By Steven Bonsey

I grew up bodysurfing in Hawaii, and now, here in Cambridge in the midst of pandemic, I want to talk about being in the midst of crashing waves.

When I was very young my family would picnic on Sunday afternoons at Queen’s Surf, a spot in Waikiki near the slopes of Diamond Head where I would play at catching the gentle waves as they broke on the shore. I loved the way the white water would lift and carry me onto the sand.

Later I would venture with friends into taller waves at Sandy Beach and Makapu’u. I would put on swim fins and swim out beyond the breakers to smoother deep water. I would watch the horizon for approaching swells, reading the signs of their formation in order to position myself in the waters just at the point where they would rise to a peak. I would take off just as the crest jutted forward, keeping the white water just behind me.

I would stretch out my arm as a prow and feel into a trajectory across the green-blue face of the wave. Ideally the rate of my falling body would match the rising water so that I would remain positioned just at the sweet spot in the barreling wave as I hurtled forward at speed.

At the right moment, just before the wave collapsed over me, I would turn into the wave and dive down and back, escaping the brunt of the waves power. Then came the hard part.

No sooner would I surface than I would be faced with the next wave of the set as it too prepared to crash. With a deep I breath I would dive under that wave, surface as it passed over, and swim with all my might before ducking under the next wave. In that way I would make my way slowly back out into deeper water beyond the break where I could catch my breath and scan the horizon for the next set to rise.

It didn’t always work out that smoothly — and this is what I think about in these times.

Here is what I learned in those waters: whatever the dangers in front of me, the greater danger lay within me.

Sometimes I would surface in the roiling crash zone to see that the next wave was right on top of me. I would have no chance to get down under it or even to catch a full breath.

In that moment I knew that in an instant an overwhelming weight would be falling on me, pushing me down, sucking me up, throwing me where it would, and keeping me under for as long as it liked — and leaving me utterly vulnerable to the next wave.

This is the moment that comes back to me here and now in the present moment of dread, helplessness and impending disaster.

Here is what I learned in those waters: whatever the dangers in front of me, the greater danger lay within me.

Fear surged within me, and I could see no escape, but if I braced myself, tightening my muscles against the shock, I would greatly increase my risk of broken bones or a snapped spinal cord. Hope lay in relaxing and going as limp as a sleeping infant. I would allow the water within me to flow with the water around me.

Fear surged within me, and I could see no escape, but if I panicked my lungs would stiffen, my chest would constrict, and the adrenaline in my bloodstream would devour the available oxygen. If I simply trusted that the air within would suffice, then it was far more likely to prove to be so. I needed to allow the fear without being caught up in it. I learned to say to myself in the moment, with all the equanimity I could muster, “Well, if this is it for me, this is it.”

Last week Wisdom teacher Cynthia Bourgeault posted a blog that included this “homework” for these times of pandemic:

Continue your own daily practice of Centering Prayer, and within its gentle and surrendered atmosphere, do all you can to work as deeply into your being as you possibly can the truth of the Pauline affirmation, “Whether I live or die, I am the Lord’s.”

Work it in until there is no discrepancy between how it falls on your mind, your emotions, and your amygdala. Work it in until you realize with all of yourself that it confers the only spiritual immunity, the only source of right action.

In the past week my wife Elisabeth and I have been scanning the horizon, as it were, taking in all the information on the pandemic, tracking its progress and positioning ourselves in every way possible to keep ourselves, our family and our neighborhood safe. We have devoted the time no longer spent on other activities to soul-nourishing practices: yoga, gardening, preparing healthy meals, and sitting in silence. We keep in touch with family, friends and colleagues on video calls, and we sit with our daughter every evening streaming television shows that make us laugh.

We are grateful for the good fortune that makes all of these things possible for us, and we hold in our heart all of those who do not enjoy these advantages. We acknowledge that our lives depend on many who put themselves at risk, voluntarily or by necessity, by serving us in hospitals, grocery stores and delivery services.

We are not alone in noticing that social distancing has made us more keenly aware of our connections to the global community and to all of creation. And we know that, despite enjoying every possible form of privileged protection, we are invited to know our solidarity in vulnerability with all of humanity – to know that we are all at risk physically and psychologically. To deny this would mean certain spiritual death.

May we give ourselves to this moment in the peace and the power of the Spirit of Christ.

A friend forwarded a message to me encouraging us all to bear witness to the suffering of this moment; to gaze at it steadily and intentionally in order to see beyond its outward horror to the mystery beneath. I thought of the practice of gazing at the cross, our ultimate symbol of suffering innocence, in order to see through to the solidarity, acceptance and self-offering within it.

How will we work with our fear in these times? We have gazed at the horizon; we are positioning ourselves as best we can – and the wave will crash over us all. May we give ourselves to this moment in the peace and the power of the Spirit of Christ.

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