The Mind is Like the Ocean

May 13, 2011

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Sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor

I recently attended a 2 day workshop called The Wise Heart and the Mindful Brain. The workshop was led by Jack Kornfield and Dan Siegel. It was an incredible 2 day event and was attended by about 750 people – the majority of us in the healthcare and therapy field. Over the 2 days we explored many subjects through dialogue and direct meditation experiences. I have been meaning to write some posts about this event since it happened. However, I think that there was so much learning and new things to process that I felt a bit overwhelmed to be quite honest! (But it was overwhelmed in a good way – when you just have too many wonderful things you want to share, and don’t know where to start).

I am looking forward to sharing some of my experiences with readers in this post and continued blog posts. To begin with, here is a little information about the 2 presenters.

  • Jack Kornfield is a psychologist, ordained Buddhist monk, and expert in the integration of Buddhist psychology with Western psychology. If you are interested, visit his site at: Jack Kornfield
  • Dan Siegel MD is psychiatrist, mindfulness practitioner who has dedicated much of his life to researching interpersonal neurobiology and exploring the impact that mindfulness based practices has on the therapeutic relationship and the brain itself. You can find out more about his work at: Dr. Dan Siegel


Sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor

The mind is like the ocean. And deep in this ocean, beneath the surface, it’s calm and clear. And no matter what the surface conditions are, whether it’s flat or choppy or even a full gale storm, deep in the ocean it’s tranquil and serene. From the depth of the ocean you can look toward the surface and just notice the activity there, as in the mind, where from the depth of the mind you can look upward toward the waves, the brainwaves at the surface of your mind, where all that activity of mind, thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories exist. You have the incredible opportunity to just observe those activities at the surface of your mind. 

– Dan Siegel, MD ~ The Mindful Brain

When I was little I used to sometimes worry about what happened to all of the fish and sea creatures during a big storm at sea. I pictured the boats and people on the surface being buffeted around by the huge waves and the torrential rain. At some point in my childhood, someone pointed out that the fish were actually safe during the storms.
“Why?” I asked?
The reply was that the fish were safe because they lived deep under the surface of the ocean, where the chaos on the surface could not touch them.
(You can imagine how comforted I was by this newly found knowledge. Now I could focus my animal-loving attention on saving a different species of animals).

Perhaps this link to my childhood musings is part of what drew me to this particular visual metaphor. In the week since the workshop, I have often conjured up this vision of the ocean – beneath the surface. When I stop for a moment to do this, it automatically creates a space in between my experience and my reaction to that experience. This type of practice is what breaks the cycle of reactivity and “living on autopilot.” Try it out next time you find yourself in a very reactive state (whether anxious, angry, or just rushed). Picture yourself at the bottom of a deep blue ocean, looking up calmly at the ever-changing surface (of your mind). You may observe (and even laugh) at all of the activity on the surface. But the core of who you are resides in that still place.

Many mindfulness teachings and practices say exactly the same thing, only with different words. There are many different arrows pointing to consciousness and awareness, but they are all pointing towards the same center.

Another arrow pointing to the center is art therapy and creativity development. Mindfulness based practices and art therapy (really, all of the creative arts therapies) are often a very natural and powerful integration of experiences. In more recent years they have been blended together more formally and referred to as Mindfulness-Based Art Therapy (MBAT).

Sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor

There are many specific approaches to art therapy and mindfulness practice. However there seem to be a few core similarities between the two based on my own experiences. In art therapy I encourage my client to focus on the process of creating art, rather than the finished product. In mindfulness practice we place our attention on the present moment; making space for whatever thoughts or feelings arise. In both practices, the emphasis is placed on experiencing the present moment in a non-judgmental way. A painting is not inherently charged with “good” or “bad” qualities. Rather, it is our own perceptions and thoughts about the art which will assign it ultimate meaning. Similarly, life experiences are not truly “good” or “bad,” but our thinking and interpretation places each experience into one of these categories.



As Shakespeare wrote:

for there is nothing either good or bad,

but thinking makes it so

So the next time you are finishing a piece of art, music, writing, conversation, or day at work – take a pause. Before you assign an objective thought to whether that experience was good, bad, beautiful, or ugly, just allow the thought to be itself for a moment. Don’t worry, your thoughts aren’t going anywhere. I promise they’ll be waiting there for you when you get back. And there’s nothing wrong with that!


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