In his book, The Holy Science, Swami Sri Yukteswar, Paramhansa Yogananda’s guru, writes that fear is one of the eight meannesses of the heart and a serious obstacle to progress on the spiritual path. Overcoming fears of any kind always brings a sense of joy and freedom. Overcoming fear of the ocean was especially significant for me.
Years ago, I nearly drowned while swimming in the Mediterranean Sea. I went out in a small boat with a group of friends when the sea was rough. Apprehensive from the start, the farther out we went, the more frightened I became. Since I was the only one who wanted to turn around and go back, my only option was to swim back alone.
I was a very good swimmer, but I had no previous experience swimming in rough waters. Once in the water, the waves pounded me continuously. As each big wave hit from behind, I swallowed huge amounts of water. Panicking, I began swimming faster and faster, not realizing that I was exhausting myself in the process. Closer to the shore the waves became even bigger, and I didn’t think I had the strength to make it back. Although at one point I almost lost consciousness, somehow, a few minutes later, I found myself lying on the wet sand.
Since then, I have avoided swimming in the ocean and have limited my swimming to pools. Pools have boundaries, no waves, and a bottom one can see.
In March of 2012, my husband, Gyandev, and I led two separate one-week spiritual retreats in Hawaii in a secluded area close to the ocean. The daily schedule left plenty of time for swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving. The first week’s group consisted of people who loved the ocean; many were experienced snorkelers. After watching them for a while and seeing how easy snorkeling seemed to be, I decided to go in.
Entering the water was not easy. The waves were not high but the ocean bottom dropped off abruptly. Suddenly finding myself in the turbulent deeper water and assailed by a strong current that seemed to pull me into it, the memory of my near-drowning experience surfaced. I panicked and swam back to the beach.
Since it was obvious to me that I was facing a deep fear of drowning, I decided to tackle the fear slowly, with respect. I wouldn’t again just plunge into the water. I would deal with the fear step by step.
I become an observer
The next day I sat on the beach and watched how others in the group dealt with the turbulence and high waves. I noticed that the waves farther out in the ocean were much lower and calmer than the waves at the shore. I realized also that the ocean bottom was covered with the same small black pebbles as was the beach, and that these pebbles had prevented me from seeing where the ocean began to drop off. Not being able to see the ocean bottom had made entering the water much more frightening.
Every morning the group meditated on the beach facing the ocean. During my meditations, I offered my fears to God and Guru, and sought their guidance and strength. I prayed for the courage to meet this situation according to God’s will. I also tried to feel the ocean as my friend, and visualized myself as a wave joyfully merging with the ocean. Throughout my spiritual journey, I have used the image of the ocean as a symbol of God, and the wave as a symbol of the individual soul, myself.
The pebbles on the ocean floor
As the days passed, the members of the group shared their daily snorkeling experiences, marveling especially over the beautiful fish at the coral reef, a five-minute swim from the shore. I did very little swimming during this time. When I did go in it was always near the shore. I spent most of my time observing the waves and those who were snorkeling.
At the end of the first week, I was the only one who hadn’t seen the coral reef or the beautiful fish. All I’d seen were the black pebbles on the ocean floor near the beach.
In talking to God about my situation, I told Him, “I don’t care whether or not I see fish. I am not attached to seeing fish. I love You and my goal is to change and conquer my little self, not to conquer the ocean.” I surrendered the issue to God, at the same time hoping He would tell me I didn’t need to conquer my fear. God listened to me silently.
A whole new world revealed
Most of those in the second retreat group were experienced snorkelers and excellent swimmers. A few days after their arrival, I mustered the courage to go into the ocean again. This time I wore a life vest along with the snorkel mask. Lalaan, a friend with whom I work, and a fearless and experienced ocean swimmer, offered to guide me. I trusted her. Holding on to her life vest as we swam together, we went much farther out than I had gone by myself. Suddenly, I saw the coral reef and the fish—hundreds of beautiful fish! A whole new world was revealed.
The life vest made it easy to stay afloat. Swimming took much less effort. Because I was less afraid, I experienced less tension and resistance and I was not as tired when I returned to the beach. Nonetheless, it had taken nearly all of my will power to stay centered and trusting.
The next day I was looking forward to going in. Again, Lalaan was by my side. This time we went out even farther and, because I was more relaxed, I actually enjoyed it. Later that day, Lalaan offered to take me out in a kayak; how thankful I was that I agreed to go! The ocean was calm and beautiful. I experienced less fear, more relaxation, and for the first time at the beach – joy.
All alone in the ocean
The ocean became very rough and for two days no one went in. Finally, the day before the retreat ended, the ocean was calm and, wearing the snorkeling mask and life vest, I went in again. To keep warm, I also wore a wet suit, borrowed from the woman who’d offered to go snorkeling with me. I’d had a very deep meditation that morning and, for the first time, I felt calm and centered as I entered the ocean.
The two of us swam to the reef and saw the beautiful fish. Feeling safe enough to explore the ocean, I continued to swim farther away from the shore. I enjoyed being in the water and the feeling of being gently swayed by the waves. As I swam, I prayed to God and Guru and thanked them for this wonderful opportunity. I felt relaxed, calm, and joyful.
At one point, I lifted my head and saw that my friend was heading back to shore. I was alone in the ocean, quite a distance from the shore. I continued snorkeling, and at one point, went farther out in the ocean. The water was so deep that I couldn’t see the bottom.
All of a sudden, I felt the power and depth of the ocean, and expanded into its vastness. In complete surrender to that power, I allowed the waves to carry me. Everything was so quiet – I could only hear the sound of my breathing. No longer was I separate from the ocean, a wave gently tossed on its surface. I had become the ocean. The feeling was blissful and with it came a sense of deep humility and reverence. I had been given an experience of oneness with God in the form of the ocean.
I stayed out in the deeper waters for quite a while. Then, slowly, moving in cooperation with the ocean, I began swimming back to the shore. The waves and I were moving together.
Closer to the shore, the waves were higher, and were rising and crashing. I didn’t resist, but allowed the waves to take me toward the shore – and then back out again into the ocean. Surrendering to the waves, I went back and forth like this many times. Suddenly a big wave came and pushed me gently onto the shore. Sitting on the warm black pebbles, I took off the mask and relaxed in joy and gratitude for this experience.
I became bigger
I learned from my experience in Hawaii that one can overcome fear by using common sense, skill, patience, and faith in God—and that all four are needed. In my near-drowning experience in the Mediterranean, these qualities were lacking. I did not assess the risk I was taking when I decided to swim back to the shore in rough waters. Not then being a devotee, I lacked a calm sustaining faith in God’s guidance and grace. In the moment of crisis, I relied completely on my own will power, which ultimately failed me.
The recent snorkeling experience was very different. I was able to transcend my fear by facing it. Each day I tried to tune into God and to let Him guide me in how to overcome my fear. As I became calm and centered through prayer and meditation, God was able to lead me step by step to the moment when I was able to surrender to the flow of the ocean.
Surrendering to the ocean took a lot of will power and energy, but it took less energy to surrender than to resist. Resisting the ocean left me feeling drained and defeated. By surrendering to the greater flow, I experienced joy and deep contentment. And, in the process, I became bigger.
Link to photos of Hawaii Retreat