Monday, December 13, 2010

Oceanic Feelings

Photograph taken at Old Orchard Beach 11/13/10
“There on the beach, with no sound but that of the ocean waves…I experienced dreams of a new sort–soft and shapeless things, marvels that made a deep impression, without images or emotions, clear like the sky and the water, and reverberating like the white whorls of ocean rising up from the depths of a vast truth: a tremulously slanting blue in the distance that acquired glistening, muddy-green hues as it approached, breaking with a great hissing its thousand crashing arms to scatter them over darkish sand where they left dry foam, and then gathering into itself all undertows, all return journeys to that original freedom, all nostalgias for God, all memories (like this one, shapeless and painless) of a prior state, blissful because it was so good or because it was different, a body made of nostalgia with a soul of form, repose, death, the everything or the nothingness which – like a huge ocean – surround the island of castaways that is life.”[1]

Many sections of The Book of the Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa are beautiful and evocative, but because the book is built on shifting fragments, it never coalesces into a coherent whole. Instead, the book is filled with disparate parts and voices, “all swirling and uncertain like the cigarette smoke through which Pessoa…watched life go by.”[2]

I was particularly drawn to the passage I quoted above of being “there on the beach, with no sound but that of the ocean waves.  It resonated with me because his poetic description of the ocean is, for me, a perfect metaphor for mindful meditation: being there on my cushion, with no sound but that of my breathing, watching disparate thoughts and feelings, rise up and fall away, all swirling and uncertain like the smoke from the incense, none having any independent reality. Often, during meditation, I become enveloped in a warm glow, and without any forethought or volition on my part, a smile will magically appear upon my face, growing wider and wider until my cheeks hurt, as I make, what Pessoa calls, that blissful return journey to original freedom, or what religious people call finding God, or what the Buddha calls becoming awake.

Pessoa wasn’t the first one to equate this feeling of spiritual limitlessness with the ocean: no doubt the two have been paired since the first human stood in awe of the ocean’s roar. However, it was a contemporary of Pessoa, Romain Rolland, who first coined the term – oceanic – to describe this primal spiritual energy in a letter to his friend, Sigmund Freud in 1927.

Pessoa was a contemporary of Rolland. I wonder if they knew each other, corresponded, or read each other’s books. They seem to me kindred spirits.

Both were humanists sharing the same spiritual outlook.  While Pessoa wrote in poetic terms, Rolland wrote in prose, asserting that the oceanic  feeling is the primordial source of all religious energy, defining it as an indissoluble bond. In Rolland’s view, a person may justifiably call herself religious on the basis of this oceanic feeling alone, regardless if he renounces every belief and every illusion.[3]

Practicing mindful meditation has convinced me, beyond doubt, that Pessoa and Rolland are correct in their assertion that the oceanic feeling is a profound, ‘lived experience’ and, indeed, the basis of all spirituality.  It’s too bad Freud, wrongly, got the credit for coining the term, oceanic, especially since he distrusted it’s validity, trying – as he did – to pass it off as merely a leftover fragment of infantile consciousness.


[1] From The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa (text 198)., published by Penguin Classics in 2003.
[2] Quote by Richard Zenith, the editor and translator of this edition of The Book of Disquiet.
[3] The Ontology of Religiosity: The Oceanic Feeling and the Value of the Lived Experience

photograph taken at Old Orchard Beach 11/13/10

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