That is one of many images that can help us settle down into the reality of our Deeper Being. Wish I could remember it when I’m reacting, or aching with sadness, or burning up with anger! Does my complaint sound familiar? We have the good fortune, at any time we are tottering toward overwhelm, to listen to Rumi: “You are not a drop in the ocean,” he affirms. “You are the entire ocean in a drop.”
How to seek our depths rather than live on the surface of things along with the waves? One way is to listen more. To focus on the sounds around us and in us. Notice our breathing. Listen to a recording of the sounds of ocean waves to quiet the monkey mind, lengthen the breathing, and invite a larger awareness of Self.
Breath and emotion live very closely together, right at the center of our mortal home. In fact, the diaphragm—which plunges down as the lungs suck in breath and rises to empty them—is the muscle of emotion. Your breathing will speed up or slow down according to the messages it gets from the Heart/Mind.
Heart/Mind is a Daoist term that calls attention to the appropriate functioning of our middle and upper storey in chest and head. These two major elements of our inner world are often opposed to each other—we either react to what’s going on or determine to think things out. However, heart and mind can come together harmoniously to bring us toward balance. They are supported from below by the body’s vitality—the Daoists call it our Dantian, sea of chi or elixir field, which surges into our lower storey from the rich loam of Mother Earth.
Deep, relaxed breathing helps toward inner balance because it activates the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system. The Vagus nerve originates in the brain as cranial nerve ten, travels down the neck and passes around the liver, spleen, pancreas, heart, lungs and digestive system. It is a major player in the rest-and-digest part of us, continually sending signals back and forth between gut and brain.
The good news is that when we allow the rhythm of our breath to slow down, as in ocean breathing, we stimulate the vagus nerve. Every time we do that we increase our vagal tone—hugely important for a healthy immune system. A good vagal tone will help us fight infection and illness and soon return us safely back to normal. We then feel happier, have less anxiety and find more resilience in the face of stress.
How to improve your stress levels along with your vagal tone? Let slow, rhythmic breathing take over from time to time in your day. Lying on your back for ten minutes on the floor is a great way to do it, because that also allows your spine to lengthen and your back to strengthen. But even if you have no time for that, invite deeper breaths any time you notice your breathing is shallow. Press the pause button on your hurry and allow your breath to fill up more of your torso, even saturate your belly.
Humming or singing will always help out when everything seems just too much, because the vagus nerve is considered the ‘parent’ of the nerves that control the voice box. Sing your favorite songs as you work. Hum the sound OM in a low voice when you feel pressured. Or encourage yourself to finish a task by muttering positive sayings out loud.
Another way to improve vagal tone is to splash cold water on your face. I do it every morning to wake myself up. Feelings of goodwill towards yourself and others also improve vagal tone.
In spite of all our good intentions, let’s be real. As our awareness fluctuates, we will inevitably be pulled away many times from rootedness in ourselves. So what to do? Gurdjieff recommends, “Take habit.” Some habits are good to develop, in order to replace destructive ones. He adds, “repeat, repeat, repeat. Do it a thousand times.”
There’s one practice you could engage in often: interrupt your busyness with seven conscious breaths at certain moments in your day. Observe the flow of your breath in and out. Remind yourself that this is the breath of life, sourced from the core of consciousness. Then, as your breath deepens and your busyness quiets down, listen to all the voices in yourself that are still competing for your attention. Gradually separate out the deeper call of the still small voice in the heart.
Here’s the simple truth of it. Each time you tune in to the breathing you will discover where you really are, and what is taking you away from home base. So how about taking a moment to settle down into yourself right now, until any automatic nervous activity quiets down.
Then imagine that you are an ocean. As a large body of water you contain many things, small and large. Some are organic—life forms of different kinds. Many are beautiful or friendly, but some are too big, dark, or ominous for anyone to feel comfortable with. There are valuable objects floating around within you, beautifully crafted with thought and care. But also a lot of flotsam and jetsam, like the islands of plastic that now inhabit the world’s oceans.
All of this moves within you—call it your inner life. But you are the ocean itself, so you don’t need to do anything about it. Just recognize that it has a place in you, even when you sometimes wonder where it came from and what it is there to serve. As the winds and the seasons move above and around you, sometimes roiling into towering waves, other times scarcely wrinkling your smooth surface, you remain wholly receptive.
Sink your imagination deep into this image as you experience the waves at the top and the tides that pull at you secretly below. Begin to sense that there is a stability in you that contains all things. Follow your breath coming and going like the rhythm of the waves. Then ask yourself, “Who is at the center of this teeming life?”