When I was little, my cousins and I used to joke about beaches on the east coast of Auckland. We deemed them boring, because the only waves were when a boat went past.
If God did create the earth, then he was being very lazy with those beaches, as if he slopped sand out of a cup, chucked in a few shells and instructed the water to lap up on the beach like a wet envelope.
Out west, the beaches are difficult to get to. The roads wind and wind, sometimes turning to gravel, and cellphone coverage becomes a distant memory. The landscape is rugged, rough, and perpetually unfinished in an aggressive way. They actually need lifeguards on these beaches because the ocean can kill you.
In the absence of knowing how to meditate, this is my perfect escape.
My mate John has kindly taken me on a road trip for the day, and I suggested Bethells Beach as one of our destinations as he has never been. Originally from London, he’s more used to the kind of beaches I described above, only greyer and colder.
We take a right as we reach the lifeguard tower and climb over a sandhill to the satellite beach, O’Neills Bay. It’s cloaked by a semicircular cocoon of cliffs, and giant fists of rock frame the waves themselves.
As we stand in the surf, I say to John that it’s like looking into infinity. Your brain knows that if you were to travel far enough towards the horizon you’d eventually reach Australia, but that’s not what you can see.
In 12-step addiction recovery programs, there’s often talk of acknowledging a power higher than oneself, a bugbear for some atheists because it seems like surreptitious evangelism of the vulnerable.
I think it simply belies a lack of imagination. When I stand in the water of a west coast beach and watch those waves crashing toward me and over me, feel the powerful undercurrent as it dissolves the sand beneath my feet, I acknowledge unequivocally that I am in the presence of something more powerful than me.
It’s not sentient, and it doesn’t give a toss about what happens to me. It’s dangerous, but not malevolent. And its raw power is invigorating, just like the sheer size of the cliffs behind us. Your mind shrinks them when you first look, like a badly made cotton shirt in the wash, but then you see the ant-sized people walking in their shadow and you realise how small you are.
Some people might find that depressing, but I don’t. The cliffs have no more awareness of the creatures beneath it than the surf does. They just are.
So when I’m looking for a sense of wonder in the universe, I don’t need to turn to storybooks with stories of powerful gods or bearded men that can turn water into wine. I can stand right here, in a tangible place, and feel engaged by it with all of my five senses. And glad to be alive.