Straining to Hear the Voice of the Sea
Last Friday was my last day as a product engineer for a small company where I have (mostly) worked for the last eleven years. During that time I used every free hour I could squeeze out of the place to do the work that I really wanted to be doing.
When I think of my former professional life, the image that comes vividly to mind is a plain desk, tucked into the corner of a concrete office piled with metal, wire, and whirring machines. The fluorescent lights were broken by a single frosted window. I remember my boss wordlessly installing a new server station immediately adjacent to my desk, further eclipsing the thin natural light with a rack stuffed with blinking devices, constantly emitting the loud rushing sound of mechanically-driven air.
After 11 years, I still earned two weeks of vacation time per year. I used what vacation and leaves of absence I could gather to throw myself into the world of culture, history, and the human spirit that I love. I spent days, then weeks, then months, in long meditation retreats. I traveled around the state and then the country to attend academic conferences. I attended lectures and visited museums, and enrolled in courses in psychology, Japanese, and German. I traveled up and down the west coast to hear opera and symphony. And always, I read voraciously, spending years in a self-directed study of cultural, intellectual, and religious history ranging from the Lower Paleolothic to the present day.
It has been increasingly obvious as the years have gone on that the work I was doing supporting a small company’s line of professional audiovisual technology was out of step with my heart’s basic rhythms. So, without a clear sense of what is next, I left.
In times of historic uncertainty, it feels risky to set out on an unclear path, but I believe that I will find a way forward by which I can live from a deeper center, where my gaze will not always be out the window.
To mark that departure Rebecca and I traveled to Pacific Grove and stayed near the sea. We spent many hours walking up and down the shore talking, watching, and especially, deeply listening. As we walked and talked and listened I contemplated my various perennial interests and imagined ways to participate in the world that would leave positive ripples, ways to contribute, to bring forth warmth and light. The waves came on and on, “the sea that is always counting.”
As I listened, I thought of an Eskimo shaman named Najagneq, who said :
[I believe in] a power that we call Sila, one that cannot be explained in so many words. A strong spirit, the upholder of the universe, of the weather, in fact all life on earth — so mighty that his speech to man comes not through ordinary words, but through storms, snowfall, rain showers, the tempests of the sea, through all the forces that man fears, or through sunshine, calm seas or small, innocent, playing children who understand nothing. (1)
I do not know if the creative patterns by which the universe self-organizes in coherent expression is characterized by what we could meaningfully call intelligence or awareness. But I do take comfort in the thought that in Alaska long ago, as in Tierra del Fuego, Siberia, and Australia, as among the mammoth hunters of the great Aurignacian horizon in Europe, as in the speculation of Robert Oppenheimer in the desert southwest, men and women have long done what I do now. We have walked by the shores of the sea and strained to hear its voice, with the hope that in so doing we might learn something of our own hearts, something that can help us to find a way and a light, and to bring it forth into the world.
1. Ostermann H. The Alaskan Eskimos. Nordisk Forlag, 1951. ; quoted in: Cambpell J. Primitive Mythology, Penguin Books, 1969. pg. 51