Reflections on Sea Changes

Thoughts on transformation
by Lauralee Alben

What’s at risk?

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What is it about water that transforms risk into rewarding experiences?

Risk is an essential component of any sea change. At the Sea Change Design Institute, we work with leaders and organizations who are committed to co-creating life-revering transformations. At the sixth annual Blue Mind Summit, I searched for sea changes in the intriguing presentations by adventurers, educators, biologists, scientists, neurologists, artists, filmmakers, journalists, entrepreneurs, and athletes. An upwelling of high stakes surfaced from their stories.

For each speaker, taking risks was an essential and even valuable part of their experiences—to gain what? Marine biologist and author Dr. Wallace “J.” Nichols would respond emphatically: Blue Mind. This state of clarity, confidence, creativity, peace, and unity comes from healthy water contributing to human well-being, as well as to our economy and ecology.

Throughout the Blue Mind Summit, a confluence of brain science and conservation flowed, presencing the deep connection we derive from being near, in, on, or under water. Riveting speakers shared their extraordinary leaps of faith to face their fears, embrace freedom, and forge new paths. For some everything was at stake, others had lived a compromised life for too long, and still others were compelled by possibility.

 

A Mythological Feat
Waterman, Mavericks champion, and speaker Chris Bertish shared a jaw-dropping story of stand-up paddle-boarding (SUP) 200 miles along the treacherous west coast of South Africa from Cape Point to Lamberts Bay. It was a proof of concept test for the ultimate SUP quest: a solo Atlantic crossing.

His unassisted 8-day adventure seemed one fit for Odysseus, complete with collapsing, not on the shores of Ithaca, but on Dassin Island, midpoint on his journey.

Making it that far was one of many miracles amidst harrowing challenges including two malfunctioning GPS, having to paddle only on one side for more than seven hours in ferocious winds and sea, severely blistered hands and feet, sunburned corneas and blurred vision, dehydration, exhaustion, and sharks. And that wasn’t the end of it.

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Chris set out at dawn for the fourth day, sleep-deprived and determined, when a thick fog set in, much like the one sent by the goddess of wisdom, Athena, to cloak Odysseus’ homeland. Soon off course and disoriented without the ability to accurately use his senses, Chris experienced terror hearing the increasing roar of an invisible (but real) ship bearing down on him, and later eerie, otherworldly sounds that led him to a deeper fear of becoming delusional.

Able only to “feel into the aliveness of the water,” Chris continued paddling until the fog began to lift. And there, close by, a humpback whale surfaced. And then a second one appeared on the other side of his board. With visibility clearing, Chris realized a pod of 23 whales surrounded him. Amazed, he began to move in concert with these great denizens of the deep.

“It was a primal experience,” Chris said, “and I don’t know what you believe, but I know that pod guided me back on course.”

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What drives an elite waterman like Chris to achieve mythological feats? From childhood, exquisitely attuned to the waves and wind, the sun and the stars, Chris learned long ago to respect the ocean. He didn’t do it for the thrill; and he didn’t underestimate the risk of losing his life. No, I think he risked something more valuable.

A rare kind of change agent, Chris consciously guides others in transforming their own lives by being a role model. He is adept at using intention, the potent catalyst of every sea change. In Sea Change Design, we define an intention as a ground of being (like water is to a whale) that inspires us to manifest great potential.

Chris continually sets the bar higher to prove this intention: the impossible is possible. This time, when he risked the impossible, he was given compassion and wisdom from the wild.

When the fierce winds let up and the fog of confusion lifts, whether king or waterman, what is revealed is humility.

 

The Mother Wave
In her fast-paced, fun presentation, Professor and Early Childhood Educator, Louise Zimanyi declared, “Playing with and in water is evolutionary.” She explained that according to research conducted across many countries by Norwegian Dr. Ellen Sandseter, “risky play” includes great heights; high speed; dangerous tools; dangerous elements (including deep and/or fast moving water); rough-and-tumble; and getting lost.

“Risky play is very evolutionary.” Louise continued on in a mischievous tone: “When I was young, I was drawn to fire. And water. And to all the things most parents really don’t want their children around.”

But it turns out that when we trust young children to be safe in nature, they learn to trust in themselves and grow to love, respect, and protect the environment.

Louise pointed out, there’s a growing body of research that demonstrates that engaging with water, including and especially wild water, is one of the most important elements that improves children’s health and development. The relationship between risky play, wellbeing, and outdoor learning and education in early childhood has been well documented and recently led to the development and launch of a Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play in Canada advocating “access to active play in nature and outdoors—with its risks—is essential for healthy child development and recommending increasing children’s opportunities for self-directed play outdoors in all settings—at home, at school, in child care, the community and nature.”

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In Sea Change Design, Context is the second cycle in our ocean-inspired methodology. Positive, profound, and regenerative transformations can only occur when there is a holistic, integrative awareness of the entire environment in which they will transpire. Louise, and the early childhood educators like her are proponents of learning within Nature, humanity’s greatest context.

Another luminary, Carlina Rinaldi, Pedogagista and President of Reggio Children, is a pivotal force in Reggio Emelia, an arts-based childhood educational approach that originated in Italy and has spread around the world. It encourages children’s curiosity, joy, and resilience.

A project called The Sea is Born from a Mother Wave: Theories and drawings on birth by children offers us insights and the invitation to examine our own views of life. One eloquent drawing by Maddalena at 3.8 years old shows the rippling belly of her mother with herself floating in the center of concentric circles. She explains, “I was all wet. I was in water inside of a balloon. I didn’t ask them if I had a bathing suit on.”

Carla Rinaldi writes, “Children’s questions… are precious, as are their answers because they are generative. Children’s theories… highlight the strongest characteristic of the identity of children and of humankind: searching for and researching meaning, sharing and constructing together the meaning of the world and the events of life.”

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Both Carla and Louise serve on the Advisory Board of PlayFutures, “a global, multi-stakeholder community of dedicated researchers, practitioners, parents and influencers/policymakers who strive towards expanding the opportunities for Learning through Play through innovation and research.” It’s impressive in its ambition and urgency to become a movement.

Why so much passion around play? It’s not a theoretical or trivial pastime for these insightful educators who understand what’s really in peril and why a sea change in education is imperative. When our children are at risk, so is our future. Giving children risky and real life experiences enables them to flow like water in a world in the midst of a phenomenal metamorphosis—one where everything is called into question.

This dire societal and environmental transition summons forth evolutionary education that nurtures children who are capable of creating transformation, wonder and meaning out of uncertainty, doubt and mistakes; children who are compassionate, courageous and connected.

Risky play can result in a resilient world. Then not only will the Mother Wave birth the sea; she will midwife a new worldview embracing all life.

 

In a New Light
In listening to Ben Thwaits share about the astonishing photographs taken by the at-risk youth who participate in his innovative art and nature-based therapeutic programs at Northwest Passage, I remembered this quote by Joanna Macy: “A heart that breaks open can hold the universe.”

How is it, I wondered, that images of such breathtaking beauty are born from the broken hearts of troubled children? They come from backgrounds of unspeakable trauma, neglect, abuse, and poverty. They know the depths of despair in their struggles with clinical depression, emerging bipolar and schizophrenia, substance abuse, eating disorders, and attempted suicide. “These are kids whose lives have been defined by their pain,” Ben explained,

“So how do we achieve well-being? The truth of who we are is not either we’re sick or we’re well. We’re not either broken human beings or beautiful human beings. We are both broken and beautiful. So we need to put systematic and deliberate attention to both healing and bringing out the strength and beauty in each of us.”

As it turns out, this actually happens when the kids explore and photograph the beauty flowing through the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, immersing in its peaceful underwater paradise. There amidst the undulating grasses, freshwater sponges, painted turtles and blue gills, the compassion of water works its way into their souls and a transformative connection transpires.

“It makes me feel like I am in a different world… I feel real relaxed and spiritually with the world and my surroundings,” mused a child in an inspiring video Ben shared.

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Another teenager, John remarked, “In the water it’s so quiet and I’m so free and happy there. Nobody hassles us in the water, and it’s as if we’ve got all the time in the world. Whether we stay in one place or we are swimming about, when we are in the water we can really be at one with the pulse of time. Outside of the water there’s always too much stimulation for our eyes and our ears, and it is impossible for us to guess how long one second is or how long an hour takes.”

“The kids capture more than beautiful documents of the species in the freshwater ecosystem; they capture the spirit of this underwater realm in a really meaningful way,” Ben shared.

As a nature photographer, biologist, and teacher, Ben collaborates well with his Co-Director, aquatic ecologist Toben LaFrancois. They call their empowering program New Light Under the Surface, alluding to the literal soft fields of sunlight filtering down to the river bottom, and to the metaphorical (and very real) illumination that dispels the darkness of these children’s lives.

Ben and Toben act with what I call design consciousness—a thriving state of being that engenders co-creative and vital connections between humanity, nature, spirit, and time. This is the consciousness  they’re cultivating in these young artists.

When this level of awareness is present, awe-inspiring accomplishments occur. Over a million people have been touched by In a New Light art exhibitions, worldwide media exposure, awards, and presentations. Ben said, “These kids have spent their lives marginalized, in the shadows, stigmatized, and kept at arms length. So to be embraced by the world and by society, is transformational in its own right.”

One of his students, Cody agrees: “This is the first time I’ve ever been recognized for something good.”

This is what I’ve termed “the gyre effect.” Just like the majestic gyres that move water around the great ocean basins, intimate self-sustaining feedback loops can generate a flow of positive outcomes including and transcending beyond each precious life. When these ostracized children share their stories of hope and healing and belonging, their voices prove to us—and to themselves—that they are profoundly worthy of being respected and included. This is how pain transforms into paradise.

When we risk being in relationship with those most vulnerable, what surfaces is our own wholeness.

 

The Salt Doll

I heard the mesmerizing call of water in the inspiring talk by retired neurologist Dr. Andrew Stern, Founder of the Lost Bird Project and Smart Fin. He shared a story that embodies Flow, which we define in Sea Change Design as a dynamic convergence of desired outcomes that presence our evolutionary potential. Andrew began by pulling out a folded piece of paper from his pocket and reading the Buddhist parable of the curious Salt Doll, who asks of the sea, “Who are you?”

“I am me,” responds the sea to the Salt Doll, who having journeyed near and far, now stands puzzled on the shore. As she ventures into the mysterious and lovely blue water, she loses more and more of herself, until she understands just before the last wave breaks over her.

“Now I know what the sea is, she cries out, “It is me!”

What, I imagined, compelled the Salt Doll to slip into that watery embrace, knowing her body was merging with the rising tide? She took the risk of losing herself and, in return, gained oneness. In answering the irresistible call of the wild blue, she underwent an evolutionary sea change. And what of the sea? It transformed too.

This is a tale of transcendence and and literal truth. As Robinson Jeffers wrote, “The tides are in our veins.”

 

This is Blue Mind
There are so many more Sea Change Design stories to tell about the Blue Mind Summit. These four that I’ve shared represent the pulse of life that runs through them all. Life is what’s really at risk even as we gain humility, wholeness, resilience, and oneness. And not just our human lives, but that of all beings, including our Great Mother Wave.

This is Blue Mind: the feel of her eternal surging and emerging within us all.

To those of you who participated in the Blue Mind Summit, and to all who love the transformative nature of water, I give you my poem in gratitude.

 

Skipping stones

Our conversation
was so quick, so pleasurable
like skipping stones
on the surface of a glassy river
knowing eventually
one
after
another
will drop down
into the quiet, slow moving stillness
where river grasses root
and silt settles.
There is where our hearts moor
to stories of simple yearnings
for beauty and family,
companionship and wonder.
Throw one more stone
before we go.

 

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