Watching whales is like the best kind of meditation. It is completely baffling.
Meditation isn’t really worth anything unless it exhausts all of our strategies and concepts and opinions and plans and ideas about who we are and what the world is, and leaves us with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Leaves us with nothing at all to grab onto, no safety net, no life raft, no “self.” Nothing but this moment in its marvelous, incomprehensible actuality.
Well, maybe watching whales doesn’t do that for most people, but it does for me. Whales are extremely hard to observe. They are completely at home in a medium we can barely approach. They appear but briefly in our view, and from those brief glimpses we construct an idea of who they are and what they are doing. We can attach cameras and time-depth recorders to their backs with suction cups, and those stay on for a few minutes or hours, expanding our glimpse a little bit.
But all we ever get is a glimpse. And from that glimpse we concoct an entire world: our idea of what a whale is.
Most of us don’t realize it, but this is exactly what we do with our own lives as well. All we ever get is the tiniest glimpse of the world. Even our own life is largely unknown to us. The brain has functions and purposes and motivations and decision-making processes that remain forever unconscious. Like the whales, we are largely mysteries, even to ourselves. Other people, other animals, other life forms, are entirely mysterious. A tiny glimpse is all we ever get.
And from those fleeting glimpses, we construct a world view. We patch all the gaps and cracks with our ideas, with a creative surmise about what it all means. We walk around pretending we know exactly who we are and exactly what the world is, imposing our world view onto the world, all the while not really having a clue. And we don’t even know we are doing this. We think the world we know is the actual world. We pretend we have it all figured out, and all under control. We happily ignore the fact that all we get is fleeting glimpses.
Meanwhile the world lives beyond any ability of ours to grasp it and understand it.
The thing about watching whales is that even if you are very observant and keep careful notes and spend years following them around, they keep surprising you. They keep inventing new behaviors. The keep baffling your expectations. You can not possibly figure them out. All you can do is enjoy them in their actuality, and play the game of trying to understand them, and stay open to the truth as it reveals itself, always new.
This is a simple and obvious fact about observing whales. It is also a simple and obvious fact about observing our own lives. But it is hard to see this in ourselves. We want very much to believe that we know who we are. We do not like the feeling that we are driven by powers and processes hidden from our own view. We do not like admitting that the “me” of conscious understanding and experience is not the truth.
But this remains true, whatever we think or feel about it: Like whales, we are a mystery, even to ourselves. Our lives go on largely out of view. We often do not know why we do what we do. We are more unconscious than conscious. We pretend we know. We invent stories to explain ourselves to ourselves. But we do not really know. What we know is but the exhalation as the whale comes up to breathe. We ignore the disappearance back out of sight. We stitch together the conscious experiences, and pretend that the patchwork result is “true to life.”
The thing about watching our lives is that even if we are very observant and keep careful notes and spend years in meditation or therapy, we keep surprising ourselves, and each other. We invent new behaviors. We baffle our expectations. We can not possibly figure each other or ourselves out. All we can do is enjoy each other and ourselves in our actuality, and stay open to the truth as it reveals itself, always new, always surprising, always deeply mysterious. Just like watching whales.