diving into the maelstrom

The next tine you dive into another maelstrom… strap yourself with the rope of mindfulness onto the buoyant barrel of breath awareness.

Oh, wait. I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up.

Given that we are approaching the confluence of Halloween and one of the most critical presidential elections in modern times, all against the backdrop of the dreaded second wave of the worldwide pandemic, might we discuss a short story by the 19th century master-of-the-macabre, the North American author, Edgar Alan Poe?

In his 1841 short story Descent into the Maelstrom, two brothers are on a ship which encounters a maelstrom on the high seas. Their ship was caught in a vortex caused by “the most terrible hurricane that ever came out of the heavens.”

The ship is going down. They are battling the elements, trying to figure out how to hold on to the mast of their wooden sailing vessel so it won’t snap in the fury all around them.

They feel like that’s the one secure thing, this mast.

As it looks like they are about to go down the vortex to the bottom of the ocean in the dead of night, one brother knocks the other one off the mast, perhaps accidentally, we’re not sure.

And this brother sees an empty wooden barrel; he throws a rope around it to secure himself to it, to anything.

While he is strapping himself to the barrel with the rope, he looks out into the storm in the sea and he sees all the things that are light are actually going up and out out of the maelstrom, while all the heavy things are going down.

And he calls out to the brother to say, “let’s tie ourselves to these barrels and throw ourselves in.”

But the other brother is clutching to the heavy mast, too afraid to look out to see what he brother is telling him.

The brother who ties himself to the empty barrel dives into the maelstrom and is pushed up to circumference of the vortex by the physics of the thing, and survives.

The other brother is never seen again.

How do you find that empty barrel that’s going to float to the top? Answering this question, we can care for ourselves when things get the most frightening.

How do you resist the death grip of the heavy mast, which rationally seems like what we need to hold on to?

Breath awareness practice has taught me that there is always something we can rely on to bring us to the surface of calm in the moments when we can only say:

“Crap, what do I do now?”

the buoyant barrel of breath awareness

It may seem counterintuitive in these moments to find your breath awareness, or the touch sensations of your feet on the floor.

But when we do, we get it. Hell with the “rational mind” (which in these moments is anything but rational) — it just works.

Our practice is so simple.

At first we think why am I doing this, it makes no sense?

Until suddenly it does.

So, the next time you contemplate diving into another maelstrom in your life … tie the rope of mindfulness onto the buoyant barrel of breath awareness.

You’ll thank me later.

See you at the top!

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About Tom Davidson-Marx

Former Buddhist monk, now father of two and full time registered nurse, my passion is sharing what I have learned from a life-long love, study and practice of the early Buddhist teachings. Thanks for reading.

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