Sometimes you’ll encounter something that changes the way you see life—even if the effect is minute. It could be a boy with electrifying eyes, or a maternal figure you go on a hike with, who spews all the right life advice. I recently found inspiration in a most unconventional place: Forty-feet deep into the ocean, swimming with manta rays.
I booked a trip to Kona, Hawaii, because I heard about the giant manta rays there: You can scuba dive with wild ones at night, shine a light up and watch them soar inches above your head, while they feed on plankton. I figured it would make for an epic summer vacation.
One July evening I was doing just that: kneeling on the ocean floor, paralyzed by awe. From a distance, it looked as if we were being attacked by the giant mantas. They swooped in, inches from my head, with purpose. Sometimes, two manta rays would go straight at each other, but never once would they actually touch us or collide. Manta rays are gentle giants.
Watching these graceful animals was like viewing a living symphony, enhanced by the rays of light shined from the scuba divers below and the snorkelers above. It was the best show I have seen, and the only currency we had to pay to watch the mantas dance was light.
Occasionally, after a normal fish swam by, I would acknowledge that I was sitting in the midst of a gorgeous coral reef, at night, attached to scuba gear. Those realizations were fleeting—we were all more fixated on the flying rays to process the beauty of our surroundings. If a shark swam by, I assure you, I wouldn’t have noticed.
What felt like an infinite stream of mantas, diving into our frenzy of lights, were (as our guide told us later) just eight. Time, distance and context were irrelevant during those moments. I often forgot that I was underwater. I only checked my air—I think—twice. After the dive, I noticed my air supply was unusually high—in the midst of it all, I forgot to breathe.
Post-show, I sat on the boat, purposefully distanced from the rest of our group, staring at the coastline of Kona, almost in tears.
Scuba diving with the manta rays, while an evanescent experience, made a deep spiritual impression on me. There is nothing quite like witnessing gorgeous, giant animals in the wild, just inches from your body. It is humbling, and, quite literally, brought us to our knees.
Perhaps more significant to me in that memory, was how intensely present I was for the whole experience. In the context of society, the layers of our thoughts accumulate. It’s difficult to be singularly present. Even in the midst of beauty, I want to share the moment, text a friend, talk about it or think about it.
For those 45 minutes, down under, prostrated in the presence of light, the manta ray giants and the wild, the dark ocean silenced every function of my brain except for the ability to observe. Sometimes, I have since realized, it is necessary to be still—to watch.
It was, no doubt, an expensive way to learn that lesson—from the plane ticket to the hotel room to the boat ride, the scuba guide and the lights. But manta rays sparkling in ocean light? That’s a view I will always hold dear; a memory that will surface when situations get overwhelming and life gets petty.
Stop fighting. Stop analyzing. Stop thinking. Just be.