The Mighty Metaphor

Apr 9, 2020 | Articles, Issue 76 | 0 comments

by Russell Atkinson

The Fog Warning by Winslow Homer

“Mother! Mother! My boat is sinking here in the ocean of this world. Fiercely the hurricane of delusion rages on every side! Clumsy is my helmsman, the mind: stubborn my six oarsmen, the passions: into a pitiless wind I sailed my boat and now it is sinking!” — From the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna page 155.

Focused on our minute moments as we are, we do not realize that we are one of billions of fragile boats floating on the vast ocean of time and ignorance; none know where we have come from or where we may go, nor why we are here. This is the reality we choose to ignore yet the truth that we are tossed about on waves of tears and laughter, ennui and excitement, success and failure is so obvious.

We experience these ups and downs, this way and that, and though we may be sure that we are going in a certain direction, the whole body of water we float on might be moving in another, while we go up and down with the waves and back and forth with the tides. 

That is how it is in life but most of us don’t want to know, preferring the small personal picture to the Big One. This is a pity, for try as we might, there is no escape from the fact of the Big One. The effort to fight it can destroy whatever wellbeing we may be open to — for there is a sense of freeing fun in accepting the inevitable and studying the Big Picture. Our little pictures can be ugly but the Big Picture blends them in to a beauty with many shapes, colours and textures – and surprises, like all the craft are in the same boat!  

There are many seas in the ocean of time and most of us are limited to sailing only one or two, yet all the boats “disappear” over the same edge.

No two of our little boats are the same. The variety of hull, cargo and rigging is beyond computing. Yet all these vessels sailing the ocean of Now, no matter what their course, are floating on currents that will take them all unerringly to the abyss at the edge of the world where time comes to a stop. This is the edge of the world we know, where the ancient map–makers printed HERE BE DRAGONS. We now know there are no dragons, as one day in distant time we will know that the fear of life and death is likewise a product of limited knowledge.

In this way the Big Picture invites the Big Metaphor. Surely, seeing our life as sailing along on oceans of time to a distant shore or inevitable edge is an appropriate metaphor. There are sharks in the water and pirates afloat to spice the journey, though we blow most of the ill-winds out of our own mouths. And those who are convinced that they know the right course for us to sail on, and insist we do so, are the cause of most of the storms. Those who will to make the currents or direct the tides make most of the bad weather. Gales of greed, hate and fear are tempests that drive whole fleets into whirlpools of destruction. 

Deeply considering the nature of the Big Metaphor and knowing the capabilities of boat, cargo and rigging, the sails can be unfurled to go explore new worlds. 

Columbus-like put out to sea
Inviting ill-winds willingly
Joyfully acting; not worrying —
Nettles grasped cannot sting.

But where is the other shore? Like Columbus, we do not know if it exists. Perhaps there is no land at all so we sail on and on, round and round on a global ocean; water without end, fated to sail on for all time. Young life-lovers might think this is grand but we sea-sick ancients hope for a home-port where we can jump ship.   

Down this current of time
Sailed I for eons
Through minutes, hours, days, lifetimes,
Down, down,
Winding ways
Surging with the times’ tide
An ever flowing I.

A builder, laying
Tomorrows’ foundations;
A painter of thoughts,
Mind the canvas;
Or a sculpture,
Life the stone,
Each act a blow
Upon the chisel,
As a skipper of a paper boat,
I sail the seas
Of storms and tranquil waters.
Engrossed as a child
I play in each,
Not knowing that
Each second is tot-ter-ing,
Tot-er-ing, Tot-er-ing,
On the brink of eternity:
The ever-present Port. 

I am tempted to milk the metaphor, for with a little imagination moralistic parables flow like water. I imagine that it is wise to float lightly on the tossing waters taking care that all the water stays outside your ship; allowed inside it is possible to drown in your own boat. 

Avoid floundering by taking proper care of the hull and sails, and best on the helm are keen intelligence and careless faith. Some ships become so top heavy and have so many armaments that they capsize. Some get so sea-sick they scuttle themselves but sometimes powerful tugs tow many craft straight across to the other shore. Winds of desire push most ships about on collision courses. Boarded by a pirate you may not only be robbed but made to walk the plank. There are many storm-torn old ships near the brink, sails of purpose blown away.

Gently drifting
Void of intentions,
No sail, oars nor rudder,
No need;
The current takes
The steer-less craft
Unerringly across the seas
To world’s end.

I wonder: Are we fated to a fixed course, thinking all the time that we are the navigator? Of the vast variety of boats sailing the seas of now-time, did we inherit our hull, masts and rigging or did we build it all ourselves? All the creatures alive with us in a bewildering variety of shapes and sizes must be craft too, sailing towards the same edge of death. 

Are our past acts the winds that drive us as well as the weather shared by all?  Are there distant islands where treasure chests are buried? Some ships are large but many brave souls sail into the unknown in dinghies. There are rare ones who drift about without a care, but most feel vulnerable, and so form squadrons or even flotillas. Indeed, it is a mighty metaphor.

There is much to contemplate in the Big Metaphor and though questions are many sure answers are few. So it is wisdom to acknowledge our ignorance as being so much greater than our proud knowledge. Not to worry, no matter what, we must sail on and —

Dance in the air with the falling leaves,
The fruitful earth, its many sheaves.
Let the merry movements weave,
About the arcane void
Where our hearts beat.
Chant to the beat of the cosmic drum,
While topsy atoms spin and hum,
Rhythms, movements all succumb,
To the silent space
Where our hearts beat.
Move with the sea and the rollicking waves,
Sweeps of sand they pound and lave,
Dirge the gloom of a sea weed cave,
Down to the joy-springs
Where our hearts beat.


“Keep your raft, says Ramprasad,
Afloat on the sea of life,
Drifting up with the floodtide,
Drifting down with the ebb.”

Russell Atkinson, a retired Naturopath and teacher of Hatha and Raja Yoga, is associated with the Ramakrishna Vedanta Societies in Australia. THEAKO@WESTNET.COM.AU


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