joining of nature and human nature.

But this, too, fades as the sunlight softens. In late afternoon, there is a changing of the guard-the crowds trickle away, replaced by another breed of beachgoer, out to enjoy the light, to read, to walk in the sand. For a while, there are places to park again in the lot. The sun turns golden and then orange, glinting off sunglasses, winking from the windshields of passing cars. And soon begins the final ritual-the daily pilgrimage to the edge of the land for sunset. Often the faithful arrive early, as if to a church service, in order to get good seats.

What draws this gentle mob to the water's edge each night? Several years ago, I asked about 20 people on a North Naples beach what they had come to see. Their answers were varied but, without exception, thoughtful.

A man on his honeymoon from Germany said, "It's something mystical, like the light you see coming from God's heart in pictures. You can actually see the day going. There's no other time you can see it moving like that."

The president of Naples' Italian-American Club said, "Whatever problems you have, you come out here and forget them. The serenity, the beauty."

A woman from Ohio: "It touches something that can't be expressed. What are we here for? It gives a little answer."

A man practicing martial arts in the surf as the sun set told me, "This is the greatest gift God has to offer. It's a masterpiece-a work of art greater than anything by Monet or Picasso. And it's free."

Perhaps sunset is about the things that can't be explained-something that speaks to the soul and the emotions, not the intellect. I don't know; I won't try to put it into words, except to say that each sunset is different, and that's one reason why they never seem boring. There are sunsets that whisper a goodbye, Carl Sandburg wrote, there are sunsets that dance goodbye. Some burn out, and others linger with the biblical brilliance of a Thomas Cole painting. Sunset is a fluid canvas-look away for 30 seconds, then back again, and it's a different sky. Some people go when the sun goes, leaving as if sunset were the end of a fireworks display. But often the grand finale comes later, in the afterglows.

Gradually, as the air darkens, nature regains dominance, and new lessons are offered. Some nights stars blink magnificently; on others, clouds twine with muted moonlight. In summer I sometimes swim in the Gulf after dark, and watch the shore lights and those in the sky, hear the slap of water and the beat of pelican wings and am reminded again that we are part of something more fundamental than our jobs, our habits, our identities. Recently a friend and I sat on the edge of the dunes and watched a full moon rise in a clear night sky, bathing the sand with a light as bright as daytime, an event as surprising in its way as the birds lifting off from the sandbar.

When Thoreau went to Walden Pond, he did so to "front only the essential facts of life . We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake," he wrote. At a time when our lives provide too little challenge for the soul, daily visits to the beach can be an essential exercise, a way of keeping awake. If supreme happiness is the result of a calm mind, as the Dalai Lama says, the edge of the land is a place to go to find this calm, to seek out this happiness.

Go and listen, expecting to hear nothing. Quiet your thoughts. Close your eyes and then open them. Eventually, you will hear more than the waves. You will hear the lessons.

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