As the sun is rising on the small Indonesian reef island of Gili Meno, off the coast of Lombok, I wade over the shallow coral until it is deep enough to submerge myself. Once I do, I am transported into another world. Nemo-esque clown fish with wavy, floaty, fanlike fins, like the most elegant couture. Tiny electric blue schools of moon fusiliers, long nosed silvery needlefish, brain-shaped coral formations, sunfish that swim on their sides, eyeballs facing up! It’s like a candy shop down there, with all these brilliant colors and shapes. It’s also like a meditation—the only sound is the sound of my own breath—in and out, in and out.
But then OUCH! What is that? My arm is burning. Ouch! Again! What is it? I can’t see anything, but the stinging subsides quickly. I pause, still looking for the cause of the pain, but I see nothing. So I keep swimming.
The water gets deeper and cooler and bluer. Whole schools of butterfly fish with their black noses and iridescent yellow fin tips. A spiny porcupine fish that blends so perfectly into the background that I only notice it when it scurries away. Beautiful fluid anemone, swaying with the grace of tiny ballerinas. A spotted ray, it’s beady eyes the only thing that differentiates it from the sand beneath—until it flaps itself into the space between the corals and glides like a bird.
Ouch! Something stung me again! And then they’re everywhere, but I still can’t see them, whatever they are. They’re stinging my left arm, near my wrist and up by my bicep, my right leg, just above my flipper and on my knee. I feel the sting across my chest, right where my bikini exposes my limited cleavage. I wave my arms and feel a wave of panic rising. That hurt! But I can’t see where it came from, so I don’t know how to avoid it. I feel the impulse to get out of the water and abort this sunrise snorkel lickety-split.
But then the stinging seems to stop and I am enchanted again and soothed by my breath. Oh my . . . a lionfish. I have seen them in aquariums before, but never floating right in front of my face like this. Like the leafy sea dragons, it is a work of art—but I know its spines are venomous. I keep my distance but marvel at the perfection of the form of this lionfish. How can anyone question whether there’s a God when there are lionfish in the world, striped with their burgundy stripes and decorated with filmy, floaty tendrils of red and white, as if they’re all decked out to go to Burning Man?
Ouch! I am stung again, this time on my lips. It jolts me. I swim to a shallower place and put my feet down on the coral so I can come to the surface and take stock. What is happening? What is stinging me? How can I avoid it? I feel blindsided. My heart is racing. With my feet solidly planted on the coral, I put my face underwater and scan the surface with new, discerning eyes. That’s when I notice the tiniest, most beautiful little translucent jellies. They are only as big as a walnut—and completely clear. They remind me of the beautiful floating jelly-like “seeds of the sacred tree” from the movie Avatar, which are believed to be spirits, and when they alight upon you, it is a blessing. I wonder if I am meant to be blessed by these little guys.
I snorkel on, only this time, I am scanning the surface to try to spot the jellies so I can swerve between them, but they are everywhere. Trying to avoid them is like an obstacle course that requires so much of my awareness that I am missing the exquisite beauty of the scenery down deep. My efforts to avoid getting stung are partly successful. I am still getting stung, but the frequency lessens. But at what price? I am missing it all!
Maybe I am simply meant to ignore these painful little beauties and keep opening myself to further enchantment. I decide to stop scanning the surface and focus my attention down where the colors swirl with life. But then OUCH and OUCH and OUCH! The jellies are back with a vengeance. It hurts too much. I stop moving, trying to avoid getting hurt, but I am getting hurt anyway. I am this close to getting out of the water and turning in my snorkel.
But then I remember that swimming in these waters in the Gili Islands is painful . . . without God. I surrender this whole thing to Divine Will and ask for help. I pray to the jellies and the clownfish and the lionfish for guidance. I ask to be shown how to enjoy the enchantment without having to endure the pain. Or if I am meant to endure the pain, I ask for a higher pain tolerance or even greater beauty down below to distract me from the stings.
And suddenly, the stinging stops. I am aware of what’s on the surface but I am not obsessing about it. I am aware of what’s below but I’m not so focused on the swirling colors that I lose sight of the jellies on the surface. It’s as if Something Larger swims me and takes me for a ride and I just know when to go left or go straight or turn back. I only get one little sting during the next leg of my swim.
I well up with gratitude. Someone is listening!
This is when it occurs to me that love is like snorkeling in Gili Meno. When you have loose boundaries and lack all discernment, you’re at risk of getting blindsided by the pain of heartbreak. You don’t even see the betrayals and trust violations coming because they’re invisible to you. You’re not attuned to the things that could hurt you. Then after you get hurt enough, you realize there are jellyfish in them thar waters! So you start scanning for jellyfish, and maybe you get stung less, but your efforts to protect yourself cause you to miss out on the swirling enchantment of beautiful fish and coral beneath the surface. You realize that you have become so guarded that life is passing you by, and you are only barely participating in love’s complex, messy, disruptive, erotic, gorgeous, ecstatic dance.
Then you are humbled—yet again. You laugh at how cute we humans are, while you remember that love can’t be controlled. Love wouldn’t even want to be controlled! Of course, you have free will. So yes, you can activate your discernment and focus on protecting yourself from pain. And yes, you can throw yourself wholeheartedly into focusing on the beauty of the multidimensional flowing life force in the depths, ignoring the jellyfish on the surface.
Or you can simply surrender to the Divine, ask for help, pray for ease and flow, accept that love is going to sting sometimes, and stop resisting the current of life. This does not mean you will not get hurt. It also doesn’t mean you won’t sometimes miss out on beautiful experiences because you’re going slow and honing your discernment, scanning the surface for every jellyfish that you fail to notice the manta ray that is gliding beneath you in the depths.
Here’s the gist of what I learned this morning on my sunrise snorkel. You don’t have to tiptoe around love, figuring it out, protecting yourself with such ferocity that nobody can get close to your heart. It also doesn’t mean you recklessly throw yourself to the wolves and let yourself get eaten alive by people who haven’t yet learned how to be tender with the innermost recesses of your heart.
I just got my heart stung in Bali. But it was only a little sting, a gentle one, one with no lasting marks, one that left us both with plenty of dignity and integrity and respect for each other, which is progress compared to the lashes my heart has taken in the past. I am aware of my own Love School learning process, how I am learning discernment, how I am praying for the strength to keep my heart opens when it hurts, how I am learning to trust the invisible world, even as my trust with men sometimes falters. This time, I felt the sting early enough to avoid becoming this man’s lover or his wife or his business partner or the mother of his child. There is no entanglement, so it isn’t so painful to disengage and comfort the stinging parts of my own innocence. But I also wonder if I am a bit too wary of jellyfish now. Maybe I swung too far, but I will not resist where I am. This is where I am right now, and I will love and accept myself here—little welts and all.
Maybe you are doing a similar dance with love. Maybe you are focused on the jellyfish on the surface, exerting yourself exhaustively, doing everything you can to protect yourself from getting stung. Or maybe you are so quick to be seduced by the colorful, charismatic array of sea life down deep that you avoid scanning the surface, feeling blindsided by all the stings and not understanding why you keep getting stung.
Maybe there’s another way for all of us. Maybe we can just let go. And let go again. And keep letting go in the most difficult arena of all with which to let go—LOVE.
Maybe we need one of Tosha Silver’s Change Me prayers. “Change me into someone who can surrender into love wholeheartedly and trust that my heart is strong enough to always be safe.”
And now the locals tell me it helps to put vinegar on my jelly welts. And then . . . tonight, when the sun is setting, I will go back into the water and do it all over again.
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PS. I mustered up the moxie to dive back in for my afternoon snorkel, only this time I said a prayer first. “Goddess, if you want me to try again, you need to help me because it hurts too much the other way.” And then I felt into my body, and my body said “Do it.” So, with a bit of hesitation, I submerged myself. I swam. I gazed. I felt awe. Nobody stung me. And then I saw it . . . a sea turtle, looking right at me, swimming right toward me! I felt the love flowing between us—the Godself witnessing the Godself—and such gratitude for the gift. Later, another giant sea turtle! I swam with her for over two hours. Not one jellyfish sting . . . Thank you, Goddess.