Wellness: Sailing into Understanding, with Heather Lyn Mann

Ocean of Insight: A Sailor’s Voyage from Despair to Hope is a memoir of six years and 15,000 eye-opening miles traversing the wilderness while querying the Great Atlantic Teacher about how to be in a suffering world. Parvati Magazine interviewed the author, Heather Lyn Mann.

Parvati Magazine: Please tell us a little about the impetus for your six-year adventure and for writing this book.

Heather Lyn Mann: The energy behind the journey was a romantic dream more than 30 years ago to someday sail over the horizon with my husband. Years later, when we actually set sail, I felt the ocean wilderness change me suddenly and dramatically. I’d been an environmental advocate and directed a nonprofit for years, but from behind a computer screen and in board rooms. Abruptly, I was exposed; I had to deal with the wilderness up close. The elements rearranged my sensibilities, and redefined what it meant to be a child of Earth. One encounter after another so pummeled my mind and body that I felt compelled to articulate what was happening in order to make sense of it. I ended up recording a spiritual transformation brought about by a deepening relationship with nature. At some point, I realized that sharing the story with others might just be the most important thing I could offer the world.

PMAG: The book captures a way of life distinct from that which is familiar to most of us, one that is lived within the rhythms of nature. Has this given you greater insight into the “land-based” way of life?

HM: Yes, definitely. At first, I paid little heed to surrounding conditions and boldly sailed my ship from point A to B when it was most convenient to me. Often, my blind confidence led to seasickness or busted equipment because the universe didn’t cooperate, conditions were too rough. It took years for me to comprehend the pattern of cause and effect, the way my unskillfulness led to pain. It took longer still to let go of my unjustified confidence and stubborn desire to inflict a human agenda upon nature. When I finally started working in harmony with the environment, sailing became a lot more fun!

But thinking the ocean wilderness is separate or different from humankind’s land-based ecology is a mistake. The physical universe is one interconnected whole; everything is in relationship all the time. So, the invitation before each of us is to see the pattern of cause and effect, the way our unskillfulness is harming us and others (human and non-human) and humbling ourselves to forces much larger than ourselves.

PMAG: Can you tell us about advocacy with “fierce compassion”?

Sometimes we think of compassionate people as soft, incapable of being truly effective in the world. But fierce compassion isn’t about being a sentimental pansy. It arises from clear-sightedness, a steady calm, profound equanimity, and skillful determination.

PMAG: The importance of fierce compassion became clear during an encounter with real-life pirates off the island of St Vincent. Events that day drove home the point there are people (from petty thieves to major corporations) profiting from exploitation and injustice. Their every-day efforts keep perpetuating harm so they must absolutely be stopped.

HM: The “fierce” part reflects decisive and effective action delivered dispassionately, non-violently and without emotional baggage. The “compassion” part is about transforming anger and blame into deeper understanding of the complex causes and conditions leading to this moment. With compassion, advocates touch their humanity and take action as an expression of love toward everyone—even the pirates.

I cultivate fierce compassion in my advocacy work today by focusing on making friends, not enemies. I am quick to let go of anger and focus instead on cultivating joy in myself and others. I also challenge myself to understand the underlying fear, greed, or hatred and recognize this as part of the human condition. I’m far less ambitious than I once was and am happy doing the small and simple thing before me that helps. Seeing the shared humanness between myself and another, I am able to water seeds of compassion. I am mindful of my words and try to listen for twice as long as I speak—that’s a hard one!

PMAG: Was there a decisive lesson from the Great Atlantic Teacher that ultimately gave you the courage, resolve and hope to return to land, and the world of ever-present need for environmental championship?

HM: One moment does stand out: I was at sea for 15 days on a non-stop sail and though it was a hard few weeks, I loved being in the middle of the ocean because the wilderness is so honest. I had also learned a number of lessons that seemed to sever me from my species, make me unfit for good company. As we neared shore, I had an overwhelming urge to veer off and keep sailing because I never again wanted to devolve into the driven, frustrated, exhausted woman set on changing the world without really knowing the world.

But then I saw the lights on land twinkling, shining like a kind of tangible evidence of humankind’s capacity for love and kindness. A cascade of insights fell into consciousness: yes, humans are imperfect and we regularly behave badly, but our darkest moments need not define us. I pledged then and there to nourish myself in my land life by paying attention to humanity’s love and generosity. Suddenly, the context of my environmental action shifted and became part of a great rising tide of love reflecting our noblest ideals and best selves. That’s when I knew I had sailed not away from society, but deeply into the heart of it.

Heather Lynn MannHeather Lyn Mann is the author of Ocean of Insight: A Sailor’s Voyage from Despair to Hope. Environmental advocacy, sailing, and mindfulness teaching permeate her work. Heather is the founder and past director of the Center for Resilient Cities where she advised the US Forest Service on climate change policy. Ordained in the Order of Interbeing by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, Heather leads non-religious retreats around the country, is on faculty at the Sophia Institute in her hometown of Charleston, SC, and is the spiritual director of the Charleston Community of Mindful Living. Learn more at HeatherLynMann.com

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