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March 14, 2019

Caught in the rip

It is a beautiful day, the sun is high and the sea is calm. My friend and I wade into the shallow water lapping at our feet.  Knee deep, we splash about, chatting and enjoying the breathtakingly expansive blue sea, blue sky. This spot is paradise on earth. After 20 minutes we turn around to go back to shore, we have a plane to catch. Only …. the shore has disappeared. The sand bar is dissolving beneath us. We begin to swim, but cannot make any headway. The pull of the ocean wins over our desperate strokes against its force and it relentlessly carries us farther and farther out to sea. The harder we swim against the current, the stronger the pull away from safety. The blue sky and ocean – a moment ago so welcoming, is now a terrifying edge to the unknown. Only a moment ago the beach was scattered with people. Now, not a soul in sight. We are totally alone. Ground rule: Never swim against a rip – go with the current and let it carry you around and back to safetyFight the current, and risk dying of panic and exhaustion.

My friend turns blue and is spluttering and sinking. I reach over to grab him. I am a weak and slow swimmer. His body is a dead weight. The water is deep and suddenly freezing.  Exhausted, I am losing my grip. I panic. In my inner vision I see two dead bodies washed up on the beach. Then, I hear a distant roar: “No!!  You are not going to die here!” That “No!” I realise is thundering out of my mouth. I have become the force of the ocean that I am fighting against. A mythical sea lion enters me and fills me with power. Effortlessly I sling my almost unconscious friend over my shoulder. I swim furiously, but soon even my sea lion-strength runs out. My friend is sinking again. This is the end of the end, a ‘stopping the world’ moment as Carlos Castaneda called it, in his book Journey to Ixtlan. I cry out for help to the big blue expanse above and around us. Within seconds, I feel sand under my feet. I drag my friend to shore. Miraculously, an ambulance driver holding an ice cream has stopped by the dunes and helps us. 

About 50 people a year die in rips in Australia  mostly from panic and over-exertion. Rips flow in channels and contain information signals that help you navigate your way forward and around to shore. As I learned that day, the timing and intensity of a rip can take you by surprise, just like life. We humans are living and breathing information systems, filled with feelings, dreams, disturbances and delights – often hidden from view, and can pop up unpredictably. My Process Work teachers have shown me how personal and group history, cultural norms and distant events entangle into polarisation – the ying and yang of inner and outer life. Love, excitement, energy, industriousness and playfulness can in a flash turn to separateness, woundedness, jealousy, hate or feeling anxious. The atmosphere attached to these experiences is real when you are in it, and visceral memories can stop you in your tracks long after the actual event. So catch the signals and befriend the unknown to ride the wave home. Little signals turn into dumpers and if ignored can totally destabilise you and those around you, thwarting the best-made plans. 

In my book Applying Deep Democracy in Human Services, I describe innate powers, aptitudes innate to all of us, with the help of real stories of leaders, support workers and individuals reliant on support – innate powers waiting to be developed and help us through the push and pull of polarising experiences.