The healing power of the sea

I’m on the coast of North Yorkshire this week weathering a storm. I can hear the waves lashing the sea wall below my window. It’s different from the storm I would be facing if I were still at work, having to face the reality of providing care for people with mental health problems when services are being so constrained. While I listen to the windows rattling and watch the water rising up the slipway at high tide I find myself dipping into twitter every now and then. I can sense my blood pressure rising as I follow the debate about whether it is actually possible to achieve parity of esteem with physical care for people with mental health problems when everything is being cut. In some ways I miss work, particularly for the sense of being able to make a difference and for the contact with my patients. In other ways, for the constant anxiety it evoked in me for so many years, I don’t miss it at all. I’m still writing, and involved in research and teaching but I have control over what I do each day. That sense of having control over your life is important when you experience depression.

The sea can be both a source of fear, and of great comfort. I grew up next to it, and it evokes powerful memories of my childhood. My father was an excellent swimmer, but however hard he tried he never succeeded in teaching me. I was simply too anxious to take my feet off the bottom. I didn’t entirely trust he would not let go of me, yet now those times when I sat on the beach and watched him powerfully crawling through the waves off the Lincolnshire coast are some of the fondest memories I have of him.  I was born a couple of years after the great flood, which devastated the East of England. Since then I’ve travelled all over the world but have always felt the need to dip my toes in the water of whatever ocean I find myself beside. It’s like touching base with the past.

I cannot begin to imagine what it is like to be swept away in a tsunami, have your home battered by tidal waves or lose your husband when a fishing boat goes down with all hands. I’ve stood in the waves on Copacabana beach in Rio, and felt the warm tropical current try and drag me down into the depths. I’ve been unable to go into the shallows in Queensland for fear of being attacked by box jellyfish and sharks. The ocean is immense, merciless and can be so destructive, and yet it connects us all together. It has a power over which we can have no control; we have to accept it.

When times are bad the sea has a way of helping me to get my problems into perspective. I came here once, to the place I am now in Yorkshire, when an intense relationship that meant everything to me had broken down. Listening to the sound of the waves pounding the walls below as I lay in bed, with only the moonlight shining through the curtains illuminating the room, both resonated with my mood and helped me to understand how life goes on whatever happens.

Some years ago when I was on a beach in the Pacific Rim Park on Vancouver Island in Canada, I saw a woman meditating whilst sitting on a driftwood log next to the ocean. Since then, I’ve always taken the opportunity to use the sound of the waves to help me to clear my mind and relax whenever I am in earshot of the sea.  Next time you are there, whatever the weather happens to be, find somewhere to stand or sit awhile that is sheltered from the wind (or rain). Focus on your breathing as you would in any kind of meditative practice, but listen intently, with your eyes closed, to the sound of the waves ebbing and flowing and crashing to the shore. Try and carry on for at least ten minutes or longer if you can. When I make time to do this, it gives me a wonderful sense of wellbeing. For me it’s a kind of meditation in which I connect directly with nature. I suspect it’s a similar feeling to that achieved by mindfulness practice, but I am only just making time now to learn more about that. I will write more on that topic soon. In the meantime I am returning home with the sound of the sea, not in a shell in my pocket as I did as a child, but in my soul instead.

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