I had the recent fortune of watching the sun set over the Indian Ocean from the west coast of Sri Lanka. The sun was pink and benevolent, the waves crisp and strong; the water a boundless muscle of infinite might.
I felt humbled as I always do at these moments. The power of nature was staring me in the face and reminding me of my own insignificance.
Sometimes in life my insignificance bothers me. I work for an environmental charity and at times my career feels like an uphill battle against the stupidity of human ignorance. Working day after day on issues like tropical deforestation, plummeting biodiversity, diet-related ill health, and the factory farming of sentient beings, can make you feel powerless – like a drop in the ocean. There’s so much sadness in the world that is out of my control. I probably wouldn’t have continued this line of work if it wasn’t for yoga.
In India they have a prayer called the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra. It’s a nourishing mantra which reminds us of our immortality. In the West the notion of immortality is often misunderstood. Although it’s true that one day my body will cease to receive life, the great ocean of consciousness – which I am part of – will remain. Others will receive life from it after me. This mantra is a prayer to Lord Shiva, the creator and destroyer of all things. Its final verse – ‘urvārukam-iva bandhanān mṛtyormukṣīya amṛtāt’ – asks that Shiva may sever us from our bondage to worldly life, like a cucumber being severed from bondage to its creeper; and thus liberate us from any fear of death, by reminding us of our immortal nature.
It’s a lesson in non-attachment. Sometimes we are so attached to our worldly pursuits that we suffer. We forget the bigger picture. We forget that we’re part of something so much greater than ourselves. The reality is each of us is just a little cucumber through which the creeper of consciousness experiences itself for a while.
To bring this to life I like to think about all the people who have ever lived and died before me. Their efforts and their part in the world we live in now. I allow myself to feel overwhelmed by the gravity of this. Then I stop thinking about that and I think about how I am here now. Right now. Right now each of us are at a pinnacle of the evolution of consciousness. With every new breath we take, we receive a fresh gift of life. Why is it so easy to forget this? The more we tune back in to this magic, and give thanks to each breath, the more we can detach from worldly troubles. Ultimately this is what meditation is all about.
The more time I spent meditating by the river Ganges in 2017, the more I understood. Up in the Himalayas the roaring sound of the Ganges – snaking and slicing its way through towns and villages – is a backdrop to daily life for millions of people. It’s also where I did my yoga teacher training. The sheer volume of water and relentless sound of the beast, as we chanted this mantra, served a constant reminder that I’m nothing but a witness to forces greater than myself. I soon realised my past is nothing but a story, my future unwritten. The thoughts in my head are just a soundtrack to the dance of life. We are infinitely insignificant. Just fireflies blowing in the wind.
The power in this is transformative. If life is nothing but a gift to be experienced, then for your short time on Earth what kind of life do you want to witness? What will be your attitude to the ever changing currents? How will you dance, and what will be your soundtrack?
These days, when I feel like a drop in the ocean, I tune in to my breath and give thanks for my part in the play. I give thanks that I am here to take part, experience life despite its struggles, that I can share love, joy, peace, and insights and see how things unfold in my lifetime. And that’s the best I can ever do.
As I stood there in Sri Lanka, watching the sinking sun become engulfed by the ocean I was reminded of the great Rumi quote: ‘You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean, in a drop’. And I smiled.
Outside nearly every Hindu temple in north India you can find a small table where a man or woman sells flowers and cucumbers.