Why The Soul Loves The Sea

The deep joy to be found holidaying beside the seaside

Go to the profile of Mark Vernon
Aug 16, 2015
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We love to go on holiday to the sea. The turquoise lure of a sunny ocean has determined eight out of ten holiday destinations this year, I read. So why do millions cram on coasts and islands during these warm weeks? Fun, for sure. But I suspect the sea delivers something the soul loves too.

First, it makes us feel at home, more comfortable with ourselves. Individuals do things beside the seaside that they'd never do elsewhere. They strip off, build sandcastles, idle for hours during the middle of the day. Perhaps it has to do with the remarkable fact that we share the same percentage of salt in our blood as exists in the sea. 'We are tied to the ocean,' was how John F Kennedy put it: 'And when we go back to the sea, we are going back from whence we came.' The sea rocks us in its cradle as we float buoyant on salty waves. And it is also our evolutionary cradle. Perhaps our cells remember that deep history when we catch sight of the surf and surge, and our souls feel they have returned home.

But if the sea brings comfort, it also - secondly - sparks fear. It's 'dragon-green' and 'serpent-haunted', according to poet James Elroy Flecker. We pray for those in peril on the sea. There's the threatening power of the wind and waves, of course. And too, the sea is a powerful metaphor for the unconscious parts of ourselves, that domain of impulses, dreads and dark forms of which we're mostly unaware. The undulating, choppy surface becomes an interface between what is seen and what's unknown inside us. The sea is a reminder of what lies hidden beneath the turbulence of everyday distractions and concerns.

Playing with that fear is a standard device in movies. Think of Jaws, 40 years old this year. Part of the director's genius was to present us with a shark's-eye view by filming much of the action from under the surface. Sitting in a dark cinema watching the white foam and red churn was to come close to the monsters that can spring from the unconscious, the menace of the indefinite.

Better then to contemplate the sea from dry sand and firm land. From this vantage, the sea becomes restorative by nurturing a safer meditation. In stiller parts of the beach, or strolling alongside the water in the evening light, you will catch sight of holiday-makers gazing across the waves. They fall silent. They stand for a moment. It's as if they become aware and accepting of the darker forces in life.

And there's perhaps a third dynamic the sea evokes too. Alongside feeling it's akin, and knowing it's strange, the sea speaks of promise. Think of the metaphors inspired by sparkling waters. It prompts longings for 'near horizons' and 'distant shores'. It leaves us feeling 'wide open' or in touch with a 'vast emptiness'. The cobalt blue, or grey-green, or wild indigo convey a timeless eternity. 'The sea is as close as we come to another world,' remarked poet, Anne Stevenson.

It's to experience the sea's transcendence. It's to be reminded that our own world is often too small for us. If we can risk being all at sea - if we find a taste for its adventure and escape - we might discover the more that it offers. 'Time in the sea eats its tail,' wrote Ted Hughes. When the philosopher Plotinus saw the sea, he advised his followers to 'close the eyes and call instead upon another vision which is to be waked within you, a vision, the birth-right of all.' The sea can shape the imagination as surely as it smooths the pebbles on the beach. See what you can see by the sea!

Mark Vernon's new book is The Idler Guide to Ancient Philosophy

Go to the profile of Mark Vernon

Mark Vernon

Psychotherapist, teacher, author

Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist, writer and teacher. He's written books on friendship, love, wellbeing, belief, spirituality, and the philosophy of the ancient Greeks. His articles and reviews on religious, philosophical and ethical themes have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. He leads workshops and groups for professionals interested in exploring the dynamics of transformation and inner life, and also regularly contributes to radio programmes and discussions, notably on the BBC. He has degrees in physics, theology and a PhD in philosophy. His psychotherapy practice includes working with individuals privately, in family constellation workshops, and at the Maudsley hospital in south London.

3 Comments

Go to the profile of Michael Timpson
Michael Timpson over 2 years ago

I like the thought about being being connected to the vast emptiness and distance horizon being on the sea conveys. It does remind us of that inner stillness, that vast spaciousness of unknowable dimension that dwells with us. Its both familiar, inviting but also new and obscured. I grew up by the sea and I think that feeling stays with me even though I find myself living and working in cities. The other aspect of the sea is its feeling of location, orientation and place. When you live by the sea you know where you are. You are on the edge of things in relation to the rest of the world. Anything is possible. You know which way to go...

Go to the profile of Mark Vernon
Mark Vernon over 2 years ago

Thanks Michael. Really like your extra thought of being on the edge and yet sensing a new direction...

Go to the profile of David Head
David Head over 2 years ago

I like your article Mark, and particularly the notion of transcendence. Being drawn to the sea is like coming home, to a place which is both familiar and unfathomable at the same time. Seaside contemplation allows us to escape the goldfish bowl constraints of our minds and thoughts and sets us free for a while.. we are lucky to be an island nation and I believe that the sea has shaped our consciousness and souls in the ways you have described so well.