Little more than a week ago my friend Sarah invited me to come to Muir Beach with her and five of her friends. Eventually there would be a fire and hot drinks and chili, but first there would be a little dip in the ocean: a ritual that would help her — and us, her witnesses — release into deeper creativity.
It sounded great and I was honored she had asked me. But as the day came closer I started to feel the prickling of something pretty close to fear. The Pacific Ocean, Northern California, November — I began to imagine the crystalline shock of that water on my skin. And there would be no tippy-toe-dipping: the deal was that the seven of us were to dive into the waves, not just wade them. We were to surrender ourselves to gravity, to salt, to the push and pull of the water, to the silky grit of the sand, holding nothing back.
I was scared that frigid water would hurt me somehow. Even though plunging voluntarily into the Pacific in November isn’t really suffering, it had that same rough resonance, that unpredictable edge so often part of the pain-plus-story that suffering can be. Sure, the water would be cold. Yes, my body would react. But my anticipation added an overlay — in this case, anxiety — to an experience that could be as simple as physical facts.
I’ve come to see that these kinds of opportunities can be a portal to the center of things, an invitation to enter that timeless state of the present. I’ve had cause to learn this before: In fact, about twelve years ago my husband and I had stood on a beach not far from Muir, losing ourselves in the ocean’s rhythmic trance. At that time I was eight months pregnant with our first child, and frightened. Every day I woke up, still pregnant, and every day that strange mix of euphoria and terror washed over me. Hallelujah! the baby was coming soon, and Holy crap! the baby was coming soon and in my body I both understood and remained completely dumb to how this would actually come to pass. I stood there on the beach, trying to wrangle my panic. Maybe I’d be okay if I imagined that the contractions were waves, each with some length of pause before the next. After all, I’m made of water, too; surely I could also be flexible.
I birthed my son three weeks later, and the image of the waves served me well, helping me relax into a natural physical process instead of tensing against it. In those moments of meeting a new shelf of pain, clenching, then remembering to release, I felt more alive than I ever had before, my attention so focused on my physical experience that now was truly all that was real.
It was the same that day at Muir Beach, in a way, a physical experience so compelling that the only possible response was utter presence. We arrayed ourselves: Sarah in the middle, Barbara, Laura, and me on her right, Joe, David, and Lewis on her left. A breeze picked up and ruffled our hair, spread goosebumps across our exposed limbs. We’d already been cleansed with vodka and sage; we’d already danced. And we’d already prayed — God knew what we hoped to release and what we hoped to invite. There was nothing left but the water.
So we sprinted toward the sea. Along with the others I screamed and hollered and plunged again and again, each immersion a fresh jolt that, instead of knocking me out of my body, lodged me deeper, nerves thrumming with joy and relief. This water, this sand, this body, these people. Right now.