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Are You the Waves or the Ocean?

Up until a few years ago, my family would take an annual vacation to Cape Cod, my favorite place on earth. One day I walked down to the beach at the end of our street and was greeted with these words. This is still one of my most treasured photos of all time.

Sometimes I think I am a bit too interested in death. Of course, this interest seems to increase as I get older, which feels more than a little practical given the circumstances.

But also, I’d really like to be able to prepare.

I like to prepare for things that are important, and death feels like one of them. For something so intensely universal, it strikes me as a bit odd there are so few preparatory resources. I mean, I can find more instructions on how to organize my photo library than I can for how to organize for my own death!

That aside, the other day a friend sent me a little blurb about a new book on (wait for it) dying. The book was geared towards caregivers as well as those actually doing the dying.

In the excerpt, the author talked about how we are both the ocean and the waves, but we know we are the waves. When I read that, I thought, “we do?”  

I have spent most of my life churning about in my own waves having no idea why I keep swallowing water and nearly drowning! Perhaps this just means I’m a late bloomer and everyone else around me has known all along that they were waves as well as the ocean.

In this analogy, the ocean is this lovely vast, calm, deep, wise and still reservoir of connection. We are all the ocean. We don’t fight about it, jockey for position, gravitate into cliches or attempt to keep anyone else out. We just are. In fact, from the perspective of ocean-us, I doubt we can even really tell each other apart!

The waves, on the other hand, are all the choppiness happening up top. They crash about and land on top of one another. One wave starts up before the wave in front of it is finished doing its thing. Some are little, some are big and some never really quite make it into real waves at all. Waves are erratic and full of labels (especially if you are a surfer). Waves are fun to watch but tend to be less fun to navigate (unless you are a surfer).

When we are in our waves-state, we can tell each other part very easily. We jockey for position constantly. We don’t play well with other waves that look different from us. We worry we won’t get our shot to rise up, grab our five minutes of fame and shine before subsiding again.

Truly, I’ve loved the ocean all my life, but to even begin to grasp how different waves-me is from ocean-me….and how alike…..has taken years. Decades. And I’m only just beginning to tune in to how impactful this awareness will be in my life. I am starting to learn how to switch between the two awarenesses – to recognize when I’m identified with waves-me, my name and personality and specific life situation, et al – versus when I am resting in the universality of ocean-me.

The former is more exciting and suspenseful. The latter is restorative and vital.

While I suspect there are certain high level beings on this planet (here, the Dalai Lama springs to mind) who are able to maintain unbroken awareness of being the ocean even while moving out their day as the waves, I am nowhere close.

As of today, when I am in waves-me awareness, being “Shannon,” doing her thing, I tend to totally forget that I am the ocean also. In other words, I lose sight of how every action of my personal waves impacts the ocean I am also a part of, and vice versa.

I can’t control what anyone else around me chooses to do with their personal waves, even though their choices can impact me. But I certainly can control how I use my waves and do my utmost to use them for the good of all – the ocean we all share together.

: Do you ever feel a moment or two in the middle of a busy day when there is something deeper, some aspect of you that is just resting, taking it all in, calm even while the storm rages? Are you able to shift out of the “waves” of your daily life as needed to take a brief break resting in our shared “ocean?” What is that like? Does it help you when life just feels crazy and unstoppable?

Are You the Waves or the Ocean?

Shannon Cutts

Parrot, tortoise & box turtle mama. Writer. Author. Mentor. Champion of all people (and things) recovered and recovering.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2018). Are You the Waves or the Ocean?. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 1 Jul 2018
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