Tides by Robert Beatty, October 2002

I am sitting cross-legged on the highest point of a tiny island in Desolation Sound between the mainland of BC and VancouverIsland. Others have sat in this deep green moss. Humans have lived here for more than ten thousand years. It’s the third day of scudding gray clouds caught in the pines of nearby mountains. The wind speaking through the trees above me drops showers of pine needles and other detritus of a summer’s growth like dry rain. The air is cool and periodically a squall passes through with windy gusts of up to thirty miles an hour and steeply slanting rain that requires a retreat to the tent. A few weather beaten shore pines and an Arbutus tree the color of monk’s robes stand between the surfacing oyster beds, the turbulent gunmetal waters of the inlet, and me. Mysterious patterns of calm dark water snake their way across the more turbulent surface.

Not long ago several thousand people of the Salish tribes lived in forest villages in the surrounding nearby coves. They came to this island to harvest the countless clams and other sea life. Generations came and went as the rhythms of nature, tribe and family life unfolded. Babies grew into elders sitting around campfires as later generations of children played and learned to gather berries and roots, hunt for game, and harvest the fish and mollusks. For the natives this time of year was filled with smoking of fish and preparations for the long and wet winter in the longhouses. Not long ago Europeans with guns and disease came and claimed most of the land for themselves. I sit here today, a Caucasian of French and Irish descent imagining the lives of those who sat here before. Their bodies, villages and ceremonies are long gone, along with most traces of their having lived. What remains are their middens filled with the shells of their feasting, arrowheads of their hunting and patches of rich soil where they piled organic debris.

Each year I return to this familiar mossy rock. It has perfect indentations for my feet  and a vast view of ocean, cliffs, forest carpets of trees and snow laced mountains. Sitting here allows my mind to settle, clear and to come into balance with the rhythms of the natural world. The habitual nagging, and mostly unconscious, tension which signals something “important and urgent” to do dissipates. Days pass and the intensity of the wandering mind diminishes. I experience moments of just sitting, just breathing, just present to the great mystery around and inside me.

In the novel The Lady of Lotus, the author imagines the life of Siddhartha and his wife Yasodhara. Before he became the Buddha, Siddhartha went with Yashodhra for a picnic in the countryside. As they climbed upon the tumbling remains of an old castle he found himself ruminating: “Those who lived here were no different from me. Everything they became and created has crumbled to dust. Surely it will be the same for Yashodra and myself and our city of Kapilavastu.” This reflection on the impermanence of everything ultimately led to his abdication and his seven-year quest for liberation.

My human lifetime too has been one of countless comings and goings. It’s more than a decade since my parents died. I’ve had friends depart through accident, illness, career moves, and divorce. The person I see in the mirror has gray hair and a face lined like my father’s when he looked “old.” The  unsettling evidence of utter impermanence manifests in every experience I have.

Last year my beloved miniature husky Kali was here with me. She and puppy Maya romped and wrestled and I worried that they might fall over the rocky ledge. Today only Maya lies curled up in the moss next to me while I meditate. Kali was killed by a car and has joined the Salish.

The ocean breathes in its own daily rhythm of huge tides, with fourteen feet between high and low. The island grows by about 50% at low tide as the intertidal shelves that teem with life surface like giant barnacle-covered ocean monsters. As I sit in meditation the oyster beds below emerge or vanish as the tide moves. The incoming tide surges quickly like a flood swamping more ground by the second. There is a hissing I imagine being the breathing out of all the shellfish that have been holding their collective breaths since the water left hours ago.

A seal’s black head slides above the ocean surface about sixty feet offshore and makes noises sounding like a cross between a baby’s cry and a snort. Is this the same seal thatcalled out to us last year? Where is the pup that was with her? Does she miss the pups that have come and gone? In the underwater world as well there are creatures living and dying, hunting and being hunted.

After billions of years of journeying through the evolution of species I find myself as a self-conscious human, a separate individual sitting here on a particular island, on “my” rock, clinging to the experience of myself as separate from the dance of nature. As I meditate, mindfulness slowly calms the thoughts and attachments that create this sense of separation. Ease arises as the mind resonates and harmonizes with the ebb and flow of the natural world. I melt into the infinite dance of coming and going, of rising and falling; I am an inseparable part of this thin layer of life existing between the rocks of planetary crust and the cold vastness of space. Everything is just as it is, requiring no action or interpretation. Then my awareness shifts and I feel body sensations; eyes full of ocean and mountains, ears hearing wind and waves all intrinsic to the flow of life.  In this moment I am once again a separate self, an individual observer of life. The “great tide” waxes and wanes as my separate self comes into being and then dissolves into the vast ocean.