Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Zen Case Study: The Lightning Whelk

Everyday Mind is the Way
calligraphy by Nonin Chowaney
Something that can happen while in the right mind state is that we're present enough in the moment to see life lessons that are right before us. I call these Zen case studies. A Zen case study is never sought out nor created. It's not figured out or thought through. It happens like a bolt of lighting, yet it contains so much meaning that it resonates far beyond the specific event that triggers it.  They're also almost something that easily is missed if we're not paying attention.

As an example, many years ago we were staying at a beach house on Sanibel Island in Florida. The place is famous for shell collecting, but we were staying there off season to avoid the crowds. This meant the shelling was not at its peak, although it was still fun to walk the shore and look. During our stay, I immediately got in the habit of taking an early morning walk along the beach. No one was out, and even the sea birds seemed quiet. Just the wind and the waves.

I was walking very slowly, mainly because there was no reason to walk quickly. I wasn't going anywhere in particular, and I'd stoop from time to time to look at a shell or stare out at the sea. I also wasn't thinking much of anything. All the inner noise was silent, and I was only paying attention to the things that were happening right then and there before me. If someone had asked me what I was thinking, my answer honestly would have been: "Nothing".

At the same time, not thinking doesn't mean I was zoned out or a mindless zombie. I was totally aware of every gust of wind in my hair, the smells around me, the rising sun on my skin, the crash of the waves, the sharpness of sand and grit under my bare feet, and the coolness of water washing over my feet. So while I wasn't thinking, I was very alert of myself and of my surroundings. In short, I was in samadhi.

Eventually I decided to turn back. But even having a destination didn't alter my mind set. The decision to go back came and and went, and the only impact was that I turned around and walked in the opposite direction. My pace did not quicken, and I wasn't thinking about what I would eat or do when I got back. Nothing like that. I was still completely in the moment.

It was soon after I turned back that I noticed a disturbance in the surf that had not been there before. As I walked I noticed that each wave sliding up the beach recreated the disturbance, so it really was something unusual. When I reached it I found what looked like a piece of coral sticking out of the water. As surf fled back into the sea, it left a ten-inch long lightning whelk shell glistening on the sand before me!

The lightning whelk in question
Probably grinning ear to ear, I picked it up and washed it off in the surf. It wasn't the most pristine lighting whelk, but it was so unexpected a find that I was thrilled! It had clearly just washed up to shore within the few minutes since I'd passed the spot before. I held it and looked out over the sea, feeling like it had just given me a gift.  That's when the lightning struck.

I realized how easily I could have missed this gift from the ocean. I would not have seen it had I taken a more direct route back to the beach house, been staring at my phone, or walking quickly and looking somewhere else. It was a perfect case study for why we discipline our minds. Doing so let's us see the things that are right in front of us, things we know deep down but second guess or ignore while in the rush of daily life. And so much of what we need to know about ourselves and what to do in life is in those moments. If we just are open to it and not running away, wisdom washes up to our feet like this lighting whelk did for me.

Of course, once I was struck by the lighting of the Zen case study, my state of samadhi totally vanished! I instantly transformed into my ten year old alter ego, and I couldn't wait to show Jim what I'd found! Of course, I didn't say anything about the Zen case study. I feel it's best to keep Zen case studies to myself for a long time.  It helps them resonate more fully and cement themselves into my mind. Once we analyze them or talk about them, we tend to dilute them.

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