I experienced a few moments of serenity yesterday. It was on the ferry from Swartz Bay to Tsuwassen, on my way back from a lovely visit with my relatives in Victoria. It had cleared up from an overcast, rainy morning to one of those afternoons with deep blue skies and bright, billowy clouds.
I stood on the deck of the ferry. There were very few people around; most stayed inside out of the wind. In the distance, I could see a long range of mountains, some shrouded in cloud, some showing peaks still decked in snow. The sea was remarkably calm, and I could barely feel the motion of the ship, except when I stood away from the wall and felt the force of the wind.
A feeling of serenity doesn’t come easily to me. I don’t have a serene mind. Much as I sometimes try to quiet it, to just empty my mind of thoughts—especially when I’m fighting insomnia—I can’t seem to stop myself. It’s not just that I can’t stop thinking; it’s that there’s a constant stream of bits of thoughts: thought fragments, you could call them.
I worry. I fret. I remember things I forgot to do. Memories pop up from years past. People I see remind me of people I haven’t seen in years. I make lists of things to do. I plan my next lesson, or my next blog post, or the route I’ll take to get all of my errands done. I have a great idea to solve a particular problem: something that I’m having trouble explaining to students, or how to organize a course, or what to include or exclude from my book.
If I’m walking or bicycling or driving, I notice the shops that I pass and the billboards and the architecture of the buildings. But I also try—not always successfully—to keep track of visual landmarks in an effort to compensate for my complete lack of a sense of direction.
These are just examples, of course. A constant stream of these thought fragments passes by in review, and many of them—too many—I don’t remember at all later. Perhaps the best comparison I can think of is a music video. You know how fast recent videos move: a series of extremely short images, each a fraction of a second long, often seemingly unconnected, and it’s up to you as a viewer to make some sense of them, or to let them wash over you without processing them. That’s what the inside of my brain looks like.
So these few moments of serenity as I stood there looking at the mountains were precious and rare and unfamiliar. So unfamiliar that I found myself thinking “Hmm. This is what serenity feels like.”
I’ve had this feeling before. Last year, in Bonaire, for example, when I was lying on a lounge chair behind our rental house, looking up at a palm tree and out at the sea. Or, also on vacation, when I go snorkeling, and I lie still on the surface of the water, completely engrossed in the living underwater world below me.
Other than during these rare moments, my mind is constantly buzzing, yet I know that moments of serenity are good for me. Especially when I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep because my brain won’t stop churning, I’d really like to be able to summon up some serenity. Yet it’s hard to purposely choose a calm mind: in other words, to choose not to think.
I know that some people meditate to empty their minds. Perhaps I should try that. What I’d really like to do is travel more, and take the time, as I did on that ferry yesterday, to simply look and enjoy what I see.