Skip to main content

Our Life as a Wave

By: Nomon Tim Burnett | 05/03/2005
Location: Mar de Jade
In Topics: Sangha Voices

“Being here at Mar de Jade, naturally waves come to mind as a metaphor for the human life. So let’s explore that metaphor…”Listen to those waves.

Being here at Mar de Jade, naturally waves come to mind as a metaphor
for the human life. So let’s explore that metaphor. Maybe that metaphor
is more useful than your current metaphor. I say this because we all live
our lives by metaphor. “Tim” and all of the ideas and emotions
and impulses that I weave into the idea of “Tim” are a metaphor
for my life. Just a metaphor. One I’ve carefully constructed for
many years, and one I’m always tinkering with. And one that doesn’t
really serve me that well. But for the next 20 minutes or so I thought
I’d forget about that one, and you could please forget about your
metaphor also. Let’s instead consider a wave as a way to express
what our life really is.

Waves are born out in the ocean from wind and they start traveling. Broad,
smooth swells of water, waves to be, start traveling across the ocean.
Sometimes the swells are very slight, if you are in a boat on the ocean
you barely feel them – just slightly rising and falling, rising
and falling, like a baby being rocked in it’s cradle. Other times
the swells are huge, when you’re boat falls to the trough between
swells you can’t see anything around you but great walls of water.
A rising and falling mass of water.

It’s hard to tell when you look at a swell or a wave if it’s
a single thing somehow moving through the water or not. Or is it a chain
reaction with no individuality at all? As one little section of the water
lifts up, another compensates by dropping down. A hand off of energy from
one bit of water to another. It all seems to add up to something that
looks like something – “a” wave, but I think if you
just look at a little section of water you don’t see a wave moving
by. You just see rising and falling. You just see energy manifesting itself
and one thing leading to another thing. But for ease of conversation,
let’s go ahead and say that a wave is a thing and that it moves.

Eventually these swells reach the shore. They might travel a mile, or
a hundred miles, or a thousand miles, but eventually they reach the shore.
When this traveling swell starts to be constricted by the rising surface
of the ocean as it approaches the shore it starts losing space below it.
The sections of water moving up and down don’t have as much room
to move down now. They are banging into that bottom and the swell starts
to be destabilized. A big long even swell with the great depth of the
sea to maneuver in is being pushed up into the air. A rounded, smooth
swell becomes a steep wave. It gets steeper and steeper. And water at
the top of the wave slamming into the air. The poor wave is being hammered
from all directions. And the top of the wave becomes sharper and soon
it has a sharp edge. And the wind starts pulling the water right off of
that top edge. Pulling it into the sky. Making a ragged edge of white
– tearing the water from the top. And the silent swell start to
talk after hundreds or thousands of miles of quietly traveling through
the ocean. The waves starts to hiss and buzz. The waves gets steeper and
steeper until finally with a crash, or a roar, or any number of complex
sounds the wave falls over, breaking onto the shore. And it’s water
slides down the slope of the ocean to the bottom. Returning to the great

And then what happens? Is the wave gone? Is it dead? Has it been annihilated?
Where is the wave now?

All of the water that we once called our wave has returned to the mother
ocean. To circulate, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly around the Earth
until it’s time comes to rise to the surface again pulled once more
by the invisible hands of the wind into a new swell ready to travel once
more on it’s long journey. A journey surely doomed to end on some
distant shore.

Should we say then that waves are reborn?

Can we say that waves are not reborn?

Does either question actually make any sense? Does thinking of a wave
as a wave make any sense?

So we are waves. Distant and mysterious forces draw us up into existence.
And we travel on our journey. Across the great ocean. Maybe we travel
for years in relative tranquility. Maybe we break onto a coral atoll in
the middle of the ocean just a few weeks are we come into being. Maybe
we move through great storms and troubles, with lots of turbulence, and
we lose much water to the howling winds, or gain water from torrential
rains. Maybe we stay in the tropics, warm and gentle except for the occasional
hurricane. Maybe we head for the colder waters up north. But a swell is
only going to last so long. Sooner or later it’s going to be pushed,
pulled, or torn back into the water and return to the great ocean.

We do like being our own wave. We know we are not the only wave out there.
But we are our own wave. Moving up and down, rolling along. For the most
part we like to stay pretty level, keep things within bounds, stay within
our accustomed range of up and down motion. In any case, we don’t
like when part of us moves down. But we’ve learned to live with
that for the most part. We like the part of us that’s moving up.
And we’re often trying to find ways for more of us to lift up. Maybe
if we just went to more retreats more of our wave could be moving up at
any given time! But most importantly to us, we don’t want to break.

If you were to ask a wave as she approached the shore, a nice gradual,
sandy shore like here, where the wave is lifted up gracefully steeper
and steeper into a nice smooth beautiful wave how she feels, she might
say she feels great. “I’m having the time of my life. I’m
moving forward. And doing new and exciting things. That was a long slog
through the ocean, it was okay and everything, I know I had to do it,
but I graduated from that, I’m ready for the real life here at the
edge of the ocean.”

And you ask that growing wave if he knows that he will soon break and
he says, “what are you talking about? I know that sometimes waves
do have break someday but I’m going to avoid that for quite a bit
longer. No breaking for me, at least not yet.”

But if you ask a wave running up against a steep rocky shore, or a breakwater
around a harbor how he feels you’d get a different answer. “What’s
happening to me? I didn’t sign up for this! I wasn’t ready
to break and even if I had to break I know way want to break against this
thing. This isn’t fair! This is all fill-in-the-blank’s fault!”
And that wave is desperately trying to turn. To slow down. To stop. But
being wave he can do none of those things and all of his efforts just
churn up the water causing great pain and disruption.

And regardless of our attitude, when we lose part of our wave from one
condition or another we suffer. The wind blows over our surface peeling
away the top water. The water that’s been riding on top, enjoying
the view, feeling very on top of it all peeled away by the wind screaming
in pain. We don’t want to lose anything, we want to hold onto all
of our water.

And we have very mixed feelings about the other waves. If they would
just all go in the same direction as us, spaced out about the same, we
don’t mind them. In fact some of our best friends are waves. We
get along pretty well. It’s nice to have a good community of friendly
waves out here in the water. But sometimes it doesn’t work out that
way. Other waves collide with us, they change our size, they mix their
water with ours, sometimes they slam into us. We hate those waves. We
blame them for their bad manners. For not turning aside and giving us
space, for moving in the wrong direction. The fact that we know full well
that a wave can’t turn itself doesn’t check our anger, or
annoyance, and our hatred particularly. I mean you’d think they’d
just now better.

Sometimes we hit a big submerged rock in the middle of the ocean. We
are dumb enough to snag on some submerged rock and we are torn in two.
We feel like such idiots when that happens. We really should have know
better. We should have listened more carefully in geography class. I’m
sure the teacher probably mentioned that darn rock. And even though we
didn’t have a sufficient amount of knowledge of every obstacle and
potential problem in the ocean, you’d think we could have been at
least paying a little more attention and avoided the darn thing. I mean
what were we thinking ramming into a rock like that?

Sometimes we pass through an area where the air is pushing down on the
ocean really hard – a tropical depression I think they call them
– and we get flattened out, squished down, really depressed. This
feels awful to us. We are flattened down almost right back into the ocean
from which we came. We blame ourselves for this too. Why am I so depressed?
Why can’t I just buck up and get out of this? But eventually we
do pass out of it and somehow we had all of our energy through the whole
terrible time and we surge back pretty much to our original size. And
then we do our best to forget all about that terrible time of moving through
the depression and basically hope that will never happen again.

We have a lot of ideas as we’re traveling along through all of
these adventures. So many ideas based on memories of where we were before,
ideas about where we’re going and what might happen next in our

But mostly we have ideas about who we are. What kind of wave we are,
what our wave values are, and how different we are from all of the other
waves. Sure some of them look a lot like us but anyone in the know can
see how unique we are. Depending on the wind and other conditions when
we were born we might be a big strong wave, a bit taller, a bit more confident
than our fellows and we might feel just a bit superior to them. I mean
we still try to be nice and all, but you know how it is with those smaller

Or maybe conditions created us as a smaller wave. A weaker wave. We can’t
see so far. The other larger waves all around us block our view. It’s
hard to feel so confident in ourselves. It’s hard to have much of
a sense of what our purpose in life is and where we’re going. But
you know we get by okay and find our niche. It’s not that bad.

Sometimes due to the various conditions in the ocean this can change
and we go from being a large confident wave to a smaller insecure wave
– that’s the worst. No one likes that. Or equally frightening,
some great force might force an insecure wave out of the quiet corner
of the ocean where we’ve made ourselves relatively comfortable and
into the lime light. We become important and famous and probably completely

But through it all we want to hold it together. The last thing we want
to do is be torn apart and fall back into the ocean.

Our feelings about the ocean are a bit conflicted. We know that the ocean
is important. That it’s down there somewhere. It was good that there
was an ocean for us to be born from. We feel some duty to be grateful
to the ocean for being around at the right time. But really at this point
I’d be just as happy if the ocean would just leave me alone alright?
I mean I’m my own wave and I don’t know some big old ocean
messing with me.

And we do fear crashing into pieces. We don’t want to let go of
our form and slide back into the depths.

But what if we could somehow change our attitude?

What if we could really feel the ocean. What if we developed the courage
to allow our attention to drop below the surface of our wave into the
depths. What if we were to breathe down to the bottom of our wave and
see what that boundary between our wave and the rest of the ocean was
like. What if we found that in fact there is no boundary there at all.
If we could actually appreciate that and even relax and enjoy that dynamic
edge where you can’t really tell where the ocean ends and our wave
begins? Maybe it would help us relax about this fear we hold. This fear
of dissolution. Because what’s really changing when our wave’s
water returns to the bottom of the ocean?

Maybe if we truly understood our original ocean nature we would know,
we would really know, that sooner or later some of our water would be
a wave again. And letting go of our shape wouldn’t be an issue.
We would see that to think that this particular wave would rise again
just as it is doesn’t make sense. That somehow all of our water
could stay together as it travels and swirls around in the deep ocean
currents in the company of whales is not going to happen. We would understand
that is just doesn’t go that way. That it’s not a matter of
what we wish for or don’t wish for. But that sooner or later our
water will arise once again into the daylight of this world. And letting
go of our shape would truly feel like just one part in a great and natural
cycle. A cycle that we would allow to turn without fighting it.

And maybe once we understand the immensity of the ocean we can start to
feel what the ocean feels instead of just what our own little wave feels.
And then we can feel the great pull of the moon far far above us. And
feel the steady drag of the trade winds across our surface. And incredible
energy of hurricanes and storms plowing across us. And when other waves
bang into us we will able to understand the powerful forces behind their
trajectories and their shapes and attitudes. And we could sympathize with
them to the extent that it’s no problem for us if they slam into
us and reduce us. The idea of “you” hurting “me”
would never occur to us as we start to appreciate the actual oceanic context
of our life as waves.

And maybe once we mature in our understanding to where we can experience
and understand the powerful forces driving our fellow waves around we
can notice – ah ha – that those same forces drive us. And
we can stop blaming ourselves when things don’t work out the way
we’d planned. We can truly forgive ourselves. And we can stop worrying
about what we’ll break against next. Maybe it will be the beautiful
beach by Mar de Jade, maybe it will be an ugly breakwater around an polluted
harbor, it won’t matter to us anymore. We will understand that we’ve
done our best in our journey and that it’s ending now. We can truly

May you touch the beautiful ocean nature of your life in this very retreat.
Thank you very much.

® 2005, Tim Burnett