A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for. Grace Hopper
I have, more often than not, succumbed to the magnetic force of the doldrums. My mind often gives me a run for my money, taking my negative experiences (of which there have been a few), and sucking me into obsessional thoughts that are at best unhelpful, and at worst plain destructive. Numbness, depression and ennui can set in like a London fog, confusing thinking and leading to less than ideal decisions.
It is interesting to note that term the doldrums (according to a Google search), born in the 1800s, had it’s heyday between the 1880s and 1950s. These years seem to coincide with a period of industrial history where our senses became increasingly bombarded with sounds of industry, transport and war and strangled from an appreciation of the natural cycles, rhythms and seasons. In modern society, the occurrence of the doldrums has continued to rise and be ever more medicated. I am reminded that in music, the doldrums has birthed a whole musical genre, the blues.
Three separate occasions wove together this week for me, bringing new realisations and teasing out my understanding of handling the doldrums in a different way.
In our philosophy material for the week we touched on the wisdom Henry Thoreau gained through nature at Walden,
When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence – that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality. (Where I Lived and What I Lived For).
As I have observed so often, the strategies we might apply with the best results, could be so easily gleaned if we were to stop and observe nature. In the absence of our own Walden experience, luckily these days we have other people to do the patient observation for us.
A new teaching came to me via New Scientist as discussed on the RRR 102.7FM program, Einstein a GoGo. I heard the wonderful tale of birds who skirt the areas in the oceans known as the doldrums to continue flying for hundreds of kilometres, seemingly without sleeping. These birds have highly developed sensing systems which assist them to navigate along the edge of these areas characterised by low wind. Sailors have long known these areas on one hand don’t have winds enough for progress and on the other can spawn hurricanes.
Is it necessary to have down-periods that might prove to be launching pads for new adventures: times of inertia where it is not advisable to attempt to move forward, but to gather energy for the next leg of the journey? Is it possible to learn the lesson of the doldrums without venturing into them?
It was not coincidence that in this same week I also spent a wonderful one and a half hours listening to the humble wisdom of Craig Hassed, mindfulness teacher, at Erasmus School in Hawthorn, Melbourne. The ideas he spoke of, dovetailed neatly. Through a practice of mindful observation and connection with the senses, may we also observe and skirt the doldrums?
Try it sometime. Pause. Find stillness. Feel the weight of your feet on the floor, the touch of your clothes on your skin, the air moving around your body, the smell, taste and finally the sound of your situation. Be present entirely. Merely observe the thoughts coming and going, letting them glide away.
Perhaps if we can practice tuning into our senses, becoming acutely aware of our inner navigation system, we will be able to skilfully skirt the doldrums.
I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship. Louisa May Alcott
Article as appeared in The Observer, One Hundred and Seven, publication of Melbourne School of Philosophy.